After reading a recent article about a law set to pass in Bolivia granting legal rights and recognition to natural systems, the main question I asked myself was should natural ecosystems like coral reefs have legal rights? Is this another motivation from the patchouli-wearing, granola eating treehugger movement to thwart the white-collar, anything-for-a-buck, industrialists looking to add jobs and income to the local economy? Either way you may feel about this topic, human beings have not had a positive track record on looking out for the longterm health and wellness of ecosystems in the past.
Bolivia itself is in the midst of an environmental upheaval with melting glaciers that supply fresh water to much of the country dwindling creating barren stretches of land threatening the survival of the country and its people. Coupled with the influence of nature-embracing Andean spiritual traditions and global climate change it makes sense to see legislation like this start there. Along the same note, the United Nations is beginning to look at a proposed treaty based on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, drafted by environmentalists last year.
A quick stroll through history will see the shift from hunter and gatherer mentality where natural systems were there for mankind. We took what we needed to survive and that was it. Much later down the line industrialization and capitalism crept in and changed the way we may have perceived things. Natural systems were merely “things” that were here for our own use, nothing more. Thoughts like environmentalism and biodiversity were academic banter with no bearing on the bottom line.
While a law such as this is set to pass in the South American country, it is intriguing to see so much argument against natural conservation in more developed nations at the sake of government involvement in the free market. The industrial revolution took its toll on natural ecosystems and it wasn’t until government regulations that the industry itself began to clean up after itself. In a perfect world, industrial processes would take into account the impact on the local environment in the long and short term and take action to prevent pollution and destruction of natural resources.
Giving rights to natural systems may not be saying cutting down a tree is equivalent to murder but it is touching on the notion that humans had inalienable rights to destroy communal entities like streams, forests, and even coral reefs. Proposals like this one would allow people to claim guardianship of threatened natural resources, along the lines of how a family or friend may look after someone who is unable to legally represent their own interests.
As University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone noted in his 1972 article titled “Should Trees Have Standing?” that appeared in Southern California Law Review, there are established legal traditions recognized many non-human entities, from corporations to ships, as full-fledged people for legal purposes, so why not natural systems?
“Each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable,” wrote Stone. “This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of us.”
Are we taking environmentalism too far? Can we trust humanity to do the best thing when it comes to looking out for the environment? This leaves the question open though, should natural ecosystems like coral reefs have legal rights?