Beware the “Rights of Nature”

Original Article

Mother Earth has rights too! At least that’s what radical environmentalists say. And they mean it literally. Deep ecologists, global warming alarmists and other assorted green radicals want to accord legally enforceable “rights” to “nature,” thereby subverting human exceptionalism by demoting us, in effect, to just another species in the forest.

This isn’t a future threat. “Nature rights” has been legally adopted in Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as more than 20 American municipalities — including Pittsburgh, which included the rights of nature in an ordinance preventing natural gas fracking within the city’s boundaries.

What would the rights of nature entail? Ecuador’s constitution defines what is meant very clearly. First, they are co-equal with those of people:

Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments. Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law.

Article 1 then provides the functional equivalent of a right to life:

Nature or Pachamama [the Goddess Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Promoting nature rights has also become part of anti-global warming advocacy. Indeed, it has been proposed for inclusion in the draft United Nations treaty to combat climate change, stating that the nations of the world should be bound legally to recognize and defend “the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony between humanity and nature.”

Rights of Mother Earth!? Pachamama? Sounds disturbingly like the proposed legal establishment of a neo earth religion to me.

Metaphysics aside, think about the adverse impact that granting rights to nature would have on human thriving. Pond scum and pollywogs are part of nature. So are stink bugs, grass, poison ivy, pigeons and all other flora, fauna and indeed, if applied literally, so too are mountains, rivers and other inanimate natural objects. If these individual and collective aspects of the natural world have the “right” to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate,” it could stop most development and exploitation of natural resources in their tracks — which, of course, is precisely the point.

At the very least, “nature rights” would require us to give equal consideration to creatures and other organisms that might be impacted adversely by human activities, and more subversively, open the courtroom doors to radical environmentalist lawyers who would surely fire a continual barrage of lawsuits seeking to uphold the rights of their animal and vegetable clients. Indeed, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — a driving force within the Nature Rights Movement — states on its website:

What happens when nature’s rights and human rights conflict?

The same thing that happens when different human rights conflict — a court weighs the harms to the interests, and then decides how to balance them. Given that ecosystems and nature provide a life support system for humans, their interests must, at times, override other rights and interests. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a planet to inhabit that would support our continued existence. Of course, humans are an integral part of nature as well, which means that human needs must also be considered when the rights and interests of ecosystems come into conflict with those of humans.

Talk about a full employment guarantee for lawyers! Imagine the courtroom backlog that would be created if “nature” could sue every time enterprising humans wanted to act enterprisingly with their own property. Indeed, imagine trying to obtain a liability insurance policy. Good luck with that! But then, nature rights would prevent us from truly owning property. We would become, at best, mere trustees for all of the life forms on the particular tracts of land that we no longer truly owned.

If nature rights can be viewed as a shield preventing people from exploiting and developing natural resources, a new “sword” has emerged that would criminally punish large-scale development as an “international crime against peace.” Called “ecocide,” it is promoted by activists as legally equivalent to the most heinous international crimes, such as genocide.

Here is how ecocide is defined by its promoters:

Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

Please pay very close attention: The word “inhabitants” does not necessarily — or even, primarily — mean human beings. Rather, it mostly refers to flora and fauna, which means that the interests of denizens of the natural world are deemed to be of equal (or greater) importance than human thriving.

Ecocide would profoundly undermine prosperity by criminalizing large-scale human resource or land development. Thus, a mock trial was held recently in the chambers of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, charging the CEO in charge of developing the Alberta Tar Sands with ecocide. Of course, he was found guilty. Were ecocide really a crime, he would face life in prison like Rudolph Hess.

Radical environmental misanthropy is on the march. Its activists are well-funded and ideologically committed. The time has come to stop rolling our eyes at the seeming insanity of the proposals and take the threat of granting rights to Mother Earth seriously. The future of human prosperity and thriving could well depend on it.

Wesley J. Smith, an attorney and author, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.