Regarding nature as property, a seemingly inexhaustible bounty for us to harvest, is leading us to the brink of our own extinction. We are currently on the precipice of so many tipping points that we risk a cascade of irreversible damage from which we may never recover. Mass species extinctions are well under way, our oceans are polluted and acidified, our climate rapidly changing and deforestation is occurring at the annual rate of the landmass of Switzerland. These are but a few of the challenges we face. We are currently using the resources of 1.7 planets - a number that is expected to double by 2050 due to population increase and ballooning consumption in the developing world. As resources become more scarce, they increase in value, thereby incentivizing even more rapid and aggressive extraction, deforestation, poaching, fishing and logging.
Now imagine a world, even one with the projected population of 10 billion people, where humans live in harmony with nature. Species are thriving in rich interconnected forests, oceans are teeming with life and the skies are filled with birdsong. Clean water is abundant, the air is fresh, and the economy is stable. Does this look like a future we want? What would it take for this to become reality and in what ways would our laws and economic systems need to change to make this our future?
It is not hard to come to the conclusion that we would need to shift from the status quo of nature as a bounty, to that of a completely new economic model where nature is protected from whole-scale destruction. Rights of Nature laws are the legal facet of a paradigm shift that will allow this future to materialize.
How Would Rights Of Nature Work?
Laws and legislation in BC do not exist to protect nature, which is why so much destruction is allowed to continue with impunity. Current laws regarding protection of ecosystems exist only in the capacity to determine the extent to which damage can be perpetrated against the ecosystems in question. Corporations have legal personhood status conferring them rights to profit that supersede ecosystem rights to flourish or even exist. Rights of Nature laws would allow for groups or individuals to act as proxies to defend nature from destruction and act on it's behalf to survive and thrive.
In cases regarding the rights of infants or incapacitated individuals unable to speak in their own defence, an individual or a group can act as a proxy to represent the rights of these individuals. Similarly, Rights of Nature would allow for proxies to hold the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems that are damaged, harmed or mismanaged, in much the same way as proxies acting on behalf of those that can not speak for themselves.
“I don’t want man in his greed to exploit the resources of earth to turn what should be a garden into a desert.” John B Goodenough
Rights of Nature BC is an alliance of individuals and organizations committed to the implementation of legal systems which recognize that nature is not an object or property without legal rights. Transforming how nature is treated under the law by implementing Rights of Nature legislation, would allow for enforcement of these laws by individuals, organizations and governments.
The legal systems of almost all countries, including Canada, treat nature and its components as objects to be owned. Animals, trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, ecosystems and the planet are not legal subjects with responsibilities and rights, but resources to be exploited for human enjoyment. Orcas have no legal right to limit tanker traffic in the Salish Sea or even to survive as a species; Grizzly Bear Spirit and its mountain home of Qat’muk have no legal right to stop the construction of a ski resort; and a forest has no legal standing to object to a clearcut logging permit. Humans and their artificial creations, corporations, stand apart from and above nature. They alone have legal rights and responsibilities.
In this system, is it any surprise that natural systems are degraded or collapsing as a result of human activity? The Rights of Nature movement emerged in reaction to this ecologically destructive logic. This burgeoning global movement recognizes nature and its components—from individual organisms to species, ecosystems and the planet itself—as living beings with legal rights. Their rights include the right to exist, to be respected, to flourish, and to be restored. Humans have a corresponding responsibility to respect and live in harmony with other members of the planetary community.
Ecuador included rights of nature in its 2008 Constitution. Bolivia passed laws protecting the rights of Mother Earth and played a key role in the 2010 adoption of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Maori and settler authorities in Aotearoa/New Zealand have crafted innovative laws to recognize the Whanganui river, Mount Taranaki and a former national park as legal persons with enforceable rights. Courts in Colombia have recognized the legal rights of the Atrato river and the Amazon River Ecosystem. Indian courts have done the same for the Ganges river, the glaciers that feed it and the entire animal kingdom.
The idea that nature and its components are living beings and that all members of the planetary community, human and non-human, have rights and responsibilities to one another, has deep roots in many cultures. It resonates with the diverse worldviews and legal orders of many indigenous peoples, who are stewards of the majority of Earth’s remaining biodiversity and are often frontline defenders of land, air, water and living creatures. As a result, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, including the right to self-government and to free, prior and informed consent, can be an effective way to protect the rights of nature. But it is not clear that the reverse is always true. If rights of nature laws are not designed and implemented appropriately, they could end up being used to infringe indigenous rights and challenge the authority of indigenous laws and governments. This is especially a concern in places like British Columbia, where indigenous peoples retain authority over vast areas and are in the process of revitalizing their governments and laws.
Stepan Wood is a Professor of Law at UBC and the Director of the Centre For Law & the Environment at the Allard School of Law.
With over 1800 species at risk of extinction in BC alone, Rights of Nature are imperative to keep these species from disappearing forever.
Forests in BC have been and continue to be egregiously mismanaged leading to a loss of biodiversity and increased wildfires.
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CHANGING HOW WE TREAT NATURE UNDER BC LAW
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