I just spent the better part of my weekend in a class discussing a global movement springing up around the concept of recognizing rights of nature, something I have been thinking a lot about recently. The class (and the movement) addressed a big concern facing our society — that our way of living is built on a structure of endless economic growth. Yet we live in a world of finite resources and limited space. Why is there this blind faith in growth when we know that it can’t last?
Photo by Johan Christen Nielsen
Simply put, it is what we are constantly told by our leaders and media. Corporations and economies must grow or they will fail. We must buy more stuff to support business and be happy. Somehow we choose to ignore the reality of non-renewable resources. Our way of living is on a collision course with nature. In our technology-obsessed world, we forget that humans are part of a natural system that provides for our well-being.
Science and technology will indeed play an important part in figuring out a sustainable future. But I think looking at how our relatives lived and interacted with the natural world not that long ago (and many indigenous peoples still do today) is also crucial. Acknowledging that nature has rights puts a priority on ceasing the rampant over-consumption and exploitation of natural resources and species. It is what lies beyond the growth paradigm and what I believe will set us moving in the right direction.
“Rights of Nature,” as defined by the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature, is the recognition and honoring that trees, oceans, animals, mountains have rights just as humans do. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. People have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. Once nature is accepted as having standing in the eyes of the law, then when a man-made disaster occurs, such as an oil spill, a lawsuit can be brought on behalf of the polluted ecosystem.
Ecuador and Bolivia have included rights of Nature in their constitutions, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist. In Ecuador, a significant milestone was achieved recently when a provincial court ruled in favor of nature, saying that the flow of Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River was being affected by a road expansion project and ordering corrective action. This is the first successful case defending rights of nature. Other countries too, are beginning to explore legal rights for nature and what it could mean for their communities.
This will obviously require a major shift in thinking for many people, but we need something other than “business as usual” if we wish to sustain life on this planet. We can’t expect the system that caused our problems to solve our problems. The world economy is based on exploiting the earth for all that we need, be that coal, oil, trees, fish, precious metals, water and air. According to Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, “Further economic growth cannot help regenerate the very spheres which must be destroyed for economic growth to occur.”
The Growth Imperative
Economic growth has been the mantra since the Industrial Revolution, and especially so since post-World War II. Businesses, stock markets, and bottom lines must grow to succeed, and companies must explore, drill, and mine for ever-dwindling resources in order to grow. Certainly this is what we all hear in the news day in and day out.
James Gustave Speth, professor and former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, recently wrote about the need for creating a new vision of economic growth. According to Speth: “The never-ending drive to grow the overall US economy is ruining the environment; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; it hollows out communities; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs. Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues…”
Adopting new measures to gauge progress is important [see alternatives for measuring economic progress in Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue], but without a paradigm shift in how we interact with nature — respecting the world we are part of and not simply exploiting it for our needs — we will be spinning our wheels. Unwavering faith in the market will not improve the sustainability and livability of our communities.
Human wellbeing doesn’t depend on economic growth and the pillaging of the earth’s resources. As Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network says:
“Long term solutions require turning away from prevailing paradigms and ideologies centered on pursuing economic growth, corporate profits and personal wealth accumulation as primary engines of social well-being. The transitions will inevitably be toward societies that can equitably adjust to reduced levels of production and consumption, and increasingly localized systems of economic organization that recognize, honor and are bounded by the limits of Nature…”
Ultimately, the bottom line that we should care most about is that we all live on one planet, dependent on each other and a sustainable environment. The people of Ecuador and Bolivia are leading the way, showing how recognizing rights of nature can help us achieve a healthy planet. The rest of us should follow.