Monday, July 20, 2009

Legal Rights for Nature

Here is an article from yesterday's Boston Globe, "Sued by the forest: Should nature be able to take you to court?"

The idea of granting legal standing to natural entities is not a new one. In the case that spurred this article, a town in Maine passed an ordinance that grants rights to "natural communities and ecosystems" in order to try to protect their aquifers from taking by the Nestle corporation (which bottles the water under the Poland Spring label). What's interesting is that rights are granted to natural, non-human entities in order to protect them from another non-human entity, a corporation.

So the question that has to be raised is whether granting rights to ecosystems will solve the problem of mis-use by corporations. History would suggest that, instead, corporations (who can pay for very, very clever lawyers) are likely to find ways of subverting ordinances or even using them to their advantage. The real problem is that corporations are not accountable to all the moral considerations that human communities believe are worth accounting for. 

I've been reading about cases of indigenous populations who have been displaced directly or indirectly by conservation projects. These cases create moral dilemmas for environmentalists. Preserving ecosystems and species is a valuable goal, but at what human cost? A legal framework that gives rights to ecosystems could be used to justify protected areas that displace humans. It would, in some sense, be a simple solution that would settle the problem. But it would settle it in a way that is too easy because it would not work through the moral balancing of the needs of nature vs. the needs of humans.


Anonymous said...

Hi, VS Bandaneer here,
What gets me is that corporations have rights ---pretty much as an individual does---really absurd---
What is the strategic advantage of creating rights for ecosystems instead of saying that harm to ecosystems hurts people--that people have the right to have an
unharmed environment--that there is harm to people when their stream
is clogged bylogging debris, or their groundwater is pumped out.
It should be considered generally beneficial to people to have an intact ecosystem as far as possible. Nature is owned in common
by the people--and loss of ecosystem or habitat should be de facto damage to the property of the people.
Seems a harder argument to me--to
show that nature has rights--seems to me linking people and rights of ownership, to nature would be easier to defend.
I mean can nature sue the company? No--people will sue to suppor the rights of nature---so its down to people having standing to sue in the first place.

Evelyn Brister said...

I think some people would object to your position in principle--that the rights of natural entities stem from their intrinsic value and have their source in the more-than-human world.

But I agree with you. The anthropocentric case is a much easier one to make--meaning that it is based in solid, well-accepted arguments for the value of human wellbeing, the value of future human generations, and our property rights (including rights to common property).

I think what your pointing to is this: if communities have been robbed of the ability to control their common property for their own sake, why would we think that granting natural entities rights would be a strategy that would achieve that goal?

Prozac said...

I personally think legal rights granted to nature are unwise, if only because those rights will be defended by humans. The problem with that is that it not everyone cares about what's going on, and a lawyer that doesn't care about his case is not going to be a very good one.