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Rights of Mother Earth CUNY live blog panel

Mother Earth

Click to read Ashley Dawson's full blog

In honor of Earth Day 2011, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center hosted a blog panel on Rights of Nature.  The distinguished international panel of leading Rights of Nature advocates included Shannon Biggs, Cormac Cullinan, Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, Pablo Solon, and David Harvey.

Earth Day 2011 was the one year anniversary of  the World People’s Conference on the Rights of Mother Nature in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A few brief highlights from each panelist:

Shannon Biggs: “Nature is a system governing our well being. Yet our culture treats nature as human property, like a slave. When we talk about what it means to recognize rights for nature, a good place to start is to look at the BP oil spill and ask what would have been different if Nature had rights. What would be different today?”

Cormac Cullinan “In the last three decades, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in the amount of environmental legislation. We’ve forgotten that we’re part of the natural order. The idea that there’s a system of order out there, Nature, is not something that’s simply not considered.”

“… We try to get away from property rights. We prefer to emphasize that it’s about relationships. The key thing to think about is that the ecosystems and the universe are held together by relationships. The more intimate those relations, the more healthy the system. We try to promote such intimate relations using the legal system, spreading the idea that this is a web of relationships.”

Vandana Shiva: “Natural rights are not opposite to human rights. Human rights are a subset of natural rights, because we’re a part of nature.”

“Yesterday at the UN, Cormac reminded us that apartheid means ‘separation.’ Today, we have to overcome our sense of separation from nature. This is a forced separation, something against our will. This is something that affects everyday people, who are being displaced through landgrabs in places like Africa. The real thing we need to do is to build the Earth democracy that we’re a part of. The corporations have such a stranglehold on power now. We need Nature to rescue us from the corporate dictatorship.”

Maude Barlow: “Modern humans, not tribal peoples, tend to see Nature as a resource for our pleasure. This has led to great damage and a crisis of huge proportions. … Our whole mindset is based on human law; what would it be like to shift our mindset so that other species have the right to exist. Does this mean that insect rights are equivalent to human ones? No, but it does mean that we shouldn’t drive species to extinction. We’re hoping that the Declaration of the Rights of Nature will one day take its place with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the founding documents. Every now and then, the human race takes an evolutionary step forward.”

Pablo Solon: “There are vital cycles in nature, and when we don’t respect these rights, we break the system and lose our place in it.

“Our view is based on the Rights of Nature. We have to respect the laws of Nature, or else we will no longer have any place. If we want to have Rights of Nature, we have to fight against capitalism. There is no way to begin a new relationship if we’re trapped in a system that tries to make profit out of everything. Are we going to be able to transform this capitalist system? That’s the key question. We think that the only way for humankind to survive is to develop another system, with another relationship with nature.”

David Harvey: “We need to remember that there are laws of capital accumulation. A basic law is that of compound growth. Since capitalism took off, the basic trend has been an average of 3% compound growth; this is the minimum with which capitalists feel happy. 3% in Manchester in 1800 is one thing; 3% today is an astonishing prospect. What we’re running into is that we’re at an inflection point in capital’s history at which the growth rate cannot be sustained. In spite of the environmental movement’s vibrancy over last 30 years, things keep getting worse.”

Cormac Cullinan: “What we’re seeing in the world is a sense that we need to make an evolutionary leap, which starts off as shifting one’s perspective. This is similar to the Copernican shift. Unless we make a jump to seeing ourselves as part of the Earth, and recognize that we’re part of the system, and reshape our governance systems to reflect this reality, then we’ll not make the necessary changes and we’ll face a precipitous decline in human populations and possibly even become extinct as a species. Now, for the first time, we have a global manifesto that can unite all the social movements: the Declaration of the Rights of Nature. What we’re proposing is not some ideology, but a recognition that we must abide by natural laws.”

To read the full text of this thought provoking dialogue visit

Ashley Dawson’s The Rights of Mother Earth blog.