Legal Rights For Nature: A Revolution Whose Time Has Come

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Have you ever returned to your hometown for a holiday or family visit, only to be emotionally upset about the demolition of a beloved tract of woods for the construction of cheap new apartments or a strip mall?

If so, you’re not alone.

This reaction you have is because of something called your sense of “deep ecology,” also called your “deep green” sense, which means an intense spiritual, emotional, and physical bond you have with wild, natural ecosystems and other, diverse forms of life. It is a physiological sensory perception, just like your sense of balance or ability to detect hot and cold. It is why we love warm, luscious hardwood floors, keep succulents in our cubicles, share our homes with cats and dogs, go camping, and power an $887 billion outdoor recreation economy, larger than any economic segment in the U.S. besides healthcare and finance. When this sense gets disrupted by development, pollution, or exploitation, humans experience distress on a important and meaningful physiological level.

Healthy wild ecosystems do more than nourish our psychology, they also provide shelter to wildlife and all manner of plants and tiny microscopic life, biodiversity that is critical in ensuring the air we breathe and the water we drink is healthy and clean. For these reasons, the health of nature directly impacts human rights, because when nature is violated, we all lose a little bit of health and freedom. So what can we do to protect this obviously vital resource?

Well, since human rights are tied to nature’s health, what if governments extended legal rights to nature, just like we extend rights to corporations or municipalities? Far-fetched?

Actually, no.

There is a relatively new activist network that is advancing the principle of biosphere and ecosystem rights.

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN), established in its current form in 2010 with the adoption of its Statutes, is a global civil society network that works in alliance with grassroots groups, individual activists, and institutional environmental advocacy groups, and collects stories, data, and cases of environmental degradation that they present at international tribunals. At these tribunals, judges rule on the cases, inserting incidents of violations of nature into a new system of international jurisprudence.

GARN states that “[r]ather than treating nature as property under the law, the time has come to recognize that natural communities have the right to exist, maintain and regenerate their vital cycles.” (Emphasis theirs). They continue, saying that “[t]he primary premise of the Alliance is that in order to ensure an environmentally sustainable future, humans must reorient themselves from an exploitative and ultimately self-destructive relationship with nature, to one that honors the deep interrelation of all life and contributes to the health and integrity of the natural environment.”

This concept of creating a legal framework that recognizes the rights of living ecosystems and planetary life-support systems, rather than treating nature solely as a resource base for human exploitation, is nothing new. In fact, it predates European colonization, enslavement, and genocides of Americas’ indigenous peoples, whose ‘Pachamama’ worldview holds that human beings are but one humble member of the community of nature, rather than nature being made available solely to fuel human ego’s ambitions and desires. The Pachamama philosophy is enshrined in the constitution of Ecuador, which recognizes Mother Earth as an entity with rights to life. When the country rewrote its constitution in 2007–2008, lawmakers included a chapter dedicated to the Rights of Nature, with “we the people” possessing the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems and with the ecosystem itself being able to be named as the defendant in any suit.

Likewise, the Bolivian Constitution guarantees that “everyone has the right to a healthy, protected, and balanced environment[,]” and that “the exercise of this right must be granted to individuals and collectives of present and future generations, as well as to other living things, so they may develop in a normal and permanent way.” Under the leadership of indigenous-born President Evo Morales, Bolivia spearheaded the creation of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010, after the disappointing failure of countries at the COP15 climate change conference in Denmark to reach a consensus. This Declaration was featured the following year at the UN’s Harmony with Nature Dialogue, a process begun in 2009, with the recognition that our business-as-usual, anthropocentric, exploitation-based economy was degrading the quality of life and liberty for humans and all life on earth and needed to be reassessed to ensure peace, justice, and a decent quality of life for all. The movement was reaffirmed in the outcome document of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, and continues to be developed and codified into international law through ongoing resolutions and agreements, and discussed at the United Nations Harmony With Nature dialogue on the topic of Earth Jurisprudence on April 23.

Beyond theoretical and legal discussions, legal rights for nature is also being implemented into reality just in the past few years, including where New Zealand’s Whanganui River system was granted personhood and self-ownership, with the ability to litigate violations of its rights, and in Hawaii, with a new conservation easement in Kaua’i, ensuring a parcel’s rights to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve.

It is a process, building the foundations for a new civilization founded on the recognition that biodiversity and environmental health underpin our survival and freedom on this planet. The meaningful, earnest steps already being taken in just the past decade are indeed a precious ray of hope that, despite current cultural and geopolitical headwinds, we might just succeed in creating the framework for a new society grounded in liberty, equity, and harmony with those elements of the natural environment that empower humans and all creatures to endlessly enjoy the bounty of the firmament.

To learn more about the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, visit the new website at You can also sign the petition to help make nature recognized as a living being in all its forms under the law, with the right to exist, persist, and maintain its vital cycles. And if you’re able to make it to Ecuador during the 27th through 29th of September, the Global Alliance will mark the 10th Anniversary of Ecuador’s inclusion of the Rights of Nature in their constitution with a three day symposium of prominent Nature Rights leaders, academics, indigenous leaders, and government officials, with support from the UN’s Nature Dialogue and local partners.

Whether you look forward to taking your children to the park over the weekend, or are excited about your upcoming camping trip with friends, or if you love the feeling of walking into a corporate atrium stacked floor-to-ceiling with all manner of plants, your sense of deep ecology is constantly influencing your behavior and pointing you toward wellness. To ensure a future where this important physiological sense is nurtured and healthy, we must protect those parts of nature that can nurture it unlike anything else. The better world we all dream of is possible, but recognizing and protecting the inherent rights of earth’s living systems under the law is prerequisite to a prosperous and happy future for humankind and all of our animal brethren.

James Carli is a consultant in New York. He is sometimes on Twitter @JimCarli.

James Carli is a writer and humanitarian fundraiser with a background in diplomacy, drug policy, and urbanism.