Matilda Brown examines how giving rights to the natural world could be our best chance at saving it from the destructive consequences of climate change and our behaviour.
Imagine a world where nature itself is a political actor recognised in law. In this world, deforestation would be genocide, and the use of bee-killing pesticides a hate crime. It may seem like a radical approach to environmental law, but charging 5p for a plastic bag clearly isn’t going to stop us from hurtling towards an irreversible increase in global temperature.
When you break down what it means to be human, the way in which humans exploit the natural world is truly questionable.
Once it was tool use that made us unique, then crows and chimpanzees proved us wrong. Even down to the response of plants to light and gravity, another side to the previously unconscious plant kingdom has been revealed. The narcissism many humans in “the West” exhibit when putting organisms in arbitrary hierarchical boxes is fickle and used only to reassure ourselves that killing such diverse and intricate beings is justifiable.
We are treating the environment as if it gives nothing in return, when in fact we are the parasites that are sucking the life out of the very thing that sustains us. Bring yourself back to the lockdown of 2020. The thing that kept many of us going were our daily walks in nature: people risked fines just to get a whiff of fresh air. Surely something that provides us with such joy and never fails to boost our mental health should be protected in law and valued as much as our therapists?
Are humans really at the top of the natural hierarchy?
I fail to believe anyone can stand in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat and still think this life-sustaining dormant volcano is any less precious than a human. It may just seem like a mass of rock but it has been on this planet 344 million years longer than humans have and watched us build a city around it. Something that special surely should have the same rights we do?
The notion of such natural beauties being alive is not a new one. In some Native American religions everything from a rock to a buffalo is part of the Great Spirit, and I think many other humans need to learn from this philosophy. Breaking down the human ego is vital to save the planet, and I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate this than by putting everything and everyone on this planet as equals in the law.
Are rights of nature feasible?
The practical implications of nature having the same rights as humans is questionable when not even all humans have access to their rights. However, I’d like to draw on the example of Aotearoa granting personhood to the Whanganui river in 2017, a campaign led by the indigenous Māori people to protect their environment. The river is now being protected by law against harmful fertiliser run-off and it cannot be redirected for the purpose of hydropower – essentially, the river can live.
By putting nature in law, the guardians of such entities like the Whanganui river have a better chance of fighting against violations of the environment, and surely anything that gives this planet a higher chance of living is worth doing. It is notable as well that, although a victory for the safety of the future of the river, this is also a step in the fight against settler colonialism, giving the Māori people back their stolen rights.
Granting rights to nature could have massive environmental and societal impacts.
If more countries start to treat every habitat, and all the organisms within that habitat, as equal actors to humans in law, large-scale changes to fight against climate change will have room to happen.
Industrialised societies have done enough damage exploiting resources and brainwashing generations of people into thinking it is our right to do so.
It’s time to change perspective and give a voice to the many indigenous people campaigning for their earth to be valued. It’s time to give a voice, and listen to nature. If everyone starts to carry this philosophy with them in everyday life, really listening to and observing nature, not only will the natural world thank us, but we might just get something out of it too.
Matilda Brown (she/her) is a first-year biology student with a love for ecology and zoology.