Leiden Law Blog

Respecting the Rights of Mother Earth

Respecting the Rights of Mother Earth

Recently we have been confronted with various large-scale problems. There is a financial crisis, which started in 2008 but is not over yet; there is the situation in the Middle Eastern countries like Syria that is getting more complicated by the day; there is the rise in tension around the borders of Russia; there is the ongoing stream of refugees entering Europe from Africa and the Middle East, and so on.
Although the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal seems a rather small issue compared to these threatening problems, indirectly it points towards the largest problem facing us today: the environmental problem which is not limited to a certain region or country but is confronting us all on a planetary scale. Can law help us to deal with this in a structural way?

Financially profitable green issues 

Of course the responsible people in the Volkswagen Company are to blame, but we should not forget that the problem goes much deeper. We live in a world dominated by economic thinking, and behaviour like this is bound to happen when economically minded people take up green issues. It’s easy for them to create widely distributed ‘green’ ads, which extensively use the colour green and show overwhelming natural landscapes – thereby cleverly covering up the fact that they just want to sell more cars. And it is widely accepted that green issues are put into a context of individual profit. For instance, when we buy shares in green investment companies, we do so because we hope it´s going to be financially beneficial. We are offered green energy by competing companies who all promise that it is also much cheaper. Is it logical that a cleaner environment should also be financially profitable to us? Well, it is logical in the mind of homo economicus.

Law and ecology 

To inspire us to broaden our minds to a genuine ecological perspective I think law can play a larger role than it has done until now – notwithstanding the large amount of international environmental agreements and specific environmental laws that have been created. We can be sure that people with an economical mindset will always find the loopholes in them. To trigger a much broader, ecological awareness in people we need a larger, overarching body of law which includes the whole of the non-human world; or even better: which states that human society has always been and still is part of a surrounding natural world.

A Universal Declaration

It’s clear that this body of law must be created on a global level, on the level of Human Rights. Perhaps it might come as a surprise that a few years ago a document containing the Rights of Mother Earth was already created! In 2010 in Bolivia, at The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, a big conference with more than 30.000 people taking part, the 'Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth' was presented. A few years earlier, in 2008, another South American country, Ecuador, had already incorporated the Rights of Nature in their Constitution. However hopeful these developments may have been, we should ask ourselves why after 2010 this Declaration has not yet been ratified by other countries and taken up in their Constitutions.  Have the politicians not taken any notice, perhaps being too involved with other pressing problems, like those mentioned at the start?

Wild Law

In this respect there is something deeper blocking the way forward. The answer to these questions can be found in a very interesting book that was published on this theme (in 2002) by Cormac Cullinan – a South African environmental attorney –, called Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. He shows how radical in fact it is to extend the concept of law to include the natural world, because it confronts us with the limitations of our legal systems: ‘The dominant legal systems are all based on the assumption that we human beings exist only within our skin (i.e. that which is outside our skin is not us) and that we are the only beings or subjects in the universe.’ (p. 48) Cullinan stresses the fact that within the legal world only subjects – which include people as well as corporations – can have rights, and unfortunately animals, trees, rivers, etc., are considered mere objects and so by definition can have no rights. That´s why he thinks nothing less than a paradigm shift is necessary to bring the whole ´Earth Community´ within the domain of law. The fact that in 2011 a second updated edition of this book was published, shows that there is a growing ecological awareness within the law field.

The ‘Dutch climate case’ and after

That this awareness is also growing in the Netherlands is shown by the recent ‘Dutch climate case’, a court case started by Urgenda against the Dutch State, because in its opinion the Dutch State was not doing enough to bring the CO2 emissions down. In June 2015 the case was won by Urgenda, a landmark decision, forcing the State to take more measures against climate change. Because of this successful outcome, similar cases will be started in other European countries. This certainly is a hopeful development, but to generally raise the people’s ecological awareness in a profound way, ratifying and taking up the ‘Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth’ in all the national Constitutions will be a necessary and also a much more powerful measure.  

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