The Rights of Nature must be recognised in law

This article was first published in The Ecologist.

by Atus Mariqueo-Russell & Rupert Read

At this week's Green Party conference we will be putting forward a proposal to adopt Rights of Nature into the Green Party's policies.

Central to this motion are the rights of nature to 'exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, as well as the right to restoration'.

Currently Britain's piecemeal environmental regulations consider nature as an object of commerce within the law, and thus they prevent us from protecting ecosystems in any meaningful sense.

The best our law can provide is the regulation of nature's destruction; a mitigation of the worst excesses of rampant extractivist neoliberalism.

Quite frankly this attitude towards the planet has failed. It has failed on its own terms because the effects of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and global warming will inevitably crash the markets currently fueled by nature's destruction.

Our proposal for Rights of Nature challenges the underlying premise of this method of valuation: that nature is ours to consume.

Why we need to assign formal rights to natural ecosystems

For many of you, the idea of assigning legal rights to nature's ecosystems will be a common-sense environmentalist policy. After all, the Green Party's current Policies for a Sustainable Society already reference nature's possession of rights (see: RR 201, 301, 406), so in many ways this policy proposal simply explicitly articulates the Green Party's already expressed stance.

However, we understand that others may question the necessity of assigning formal rights to nature's ecosystems. Some of you may argue that nature does not require rights given that it is not a being that experiences consciousness in the same way that humans and non-human animals do.

Others may question whether effective environmental protection actually requires formal rights, and instead argue that we should simply strengthen the current environmental regulatory framework. Still others may be concerned that this proposal is too non-specific to be of use when it comes to drafting legislation to protect the environment.

We hope to use this space to explain why we believe that adopting Rights of Nature will significantly strengthen the Green Party's stance on protecting the shared environment. Where the Green Party leads, typically others follow: if the Greens adopt Rights of Nature, then within a generation at most, you can bet that the other parties will too.

Why is extra protection required?

First of all, this policy is not an ideological attempt to divide the Party into those who believe that nature's ecosystems hold inherent value, and those who believe that the value of nature derives instrumentally from the supporting of beings that live within the natural environment. Whether or not you believe that nature has inherent rights and value should not deter you from supporting this motion.

Instead our proposal aims to redress the legalised destruction of nature that is endemic in almost all nations' legal frameworks, including Britain. This stems from our cultural and legal view of nature as a commodity to be consumed, and one that can be given value in monetised measurements.

We often hear the language of virulent capitalism seeping into our discussions of environmental conservation, with terms such as 'natural capital' and 'ecosystem services' becoming the lingua franca of international conservation bodies.

This basically economistic approach will not protect the environment, because it involves a further commodification of nature's ecosystems - embracing precisely the same framework that has failed us so miserably. Our proposal is recognition of this reality: that we cannot protect ecosystems with the same legal frameworks and monetised discourse that has been responsible for so much environmental destruction.

The view of ecosystems as commodities to be consumed is not compatible with our moral responsibility to future generations, as the consumption of finite resources in the present will necessarily deprive future generations of access to enjoy the same resources. Furthermore, as you will be aware, the threat of environmental catastrophe is not an abstract problem for future generations.

We are currently seeing ecosystems collapsing at an unprecedented rate, species extinction accelerating, and global warming advancing rapidly. So instead of measuring nature by its direct financial benefit to us - a task we have proven incapable of anyway - we propose to extend formal rights to ecosystems.

This will mean that when an individual, State or company decides to undertake a cost-benefit analysis for their projects, they will also have to factor Rights of Nature into their calculations.

Accountability and development are key to the policy

Crucially, our proposal for Rights of Nature gives ecosystems the right to restoration in the event of damage. This is important because it gives us another legal resource to use when calling for the restoration of heavily polluted ecosystems, such as Britain's rivers.

Instead of using arguments that show how the degrading of these ecosystems damages people directly, with links often proving inconclusive and difficult to establish, we can hold polluters directly to account for the damage they cause by invoking the Rights of Nature.

Through making restoration central to environmental law, we can ensure that corporations do not simply opt to pay small fines for damaged caused, and instead force them to fix the damage. These laws are meant to make it easier to protect our shared environment, which is why Ecuador adopted a similar proposal into their 2008 constitution, and why the Scottish Greens incorporated Rights of Nature into their policies last year.

Rights of Nature is a relatively new movement and as such it is still evolving. Our proposal includes a number of caveats that will allow Rights of Nature to be developed in such a way that does not inhibit human flourishing - for example, by making absolutely-necessary building projects impossible.

Similarly, our proposal states that Green parliamentarians will consult widely with both the public and legal experts before putting forward specific legislation on this issue. We hope that these elements of our proposal will sway those of you who might still have reservations about Rights of Nature.

For we believe, as do many activists in the progressive south American democracies, and across the world, that this is an idea whose time has come.