Reading David R. Boyd’s The Rights of Nature in these United States is a bit disassociative. He is writing in an alternative universe where Scott Pruitt is still suing the E.P.A., not running it and we still had a legitimate government that respected the rule of law. However, if we ignore the United States and the crony capitalist kakistocracy in D.C., there is optimism for the environment in changing legal theories and the advancing idea that nature itself has rights.
The Rights of Nature begins by exploring how we have learned more about animals in recent years that support the idea that they are sentient and self-aware. You would think anyone in daily contact with animals would know through experience that animals are not just automatons reacting to input, but have personality and character and a self. Still, it’s nice to have science proving it. We also did not need science to tell us they feel pain, but again, if it takes a study to change how we treat animals, then hooray for studies.
Perhaps it’s science fiction and my love of Farscape, but I think that even this is anthropomorphism. After all, it’s entirely possible trees feel pain and have awareness, but in a way we don’t recognize because they experience their awareness differently. We recognize the sentience and awareness of animals in the ways animals are like us, limiting our understanding of what awareness can be.
Boyd covers increasing successes of legal cases and theories to protect animals. Suits for lions, tigers, and bears and, of course, the snail darter. A lot of time is spent on the Endangered Species Act because it is one of the rare environmental protections with sharp teeth. From there he moves on to where even more broad-based rights of nature have been recognized. Going to New Zealand where rather than return disputed territory to the Maori, the government adopted the Maori view of the land owning itself, belonging to itself, protected by appointed guardians. This is exciting in advancing the idea that land has rights, but there is a cynical element in me who saw the eager embrace of giving the land to itself instead of to the Maori as a way of evading reparations for atrocities committed against them.
In Ecuador and Bolivia, great aspirational Constitutional protections have been written into law. There is a gap between aspiration and reality as wide as the socio-economic needs of these impoverished countries. This runs us against the common expecation of environmentalists, to save the planet on the backs of developing countries, asking them to develop less, to be poorer, to go without because we have wasted so much.
Reading this seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency* is almost hallucinatory. Hurricane Harvey is devastating the Texas coastline the same week President* Trump rescinded guidelines for construction to mitigate flood damage. They announced they are not going to get rid of national parks and preserves, just make them smaller and allow resource extraction. This president who did not even win a plurality of the vote is prepared to end this planet with his ignorance. So yes, I am eager for good news.
It is exciting that there is growing acceptance and enthusiasm behind the idea of Nature itself having rights, that a river has a right to not be destroyed. I am all for saving the planet. I don’t have children, but I have nieces and nephews and they have children and I want them to have a safe, healthy environment in a world not torn apart by resource wars. On the other hand, I am not comfortable with criticism of developing countries who seek to bring their people out of entrenched poverty when we all know they are not the reason climate is changing.
We cannot be absolutist. The northern hemisphere needs to clean up its act and not expect the southern hemisphere to save us by accepting poverty. Perhaps because most of the efforts to protect the environment are being led in the southern hemisphere, the difference between action and rhetoric (and law) is more pronounced, but I would really like to see less criticism of Correa and Morales for doing less than they aspire and more for the EU, Canada, and the US for not even aspriing to do very much at all.
The Rights of Nature will be published September 5th. I received an advance e-galley for review from ECW Press through Edelweiss.