Old Faithful Should Not Have Rights

Original Article

First there were “animal rights.” Now, the next logical step is being taken by increasingly mainstream environmental radicals. Watch out: Here come “nature rights.”

Doubt anyone would pass laws actually giving “rights” to “nature?” They are already being enacted: New Zealand has granted the Whanganui River the rights of “personhood,” declaring it to be an “integrated, living whole” possessing “rights and interests”; Switzerland has placed a clause in its constitution recognizing the “dignity of creation,” including individual plants; and nearly 30 U.S. municipalities have adopted ordinances recognizing the purported “rights of nature,” including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Santa Monica, California. Leftist governments in Bolivia and Ecuador have enshrined nature rights in their national constitutions, and a similar proposal was offered for inclusion in the draft United Nations global warming treaty.

Just what are the purported rights of nature? Promoted most prominently by the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund, the laws center around “the rights of people, natural communities, and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish”—in essence, a “right to life for nature.” When these rights are deemed to come into conflict with human activities, nature must be given equal consideration. If there is no other way to mediate them, the disputes will go to court with environmentalists acting as nature’s “guardians.” Nature rights laws often allow any citizen to sue on behalf of nature, allowing unending litigation intended to throttle development projects before they ever get off the drawing boards.

Of greater philosophical concern, the nature rights ideology subverts what I call human exceptionalism by elevating the natural world to moral equality with human beings—effectively diminishing us to merely another animal in the forest. Such a reductionist self-perception alone could cause great harm. But by asserting that flora and fauna—perhaps even geysers and other geographical phenomena—have “rights,” the movement degrades liberal principles arising from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the same way that wild inflation devalues the worth of currency. Indeed, if a squirrel or mushroom and all other earthly entities somehow possess rights, the very concept withers.

Beyond that, granting rights to nature is intellectually nonsensical. “Rights” can only be understood in the human context. University of Michigan professor of philosophy Carl Cohen put it this way: “A right . . . is a valid claim, or potential claim, that may be made by a moral agent, under principles that govern both the claimant and the target of the claim.” Since only humans are moral agents, only humans are capable of possessing rights.

David S. Oderberg, a philosophy professor at the University of Reading, describes this two-way street concept somewhat differently:

What matters in the having of rights is twofold: a) knowledge; b) freedom. More precisely, a right holder must first know that he is pursuing a good, and secondly, must be free to do so. No one can be under a duty to respect another’s right if he cannot know what it is he is supposed to respect.

This means that for nature to possess rights, it must also be capable of assuming concomitant duties or responsibilities toward others. Thus, if the rights of nature to “exist, regenerate, and flourish” can be enforced against us, we would have to be able to make the same claim against nature, a farcical notion.

What’s more, nature rights are unnecessary if we recognize our solemn duty to properly manage the environment through well-crafted use-management techniques and the application of conservation principles. For example, we impose very stringent and effective protections against human development within our national parks, such as Yellowstone, without giving rights to Old Faithful.

Some may accuse me of taking the whole thing too seriously. After all, part of what is going on is a filling-of-the-void resulting from the abandonment of faith in the increasingly secularized West. People should be free to believe what they want, of course. But when embodied into law, these tendencies can threaten human flourishing.

Thus, the controversy isn’t really about “rights” at all. Rather, we are having an important debate about the scope, nature, and extent of our responsibilities toward the natural world in the context of the human drive to thrive. These obligations to “the other,” it is important to add, are predicated solely on our being human. In this sense, the nature rights controversy and the willingness of some to sacrifice our own welfare to “save the planet” is ironic evidence of the very human exceptionalism that growing numbers of environmental advocates reject.

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.