The dynamics of the ‘rights of nature’ issue - Salish Current
July 21, 2023
The dynamics of the ‘rights of nature’ issue
William Appel

Rights, and nature: the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Humboldt County, California — a 5,000-year-old Coast Redwood — was among forest giants tunneled in the late 1800s and early 1900s to encourage automobile tourism. While tunneling enabled people to drive or walk through the trees, it is extremely damaging to the trees and the practice was discontinued. (Jan Kronsell, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

July 21, 2023
The dynamics of the ‘rights of nature’ issue
William Appel


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

When considering rights, no right is absolute. Even human life goes into the balance, examples being self-defense (alleged defender against alleged assailant), abortion (unwilling mother versus innocent life inception), criminal penalties and warfare being intractable examples. The same uncertainty applies to rights of nature.

Freedom and rights are a zero-sum game (my right to life limits your right to kill me), but the contest is at least three-way, not two-way. To give anyone rights is to subtract another’s rights. An old and magnificent tree is in the way of development of property controlled by a developer. Local tree ordinances limit the developer’s options, and so give the tree “rights.” The developer seeks a variance, asserting (1) taking of property and (2) (most tempting to the municipality) the loss of property and retail sales tax revenues from the proposed shopping center. The temptation is too great; the municipality needs the tax money and cannot afford litigation (the developer, having more at state, can). But an environmental consortium of local citizens and a national organization institute suit. The city defends pro forma and lies low; the battle is between the developer and the consortium. This is law, where “freedom” and “rights” are legal concepts, and like every other human hope or act, are balanced.

Law has a purpose beyond protection of the public peace. A major function is to enable the smooth running of an economy whose present rule like most human inventions, mimics nature: it must grow, change, or die. Bankruptcy courts, federal courts of economic last resort, can alter contracts notwithstanding their otherwise sacrosanct status under the Constitution. Economics has a heavy hand in deciding rights of nature.

But economics, while human-constructed, is not humanity’s representative. It represents the need of a large and complex society, but not society itself. Humanity’s need for serenity, humility, amazement, discovery, while largely (and necessarily in a crowded society) preempted by tourism, is a potent force. The small group of neighbors that invoke the help of environmental organizations are driven by their humanity, sometimes evidenced by anger or grief.

So the “rights of nature” issue will remain a dynamic, not static, balance among (1) other forms of life that have no voice except to move, adapt or die, (2) the concept of “ownership” that is the foundation of a capitalist economy, (3) the common welfare to the extent that the form of nature involved is in fact part of a natural system that benefits us, likely in a manner we haven’t discovered yet but when we do, will require large capital expense to replicate, and (4) that form of human happiness that comes from feeling nature and the grief, anger and social or civil disorder that arises from its loss.

— Contributed by William Appel

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