Humans once lived in harmony with the natural world. Consider timekeeping. Until relatively recently, the human notion of time was based on the natural rhythms of nature. Time was measured by a new moon, the first snow, a migrating bird, or the ebb and flow of a river. Time meant situating ourselves as part of a larger web of life.
Western society has since lost its connection to nature. Human-created days, hours, minutes, seconds meticulously dictate our lives. Our sense of time is now detached from the world around us. Modern clocks provide many important services by establishing predictability in a complex and fast-paced world. But the loss of our interconnectivity with nature’s timekeepers has diminished our relationship with nature.
Timekeeping is not the only way in which we have lost touch with nature. Many elements of Western society treat humans as separate from and superior to the natural world. Nature was once perceived as living—even sacred. Now it is treated as a human commodity. Under Western legal systems, humans possess rights while the rest of nature does not. Entire cities have been built over once wondrous ecosystems that we sparsely acknowledge. Few people realize that entombed rivers still flow invisibly below cities such as New York, London, and Paris. Nature is still here, but it is often subjugated and ignored.
We can reclaim our deep relationship with nature, essential to solving the environmental crisis. It begins with two movements: cultural and legal. The cultural one arises from artists, writers, and other creatives whose work reshapes our thinking by underscoring that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. The legal one involves harmonizing human laws with the laws of the Earth. This means rewriting the legal system so it represents nature’s rights and interests directly alongside our own. A new generation of “Earth lawyers,” including me, have taken up this challenging task.
The illusion of separation between humans and nature began about 11,000 years ago, when the first agriculture-based societies emerged. From 800 to 300 B.C., philosophers and religions began to champion human superiority and dominion over nature. Scientists like Francis Bacon and philosophers like René Descartes popularized their conceptions of Earth as a machine or giant clock that was possible to control and exploit as long as we pulled the right levers.
Midway through the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution catalyzed the development of an economic system that viewed nature as a form of natural capital rather than a life source. New economic paradigms encouraged industry to incessantly exploit nature to fuel monetary growth without limits. Modern democracy and human rights also emerged during this period, but they focused on the well-being of individuals rather than the larger community of life. In accordance with the dominant systems of law and economics, society came to normalize the separation of humans and nature.
The law establishes a legal duty for humans to protect and restore ecosystems to health because that is their right.
The next period, from post-World War II through the present, is sometimes called the “Great Acceleration.” Measures of human growth and impact, such as population, GDP, water and energy use, ocean acidification, and forest loss, began to increase nearly exponentially during this time.1 New economic policies commodified nearly all aspects of life, including air, water, forests, countless plant and animal species, and food, among others. Corporations began to exploit unprotected ecosystems until they reached total collapse. Consumerism became a way of life.
We have killed off 68 percent of vertebrate animal populations over the last 50 years.2 Nearly one in six species faces extinction due to climate change.3 Humans felled 46 percent of all trees, as well as 20 percent of the Amazon in the last 50 years alone.4 We destroyed half of the world’s coral reefs and are well on our way to a world where they are totally wiped out.5 Humans suffer, as well, from the precipitous decline of nature. Some 7 million humans die each year due to air pollution, including 100,000 annually in the United States.6
Although most of the world largely continues with business as usual, a growing number of governments have embraced cutting-edge legal solutions that would allow humans to live in harmony with nature.
One of the most promising legal solutions is “rights of nature.” It recognizes that nature is a “legal entity” or “persons” with fundamental rights. This movement received global attention when Ecuador recognized the rights of nature in its 2008 Constitution. Now, rights of nature is recognized in some 12 countries through a combination of national and local legislation, landmark court decisions, treaty agreements, and other legal developments.
Rights of nature corrects shortcomings of modern environmental laws. Environmental laws operate as a tourniquet, creating rules to prevent nature’s loss but doing little to address root causes—such as an economy that incentivizes the maximum exploitation of nature for profit. By contrast, rights of nature establishes a legal duty for humans to protect and restore ecosystems to health because that is their right.
The rights of nature, although still in its early stages, is gaining momentum. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Colombia declared the Atrato River—one of Colombia’s largest rivers—to be a “subject of rights,” with rights to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration. The Court also created a guardianship body to serve as the voice of the river, just as a child might have a legal guardian. Finally, the Court ordered state authorities to create a plan—a blueprint is in the works—to decontaminate waterways in the Atrato River basin, to end illegal mining, and take other actions to uphold the rights of rivers.
Two forces, law and culture, will converge to create transformative change. In the meantime, go meet your local river.
In New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 recognized the Whanganui River as a living entity and legal person, solidifying a 2012 treaty agreement between the Whanganui Iwi (a Maori tribe) and New Zealand’s crown government. It establishes a guardianship body to promote the river’s health and well-being and serve as its “human face.” Already, the legislation is being put into practice. In 2020, a new governance structure for a port revitalization project on the Whanganui River announced that the river’s indivisible nature and the community’s collective obligation to benefit the river will guide its decision-making.7
There are other instances of ecosystems being recognized as having rights or personhood. In 2019, the highest court in Bangladesh recognized the rights of all rivers and instituted a plan to address illegal river encroachment. In the United States, the Klamath and Snake Rivers are recognized as having rights by the Yurok and Nez Perce Tribes, respectively. In Mexico, three states have amended their constitutions to recognize the rights of nature, and lawmakers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are proposing to establish the rights of rivers and create a robust legal guardianship body for implementation.
Granting legal rights to nature could become society’s next major rights-based milestone as part of a larger movement toward the implementation of “Earth law” (like “human rights law” but for the planet). Establishing the rights of nature is an essential piece of the solution to the ecological crisis.
Not only does the rights of nature give ecosystems a voice in our legal system, it influences our culture. In the case of the Whanganui River, tens of thousands of people have learned how the Maori tribes that live along the Whanganui treat the river as their ancestor and see themselves as its guardians. Numerous global gatherings have celebrated the Whanganui River and other waterways that are now “persons.” A 2019 law journal article in Ecology Law Quarterly writes metaphorically about the “songs” of the Whanganui river and others—songs that are sad, discordant, muted, loving, trusting, or inspiring—and suggests to its predominantly legal readers, “Let us sit beside the river and wait patiently for its song.”7 A new mindset is emerging in which humans learn to listen to and guard rivers rather than exploit them. The law influences culture, and culture influences the law.
Many varieties of cultural changes will accelerate the legal movement toward rights of nature. We can reinvent our language so that we no longer describe nature as our “property” or a “resource,” but rather refer to nature as persons, family members, kin, or co-inhabitants of the planet. Movies, songs, TV shows, books, and other artworks that showcase nature being alive and having its own rights can galvanize culture and will help fuel legal battles.
Timekeeping, too, can become part of the cultural movement toward the rights of nature. Specifically, we can create new standards of time that recognize our deep relationship with the natural world. Experimental philosopher, artist, and writer Jonathon Keats has collaborated with the Anchorage Museum to create Alaska River Time, which uses the natural flow of a river as a timekeeping standard. The speed of a clock increases or decreases based on the flow of a network of rivers. The clock speeds up when river flows are greatest, such as during spring runoff, then will slow nearly to a halt during low-flow periods, such as late-summer when much of the snowmelt has been depleted. Keats’ thought-experiment is a stark reminder that the natural world is indifferent to human-created time and operates at its own, natural pace. It challenges us to shift our focus from anthropocentric systems—such as time keeping—to the rhythms of nature.
A new mindset of living in harmony with nature is emerging. I work with Earth lawyers in over 25 countries who dream of a future in which all ecosystems have basic rights and can be restored to health. Governments in Canada, El Salvador, France, Mexico, Nigeria, and many other places will consider new rights of nature protections in 2021. At the same time artists, philosophers, writers, and filmmakers are showing the world that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. Their works illuminate a deeper understanding of our place in the natural world. These two forces, law and culture, will converge to create transformative change. In the meantime, go meet your local river and see what it has to say.
Grant Wilson, Esq., is the executive director of Earth Law Center, which advances ecocentric law and education in the United States and globally. He is one of the lead editors of a new law school coursebook on ecocentric law, entitled Earth Law: Emerging Ecocentric Law—A Guide for Practitioners. He can be reached at [email protected]
1. Future Earth, The Great Acceleration https://futureearth.org/2015/01/16/the-great-acceleration (2015).
2. ALmond, R.E.A., Grooten, M., & Peterson, T. (Eds) WWF Living Planet Report 2020. worldwildlife.org (2020).
3. Urban, M.C. Climate change. Accelerating extinction risk from climate change. Science 348, 571-573 (2015).
4. Denneky, K. Seeing the forest and the trees, all three trillion of them. ScienceDaily (2015).
5. Parker, L. & Welch, C. Coral reefs could be gone in 30 years. National Geographic nationalgeographic.com/news (2017).
6. World Health Organization, 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution. who.int/mediacentre/news (2014).
7. Emmanouil, N., Clark, C., Pelizzon, A., & Page, J. Can you hear the rivers sing? Legal personhood, ontology, and the nitty gritty of governance. Ecology Law Quarterly 45, 787-844 (2019).
Lead image: Gabor Kovacs Photography / Shutterstock