The Pivotal Distinction of Rights of Nature

The fundamental distinction in our stand for Rights of Nature is the recognition that Nature herself has rights. While it is essential for the wellbeing of humanity that we humans have clean air, fresh water, healthy food and shelter, what we Rights of Nature advocates are advancing goes beyond the stand for human’s right to a healthy environment.

Furthermore it goes beyond the legal recognition of Nature as a Commons. The concept of the Commons is about “common” access and ownership of Nature or resources “held in common”. “The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment – forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land – that are shared, used and enjoyed by all.1 The Commons includes air, water, ecosystems, human services and more.

We are advocating the Right of Nature herself to exist, to flourish, to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration, to replenish and to be recognized as a subject with standing in courts of law around the world.

This essential distinction became even more clear to me in July when Global Alliance members and I participated in a Rights of Nature Summit hosted by Global Exchange. Meera Karunananthan of the Council of Canadians raised the question “How does Rights of Nature relate to the context of the Commons?” During the course of the event, Meera graciously and repeatedly refined the question as the group grappled in some depth to clarify the distinctions for ourselves.

Ben Price, through his work with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) for more than a decade, has led communities throughout the US in similar dialogues to understand the clear distinctions around Rights of Nature.

In the end, Ben eloquently affirmed

“At the heart of the distinction between Nature as a Commons and Nature as a Rights-bearing entity is the relevancy and/or irrelevancy of Nature’s use to human beings. The idea of the Commons suggests that all human beings have equal access to an environment, with equal license to exploit Nature, without harvesting so much of any natural resource (benefit) as to deprive the rest of the community of parallel enjoyment of Nature’s blessings. The Rights of Nature, on the other hand, suggests that Nature in-itself possesses a certain legal status and protection of human law, regardless and even in spite of any claims people might have to a right to property or communal access to enjoy Nature for human purposes. …

“Legal recognition of the unalienable Rights of Nature does not purport to “conserve” a non-privatized portion of Nature for the general welfare of the human community. Rather, Nature, including those parts claimed as property by privileged humans, has inherent rights that property claims and a legal designation as a Commons may not violate.”

Ben has written a thought provoking summary of the dialogue including a historical perspective of the development of the concept of the Commons through the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest.

I invite you to dialogue with us. Read Ben Price’s articulate explanation at Comments on the Commons., “The commons”, September 4, 2011