Only in a society separated from nature does 'Rights of Nature' make sense - Salish Current
July 28, 2023
Only in a society separated from nature does ‘Rights of Nature’ make sense
Elisabeth Robson

Nature? Suburban development in a northeastern section of Colorado Springs, Colorado, appears to have superseded natural features. A commentator asks what the concept of “Rights of Nature” says about the state of society. (Image: David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

July 28, 2023
Only in a society separated from nature does ‘Rights of Nature’ make sense
Elisabeth Robson


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.

There are many ways to interpret the idea of the “rights of nature,” but all (in this modern world) are conceptualized in a society that largely separates us from nature with layers of technology — so many layers, in fact, that most of us can easily get through our days forgetting that we are nature.

Some understand the “rights of nature” as the right of the natural world to exist, to thrive and to regenerate, without attaching any specific legal meaning to the word “rights.” In this conceptualization of rights, it is self-evident that all living beings — seas, rivers, humans, orcas and pill-bugs alike — have a right to exist and flourish, and that no one species or community has more right to exist than any other. Some call this “natural rights” — fundamental rights not dependent on the laws of any particular culture.

Within modern law, the “rights of nature” takes on a more complex meaning, as does the word “rights” more generally. When the right of a developer to build a strip mall clashes with the right of a magnificent tree to continue to live and flourish, who wins — the developer or the tree? 

Much of modern law exists to answer that question, and is definitively on the side of the developer, because he has “property rights” — the right to “own” land and the trees who live there. Unfortunately, trees do not usually participate in hashing out the law, and so the rights being adjudicated in the courts are not between a developer and a tree, but a developer and those who wish to protect the tree — people who have no rights to protect that tree, only their right to speak out loud their indignation. One can imagine what the tree might say if she could take the witness stand, shake her leaves and speak in our language about her history, her relationships with the birds, the bears and other trees, and assert her natural right to life.

Before humans separated ourselves from nature with technology and forgot that we are nature, we might have considered this tree our kin. We might have loved her for her shade on hot summer days, harvested nuts or fruit from her branches, breathed the oxygen she exhaled from her leaves and carefully stripped bark from her sides to make baskets. Her right to live and to flourish was our right to live and to flourish — they were one and the same. We protected this tree with our lives because her life was our life, too. Her well-being was — to use a modern term — our economy.

Now our shade comes in air conditioned houses, sucking electricity made from rivers killed by dams and CO2-belching power plants far away from the places we call “beautiful.” Our food comes from the grocery store. The oxygen we breathe is rapidly being crowded out by greenhouse gases, and our baskets are made from oil extracted out of the ground and made into the poison we call “plastic.” 

When an old tree is killed for a strip mall, we don’t mourn her loss as we would a loved one because she is no longer our kin. She is just a tree. Or rather, she was just a tree.

In the before times, no one felt the need to spell out the rights of nature because those rights were our rights. Our economies were determined purely by the health of the natural communities we lived in and with. Their flourishing meant our flourishing. Their regeneration meant our regeneration. 

In the now times, we degrade the life-carrying capacity of the only planet in the Universe that we know supports life with almost every one of our actions. We poison the air, the water and the soil. We speak of “balancing rights” while we call trees and animals “it,” objectifying and commodifying them. We dam rivers, pave over wetlands, blow the tops off mountains and saw down the last of the old growth forests. 

“Economy” now means infinite growth on a finite planet, and the “rights” of developers almost always win over the “rights” of the trees to exist. 

The few concessions we make to “the environment” mostly fail to protect the natural communities of the planet because environmental laws are designed to be broken as long as the company doing the breaking has the right permits (i.e., permission to destroy).

This situation is — or should be — the definition of insanity. 

In this context, the rights of nature is just an intellectual exercise, for we have forgotten what nature actually is: it is us; it is what sustains us, it is what sustains the millions of other species on this planet; it is the living planet herself. The “rights of nature” is an idea required only by a society that has forgotten this.

— Contributed by Elisabeth Robson

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