In parallel with the recently concluded climate talks in Paris, I was fortunate to take part in several initiatives to raise awareness of the fundamental flaws in our legal and economic systems. These flaws are the driving force behind climate change, species extinctions, drying waterways and other, serious threats to the integrity of natural systems.
Put briefly, our legal and economic systems drive nature’s destruction by treating it merely as property to be exploited and degraded, rather than as an integral ecological partner with its own rights to exist and thrive. Even our best attempts at addressing global environmental harms place nature within the context of incessant economic growth, undermining nature’s protection.
For example, the new U.N. climate change agreement uses the terms “economy” or “economic” 26 times, yet it only mentions Earth once, and Nature not at all.[i] The agreement’s focus unfortunately is not on creating law and economic systems that benefit the Earth. Its focus is on contorting the law to benefit the same economic system that is destroying the Earth. This mythology pretends the natural world is a dead resource, merely an element of commerce and trade. It seems strange that we must say this, but we cannot live on a dead world. Moreover, we are not human on a degraded world; we are less than human. We must reject such an impoverished future.
To call attention to this defective and injurious worldview, Earth Law Center released a new report in Paris demonstrating how our legal and economic systems increasingly violate basic human rights as well as nature’s own, inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. This report, Fighting for Our Shared Future: Protecting Both Human Rights and Nature’s Rights, details 100 examples of such “co-violations” of fundamental rights around the world and offers recommendations for change.[ii] Recommendations include recognition in law of the inherent rights of nature (as has been done in several countries and numerous U.S. cities and towns),[iii] immediate protection of the most vulnerable human and nature’s rights defenders (many of whom have been killed for their work),[iv] and implementation of economic alternatives, from new progress indicators to an overarching shift to ecological economics.[v]
Also in Paris, Earth Law Center acted as co-organizer of, and Co-Prosecutor for, the third International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature.[vi] This citizen-created Tribunal provided people a voice to testify publicly as to the destruction of the Earth – destruction that governments and corporations not only allow, but in some cases encourage. The Tribunal featured internationally renowned lawyers and leaders for Earth justice, who heard cases addressing issues such as climate change, GMOs, fracking, extractive industries, and other sources of nature’s rights violations.[vii] The Tribunal offered judgments and recommendations for the Earth’s protection and restoration based on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
We hear often that we need “system change, not climate change.” Real system change requires uprooting the real problem: legal and economic systems that treat nature as property, not partner. Energy sources, food systems, or a climate convention grounded in our destructive economic system violate human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the rights of nature. These are fundamental rights, and they cannot be balanced against claimed rights of fictitious entities.
It is our responsibility to develop and establish solutions consistent with such fundamental rights. We must call for actions and laws that recognize the rights of the Earth and by extension, the rights of all her creatures, including but not limited to humans. This will require us to re-imagine economic systems that incorporate and respect nature’s rights, such as ecological (Earth-based) economics and Earth-centered indicators of well-being. Awareness of such legal and economic alternatives is rising, and 2016 will provide key opportunities to advance them further.
[i] U.N. Conference of the Parties, 21st Session, “Adoption of the Paris Agreement,” FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (12 Dec. 2015); available at: www.unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf.
[iv] As described in ELC’s report and elsewhere, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has found that “rights defenders are “increasingly branded ‘enemies of the state’ over development projects.” See: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13912&LangID=E.
[v] For example, Article 3(2)(l) of the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, adopted by representatives of 140 countries in Bolivia, recognizes that we must “promote economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth and in accordance with the rights recognized in this Declaration.” Available at: http://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/.
[vii] The detailed Tribunal agenda and speaker list can be found here: http://bit.ly/1OngYhB, and a summary of the cases and results can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/1mcSCRz. A complete video of the Tribunal will be posted shortly at www.earthlawcenter.org.