Alkisti Kallinikou discusses how, to protect the natural environment, we must not only give nature rights but change our way of thinking from being owners of nature to being part of nature.
More than 2,500 trees will be uprooted as construction works for new subway lines begin in Athens, Greece. This follows a devastating summer in which more than 110,000 hectares (424 square miles) of forest areas have burned, more than five times the average from 2008 to 2020. Granted, the new routes are expected to lower CO2 emissions, but environmental organisations claim the works could move forward without laying bare the already limited urban green areas. Alas, the easiest (read cheapest) solution prevailed.
Would such decisions come as lightly if the rights of nature were legally recognized?
Like elsewhere, Greece’s legislation promotes the human right to a healthy environment but not the rights of nature itself. As often occurs, laws in force tend to legalise harm by regulating the amount of destruction or pollution corporations and countries can get away with, rather than protecting the environment.
Rights of Nature (RoN) is a theory advocating for the legal standing of ecosystems and other natural communities. RoN is grounded on the premise that these entities have inherent rights to existence, thriving, and regeneration of their life cycles, and acknowledges that nature’s well-being must be maintained. Furthermore, the movement authorises the ecosystem to be defended in a court of law and for people to act as its representatives.
This may pose a fundamental change from traditional regulatory systems which, reflecting dominant ideologies, treat nature as property under human yoke. Naming something a possession automatically endows the owner with the authority to exploit it as they see fit – be that to look after or damage it. Such ideas stem from a broader philosophical stance of humans acquiring an ill-formed sense of dominance because of their “heightened” abilities. Consequently, we regard ourselves as detached, superior organisms, abusing what we supposedly own for our profit.
Meanwhile, environmental reports become increasingly bleak, desperately signalling that time for action is running out while nothing truly changes. Species extinction, climate change, deforestation, overmining, overfishing, all products of our continuous failure to grasp human hubris, have become firmly embedded in our everyday dictionaries, demonstrating the exigency for a paradigm shift in our attitudes.
But can this be brought on by RoN? There are a few practical concerns to consider, especially as granting legal standing for natural communities has so far been mostly a symbolic gesture and has not materialised in momentous changes.
Adopting RoN alone is not sufficient to alter the narrative; it must also be appropriately enforced and safeguarded. In 2011, the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature (GARN) filed a lawsuit against a construction company in Ecuador for polluting the Vilcabamba River with rubble. The Provincial Justice Court ruled in favour of the river, but the company never complied, and GARN purportedly did not have the means to further pursue the case. Similarly in Toledo, Ohio, although citizens voted for a Bill of Rights granting personhood to Lake Erie, the decision was deemed unconstitutional by the federal judge and overruled.
Furthermore, some sceptics question whether humans are capable of understanding what is best for nature.
Are we fit to represent its needs at the expense of our personal interests? Who is well-equipped to act on behalf of nature and how can that be assessed?
Author and forester Aldo Leopold advised humans to start seeing nature as a community in which we belong rather than as a commodity we own. Leopold’s words resonate with the deep ecology philosophy and the concept of an ecological self.
Arne Naess, who coined both terms, understood the ecological self as one capable of identifying with other living beings, as one that sees nature and human as a unit, not a duality. While deep ecology is not itself a science, it is grounded on physics demonstrating humans are an integral part of nature, and it recognizes the value of nature in and of itself, irrespective of its utility to humans.
Perhaps then, this kind of mindset is prerequisite to comprehending the need for theories like RoN. We need to urgently reconsider the dichotomy we’ve long established between nature and human and our false entitlements that come with it.
Adopting RoN alone is pointless; coupled with a drastic shift in our attitudes, it might become a significant step towards a brighter future.
Alkisti Kallinikou (she/her) is a writer and researcher. She is interested in the environmental humanities, literature, philosophy, and science communication.