The Return of Nature Worship

Originally published at Religion & Liberty: Volume 28, Number 3

We live in decadent times. Universal human rights have not been fully attained, yet radical environmentalists insist that flora, fauna and even geological features and structures should be deemed legal persons, a meme known as “nature rights.”

The drive to grant rights to the entirety of the natural world has already achieved stunning victories. In 2008, Ecuador granted human-type rights to “nature” in its constitution back, while Bolivia recently passed a law to the same effect. More than 30 United States cities and municipalities, including Santa Monica and Pittsburgh, have also granted rights to nature.

In 2014, an Argentinian court issued a writ of habeas corpus for an orangutan, declaring the animal to be a “non-human person” that had been “deprived of liberty” and requiring the animal’s release from a zoo to a primate sanctuary. Four rivers have been granted rights – three by court orders (including the Amazon and Ganges) – while the New Zealand Parliament declared the Whanganui River to be an “integrated, living whole” possessing “rights and interests.” In the United States, the Colorado River was named as a litigant in a lawsuit but later withdrawn. Meanwhile, in two separate cases, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cetaceans and monkeys are entitled to Article III Constitutional standing in court – that is, they are entitled to bring federal suits if they can demonstrate harm – albeit the specific cases were dismissed due to statutory considerations. Even former Secretary- General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon declared his support for the idea.

The putative rights of nature

So, what are these supposed rights of nature and from whence do they spring? For many environmentalists, the push seems to be a neo-earth religion. For example, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature has stated:

  1. Mother Earth is a living being.
  2. Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.
  3. Each being is defined by its relationships as an integral part of Mother Earth.
  4. The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence.

Paganism aside, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has led the drive to grant rights to nature. Under CELDF’s influence, Ecuador’s 2008 constitution virtually declares a right to life for nature:

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.

Other nature rights laws and proposals are similarly worded. For example, the Green Party of England and Wales adopts most of the above quoted wording in its political platform – absent the mystical concept of Pachamama – and adds a “right to restoration” as a remedy for violations of nature’s rights. Pittsburgh’s ordinance states that “[n]atural communities and ecosystems, including but not limited to, wetlands, rivers, streams, aquifers, and other water systems, possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the city of Pittsburgh.”

The Earth Law Center has promoted a similar approach. For example, its (draft) Universal Declaration of River Rights states in part that “all rivers are living entities that possess legal standing in a court of law” and that “all rivers shall possess, at minimum, the following fundamental rights:

  1. The right to flow;
  2. The right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem;
  3. The right to be free from pollution;
  4. The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers;
  5. The right to native biodiversity; and
  6. The right to restoration.”

So much for Hoover Dam and farmers’ access to adequate water for irrigation.

Many readers may be wondering how animals, plants, insects, rivers, granite outcroppings, bacteria, plankton and viruses – all parts of nature, after all – would enforce their rights. Here’s the ingeniously insidious part: These laws and proposals permit anyone who objects to a proposed or ongoing use of the natural world to bring a lawsuit as “nature’s” representative. Pittsburgh’s statute put it this way: “Residents of the City shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights on behalf of … natural communities and ecosystems.” In other words, the claims made to enforce nature’s “rights” would only be limited by the imaginations of the most extreme environmental activists and their lawyers.

Why nature rights?

Activists claim that granting rights to nature is a matter of sheer necessity. Believers are terrified that we are on the brink of ecological collapse caused by our self-separation from nature. If we would only see ourselves as a coequal part of the natural world, they believe, we would tread more gently on the land and learn to live in ecological harmony with the rest of the planet.

Thus, CELDF’s associate director, Mari Margil, wrote recently in The Guardian of nature being “enslaved, ” because it is considered “property, ” while we and our human associations are deemed “persons.” This paradigm, Margil believes, has led to catastrophic environmental destruction. From her op-ed, “Our Laws Make Slaves of Nature”:

Existing legal systems force us to think of nature in terms of human concerns rather than what concerns nature. With the past three years the warmest in recorded history, and as we face what has been called the sixth great extinction, lawmakers and judges appear increasingly to agree that it is time to secure the highest form of legal protection for nature, through the recognition of rights. …

As daily headlines tell us how we are tearing holes in the very fabric of life on earth, it is time to make a fundamental shift in how we govern ourselves towards nature – before, as Colombia’s constitutional court wrote [granting rights to the Amazon River], it’s too late.

Anti-capitalism and anti-corporatism provide the movement’s propellant. Nature rights would make us trustees, rather than owners, of property. And here the truth begins to shine. The rights of nature is a Marxist concept, intended to destroy free markets, thwart capitalistic enterprise, shrink economies, reduce wealth and depress living standards while elevating the natural world to moral equivalence with human beings.

Why not “nature rights”?

Which brings us to the core reasons why granting rights to nature would be not only profoundly subversive of Western values but also highly destructive to human thriving.

Nature rights violates human exceptionalism:

Human exceptionalism, the essential insight undergirding Western civilization, has come under direct assault by the nature rights movement. But what does that term mean? First, human beings have equal and inherent moral value simply and merely because we are human – a worth that exceeds that of all other life forms – a concept known as the sanctity of life ethic.

But that description doesn’t tell the whole story. Human exceptionalism also appeals to our exclusive capacity for moral agency. Only human beings have duties – to ourselves, each other and our posterity – to be responsible stewards of the environment and to leave a verdant world to those who come after us. Recognizing our exceptional inherent nature, we understand that the world is not ours to turn into a cesspool. Or to put it another way, if being human – in and of itself – isn’t what imposes the obligation on us to be environmentally responsible, what does?

Nature rights activists see it differently. To them, the traditional hierarchy of life is a destructive concept. In their view, we are no more important than any other species or life form and, it increasingly seems, even non-animate features of the natural world. Or, to put it more colloquially, nature rights ideology seeks to demote us from the exceptional species to just another animal in the forest.

Nature rights devalues the vibrancy of rights:

University of Michigan professor of philosophy Carl Cohen writes: “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” (emphasis added). This means that for nature to possess rights, it must also be capable of assuming concomitant duties or responsibilities toward others, a farcical notion.

Beyond that, granting rights to nature means that everything is potentially a rights-bearer. If everything has rights, one could say that nothing really does. At best, nature rights would devalue the concept in much the same way that wild inflation destroys the worth of currency. Indeed, if a squirrel or mushroom and all other earthly entities somehow possess rights, the vibrancy of rights withers.

Nature rights would cause profound harm to human thriving:

Granting rights to nature would bring economic growth to a screeching halt by empowering the most committed and radical environmentalists – granted legal standing to act on “nature’s” behalf – to impose their extreme views of proper environmental stewardship through the buzz saw of unending litigation. Backed by well-funded environmentalist organizations and their lawyers, any and all large-scale economic or development projects – from oil drilling, to housing developments, to mining, to farming, to renewable energy projects, such as electricity-generating windmills that kill countless birds – could face years of harassing lawsuits and extorted financial settlements. At the very least, liability insurance for such endeavors would become prohibitively costly – indeed, if underwriters permitted policies to be issued for such projects at all. Of course, that is the whole point.

Nature rights would be incapable of nuanced enforcement:

Christian and Jewish dogma hold that God assigned us the responsibility to be good stewards of his earth. But we are also commanded to thrive off the bounties of nature. Such a view allows the natural world to be harnessed for human benefit mediated by our responsibilities to engage in proper environmental policies and practices.

Granting rights to nature would shatter this nuanced approach to environmental husbandry. Take as one quick example, the Endangered Species Act. The law provides that if an identified species becomes endangered, threatening human activity will be prevented. But that doesn’t end the matter. Once populations of the endangered species return to healthy levels – the point of the law – its designation will be changed, alleviating or removing the prior restraints on human activity.

In contrast, nature rights would have all the nuance of handcuffs that could never be unlocked. Under such a regime, nuanced husbandry practices would yield to the “right” of “nature” to “exist and persist.” The human benefit from our use of the natural world would, at most, receive mere equal consideration to the impacted aspect of nature’s rights – and this would be true no matter how dynamic and otherwise thriving the potentially impacted aspects of nature might be.

Nature rights is unnecessary to proper environmental protection:

We can provide robust safeguards for the environment without the subversion of granting rights outside the human realm. Yellowstone National Park, for example, is one of the great wonders of the world. It has been splendidly protected since 1872, when made a national park, and in a manner that has both protected its pristine beauty and allowed people to enjoy its incredible marvels – without declaring Old Faithful geyser a “person” entitled to enforceable rights.

Enough. When we dig to the intellectual core of the movement, we find that the controversy isn’t about “rights” at all. Rather, we are having an epochal debate about the scope, nature and extent of our responsibilities toward the natural world. These obligations, it is important to add, are predicated solely on our being human. In this sense, the nature rights controversy and the desire of some to maximally sacrifice our own welfare to “save the planet” is ironic proof of the very human exceptionalism that nature rights environmentalists reject.

It’s time to splash some icy river water on our faces: The threat of nature rights can’t be ignored any longer. Unless we act to ensure that only human beings and our associations and enterprises are the proper subjects of rights and legal standing in courts of law, we face a darker and less prosperous human future.

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.