John Humphrys - Should the Natural World have Legal Rights?

January 05, 2024, 12:17 PM GMT+0

At first glance the court room scene looks much as you might expect, though there is no jury because this is a civil rather than a criminal case. But look a little closer and the bizarre nature of the case becomes instantly apparent. In the witness box there stands a tree. It would stretch your credulity to breaking point if I were to ask you to imagine the tree was giving evidence – for the very good reason that trees cannot speak. But they can do many other things, most important of which is helping make this planet a good place to live.

They really are the planet’s lungs: the best carbon capture technology in existence. When they perform photosynthesis, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air, bind it up in sugar, and release oxygen. Trees use sugar to build wood, branches, and roots. They offer vital shelter and sustenance to countless creatures without which our lives would be immeasurably poorer. Like fungi and countless other life forms, trees are a vital component of the natural world, without which we humans simply could not survive.

And the reason why my court room scenario is not quite as ludicrous as it appears is that 2024 has begun with what many regard as a ground-breaking development in the relationship between humans and the natural world. What do you make of it?

Two new coalitions comprising scientists, lawyers, philosophers, and artists have come together to spearhead a global campaign which argues that species other than humans should be granted legal rights and even political representation. The campaign’s supporters claim that this marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle to tackle the unprecedented environmental threats facing our planet and promote sustainable coexistence.

It is easy to argue that the battle has already been lost. You need only look at the devastation wrought on our great rainforests. Countless acres of woodland that thrived for millennia have been destroyed. It may take a century for a great tree to reach maturity. It takes minutes to destroy it. Our oceans once teemed with life that not only fed us but soaked up carbon that would otherwise pollute our atmosphere. Now immeasurable tracts of once pristine ocean are polluted by plastic waste that chokes all living creatures.

Few would argue that without what we call the “natural world” our planet would be simply uninhabitable. We owe it a debt of gratitude that cannot ever be repaid. Or can it?

This question takes us back to my imaginary courtroom and the bizarre proposition that the natural world can ever be granted legal rights. How, in the name of every barrister who has ever worn a wig, can a species of plant, let alone an entire ecosystem, lay claim to legal protections that we humans have sought for ourselves in one way or another since the dawn of civilisation? Simply to raise the question invites ridicule. But the new campaign is doing precisely that and it is serious.

Its aim is to ‘expand the scope of legal consideration to encompass entire ecosystems and various species within them.’ Those ecosystems might be forests or deserts or savannahs or seas or even some urban developments. Basically any system in which living creatures from great animals to tiny organisms depend on the environment for their survival. Under the new proposals they would have legal rights which would mean they are recognised as entities with inherent value.

On one level the logic is straightforward. We humans can and do demand protection against harm and exploitation. The campaign would afford some of those rights to the natural world. Maybe not “the pursuit of happiness” but rights that would safeguard their well-being and ensure their ability to thrive. The intention would be to move beyond the concept of conservation, which benefits us all, to acknowledge the intrinsic value of ecosystems independent of their utility to humans.

The campaign goes ever further. Just as we humans have political representation, so elements of the natural world would be recognised as having a stake in decisions we take that could, for instance, harm or even destroy their natural habitats. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which a company might want to fell a forest where no laws exist to protect it. Under the new system that forest might have its own “legal” or political representatives to argue the case for the natural species that would be destroyed. They would have the force of the law behind them.

Taking the concept further, its advocates are pushing for ecosystems and species to have political representation. This implies that these entities would be recognized as stakeholders in decision-making processes that have a harmful impact on their habitats. The aim would be to provide ecosystems a voice in governance which would ensure that policies and actions consider their long-term health and sustainability. There would be a balancing force, aligning human interests with the preservation of ecological integrity. The ultimate goal would be to foster sustainable practices that benefit both human societies and the ecosystems with which they coexist.

Critics of the new campaign acknowledge that protection of the natural world is crucial to the future of the planet but, they say, granting legal rights to non-human entities would simply be unworkable. The legal implications are unimaginable. In any “human” legal system there are an infinite number of checks and balances and we have certain inalienable rights that have been arrived at over the millennia as we have become increasingly civilised. A young United States of America did a pretty good job of encapsulating them in a very few words: life, liberty and, yes, the pursuit of happiness.

How could such a set of principles ever be arrived at in the case of the natural world? It would open, they argue, a Pandora's box of legal complexities. They also question the practicality of political representation for ecosystems. It’s one thing to have an MP or senator representing a constituency of humans - but an MP for a forest?

It’s worth noting that the coalition behind this radical new campaign is made up of serious people – most of them experts in their own fields: scientists, legal experts, philosophers, religious leaders – and even artists who might become responsible for arousing the imagination of the public. They make the point that this is about much more than alerting a wider public to the need to protect a few individual forests or species. It addresses the ethical and emotional dimensions of the relationship between humanity and nature.

There is one indisputable reality in this debate. Humanity cannot survive without the natural world. It is only in the relatively recent past that we have had the ability and the means to subjugate nature to our needs – or what we have often mistakenly believed to be our needs.

The leaders of this new campaign argue that, time and time again, the arrogance of mighty human organisations – whether governments or powerful commercial interests – has mistaken or deliberately confused our short-term needs with our long-term future.

Sometimes the motive is simply greed: there are vast profits to be made from felling every tree in a forest that has thrived for thousands of years to grow crops that may last for only a decade. Or destroying an even more ancient ocean habitat so a tiny handful of rich humans can enjoy an exotic meal in their favourite restaurant. Or drenching countless acres of rich soil with chemicals that increase their yields for a few years but destroy the countless organisms in the soil that had enabled humans and animals to thrive for millennia.

The campaign has two organisations working together: More Than Human Rights (Moth) and Animals in the Room (Air). They call their approach “holistic conservation”. They claim granting legal rights to ecosystems and recognising the interconnectedness of all living beings within them would go beyond safeguarding individual species and focus on preserving entire ecosystems. By elevating the status of ecosystems and species to legal entities, they hope to establish a more robust legal and ethical foundation for environmental protection.

What do you make of all this? Do you share the view that our planet is facing a crisis that threatens ourselves and future generations and that we humans are responsible for it? In which case, might it be wise to consider giving the natural world its own legal protection and even political representation?

Or are you more optimistic? Do you believe that we humans have managed to cope with endless crises in the few thousand years we have been running the show and the notion of giving the natural world legal rights is, as it were, one for the birds?

Let us know.

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