T16 – Do Trees Have Rights?

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T16 intro video – audio transcript.

The idea of human rights supports action on climate change

I did my PhD in environmental law, many years ago.  I was much taken with an article by the aptly named Professor Stone about the rights of trees.  Reflecting the need to give the environment the chance to sue for the damage we did to it, Professor Stone gave his article the title ‘Do trees have standing’.    His ideas have been hugely influential in law and a book he worked up from the article is now in its third edition.

The plug for the book on the web site makes this pitch, a neat summary of much of what Professor Stone has to say:

‘This enduring work continues to serve as the definitive statement as to why trees, oceans, animals, and the environment as a whole should be bestowed with legal rights, so that the voiceless elements in nature are protected for future generations.’

Why not?

Much of this project is about defending the defenceless.  Why stop at humans?  My guest contributor this week Alasdair Cochrane makes the cases for a limited range of animal rights.

But why stop at animals?  The environment that we use and abuse is surely even more defenceless than the animals we needlessly destroy and act cruelly towards for fun or through simple neglect.

Well possibly I hear you say – but what has this to do with human rights?  A very great deal I’d say.  But first we must face a criticism and deal directly with it.

Are Not Human Rights The Enemy Of The Environment?

The subject of human rights is, as it declares for all to see, a field that is concerned not only with humans but also with the rights that flow from being human.

Rather than from being anything else.

Indeed the subject of human rights is so focused on the singular human that it has historically had a great deal of trouble even with the fact of there being more than one human around: I talk about this a bit more in a forthcoming track on libertarianism.  But even today our discussion is invariably about the self-fulfilment of the individual, his or her ability to set goals for leading a full life and then being free to go on to achieve those targets:  track three and also four as well as books like James Griffin’s On Human Rights

  • The debate  is about what are the necessary building blocks of such a successful life; it is not about what that life can or ought to do to make the world around it a better place, even for others to live in, much less simply for the planet’s sake.
  • The right to property, to the ownership and free use of non-human things, has often stood in the way of proper regulation in the public (environmental) interest.  And as we saw in track eight the right to property has had a destructive impact on rights discourse generally, so this disregard of the environment is yet something else we must now add to our critique of it
  • International law has been far more interested in the rights of peoples (see for example article1 of both of the 1966 covenants ) and in the right of peoples to develop economically than it has ever been in the impact of such rights (and such untrammelled exploitation) on the world around us. (I deal with this issue of the right of peoples directly in a later track.)

It is clear, therefore, that – to put it mildly – human rights have baggage so far as the natural environment is concerned.

In saying this though, we should not forget one of the key strengths of this language: its open texture and flexibility, the capacity it has to adapt to new circumstances. Human rights would have been long forgotten if they had ever stood still long enough to have had their meaning fixed for all time.

Help At Hand

The environmentalists have not allowed any doubts they might have about human rights to stop them deploying the term in the pursuit of their goals.

The link was first made as long ago as 1972, at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment This was in the first phase of the environmental movement, which was largely dissipated by the economic recession that began in 1973 and continued through much of the 1970s.  It was not until the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that a framework for environmental and human rights emerged, in the form of the Rio Declaration and in the Agenda 21 Plan of Action.

Buoyed by this new interest, in 1994 the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment released an important account of the relationship between human rights and the environment, making the link between human rights abuses and environmental damage more explicitly than had ever previously been done at an official level.

The major breakthrough was not at the UN but in the world of civil society.

This was the publication of Our Environment Our Rights, by Friends of the Earth International in 2004.  This report shows us a way of ‘doing human rights’ that works from an environmental point of view.

  • The authors cleverly link the delivery of human rights to environmental protection: it is ‘access to … unspoiled natural resources that enable survival, including land, shelter, food, water and air’ – our human rights in other words. As the report says, ‘Environmental rights are human rights, as people’s livelihoods, their health, and sometimes their very existence depend upon the quality of and their access to the surrounding environment as well as the recognition of their rights to information, participation, security and redress.’
  • The report is clear that ‘Environmental rights go hand-in-hand with civil and political rights.’  Access to courts, the ability to protest, and the capacity to obtain information are all central features of the struggle to achieve better environmental protection.
  • In a way that echoes earlier tracks of this project, the Friends of the Earth document shows that environmental activists see human rights as fluid and (in a good way) volatile and unstable.  Thus having rehearsed the litany of standard rights, the report continues, ‘We also believe in the right to claim reparations for violated rights, including rights for climate refugees and others displaced by environmental destruction, the right to claim ecological debt, and the right to environmental justice.’

Taking this lead from the environmentalists, human rights activists can see immediately that they share much in common with them: a desire to make the world a better place; a mistrust of capitalism as the means of achieving this; an energetic commitment to achieving change and not just talking about it; and a deep feeling of compassion and empathy towards the defenceless.

Sure, human rights remains focused on the human but it is a human not just embedded in society but also in the world around him or her.  And the environmentalists’ use of the language of rights has helped them to stop seeing humanity as such as a ‘problem’ and humankind as some kind of enemy that needs to be defeated.

Today far more unites environmentalist and human rights activists than divides them.

Making The Partnership Work

There is a lot that we in the human rights arena can do.

  • Strengthen the human rights tools (civil and political rights) that the environmental activist needs to allow his or her message to be communicated.  A great deal remains to be done here: track two.  (And see also an article I have written on this where the precise point about the limitations of our rights law in relation to environmental protest is discussed in much more detail.)
  • Build on the UN initiatives I have already mentioned to work towards the achievement of an international right to environmental protection.  The momentum of past years needs to be rediscovered.  There are already mentions of the need for environmental quality in some rights’ charters (article 24 of the African Charter for example) but much more can be done.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides us with some good precedents to work on.
  • Extend the hand of friendship and solidarity to those social movements who are expressing their resistance to the destruction of their environment in human rights terms. The Zapatistas in Mexico for example have long articulated the claims of their people (the indigenous people of Chiapas) in rights’ terms.  Their declarations have spoken of the ‘inalienable right’ of the people ‘to alter or modify their form of government’ and their actions have been justified on account of the ‘impossibility of struggling peacefully for our elemental rights as human beings’.  The World Social Forum is a useful resource in this regard.

And Most Important Of All

  • Be vigilant that proposed solutions to environmental challenges do not disproportionately damage the interests of the poor and the vulnerable.  The rich world must not ransom off the less affluent as a price they have decided to pay for continuing to over-exploit the world’s resources.  It will not be the rick North but the Maldives that disappears, the Bangladeshi millions who will find their homes inundated, and the Inuit whose habitats will be destroyed.

It is the human rights people who must be the guardians of climate justice.

The human rights approach insists on equality and respect for individual dignity.  This demand to have regard to human rights has the effect of forcing all decision-makers to look outside their own circle, to see the human as well as the global consequences of their actions.  It is an essential ethical component of a proper response to climate change:  the International Council on Human Rights is already on to this.

Returning The Favour

And what can environmentalist offer human rights in return?

Well maybe something of vital importance …

They can help in the search for foundations that has preoccupied us in many of the tracks on this project, especially three and four

  • Why are we all equal?
  • What is wrong with favouring one over the other?
  • Where does our morality come from, if not from God and His representatives on earth?
  • What is so wrong about abusing power if you are lucky enough to have it?

Human rights thinkers are far from being able to answer these questions effectively, but thinking hard about the embedded nature of humans in the world around them at least points the enquiry in the right direction.  It is only through reflecting upon our species as a part of the natural world that we can come to a renewed sense of the wonder of our existence and the beauty (as well as the immense productivity) of our seemingly innate propensity to think about others as well as solely about ourselves and our kin.

And if we can expand our horizons to include an imaginative  leap beyond the living into the realm of the billions of as yet unborn (indeed not-yet-conceived) humans of the future, we will be able to see that here is a vast category of the powerless who demand our attention.  Our empathy with the other is one of our finest features and it is through the language of human rights that it finds a highly effective because universal form of contemporary expression.  But its innateness does not mean that its manifestation cannot be greatly reduced by the social situation in which it finds itself.

The survival of our species without the loss of our precarious commitment to goodness is surely enough of a foundation for human rights today.

And Back To Trees

And we should not forget that theory without practice is words without deeds, a hobby not a vocation.

There is a great deal we can do to rethink our legal framework to make it more sympathetic to the environment.  Here are some thoughts and a few final questions.

  • Trees and other natural objects should certainly have standing to sue – through representatives of course, but then that is what lawyers are for. If I am injured I sue for all that I am worth; if a river is polluted to destruction, there might or might not be a fine. What there should be is an insistence on damages that meet the gravity of the harm done. Can there be any downside to this?
  • The idea of trusteeship is already in our law – we should adapt it to the environment, create new obligations to pass the world on as we have found it, backed by proper enforcement.  My colleague Phillipe Sands has written about this in his book on environmental law – a Trustee Council whose job it is to protect the globe from the selfish depredations of the nation states.  But could this be achieved?
  • And how about a bill of rights for nature?  Look at what the Ecuadorians have done in 2008 and learn from it. What would such a bill of rights look like?  Should it be national, regional or truly international?
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19 Responses to T16 – Do Trees Have Rights?

  1. Lily Megaw says:

    A bill of rights for nature?

    It would have to be truly international because the violations of ‘nature’s rights’ have global implications. For example, look at how the pollution of the industrialized world reaches the environment of the Inuit (toxins accumulate in terrestrial and aquatic environments after being carried long distances through air, water and migratory species).

    I understand rights as constructed in response to adversity through social movements, as a tool for the defenceless to protect against abuses of power. I think it would be plausible to construct international rights for nature, since the environment is abused by practices such as pollution and deforestation and must be protected from this abuse, just as humans are abused and claim their rights for redress and protection.

    However, humans are fundamentally self-interested and it would be more effective to construct rights for nature in terms of how humans are affected by these violations – there would be greater respect if trees’ rights were instead framed in terms of human rights. Elements of nature’s rights can be framed as a human right to a clean environment, for example. In the case of the Inuit, violations of nature’s rights through pollution can be framed as violations to the human rights of the Inuit since pollution contaminates the whale meat relied on for nutrition and spiritual practices.

    Another thing that crosses my mind is that the broader rights are, perhaps the weaker they become – would rights for trees/nature damage people’s regard for international human rights? If human rights are about protecting the defenceless, however, there should be no limits.

  2. Do trees have rights? Well, it is clear that they have interests, in the way that Alasdair wrote about for animals. In the PR war regarding these matters, I think it is much easier to get people to the point of seeing the issue through the lens of animals rights, in a non-instrumental fashion, than it is for trees and the non-sentient environment more generally.

    It seems to me that because animals are sufficiently “like us”, it is much easier for the popular imagination to make the transition to – as it were – treating them as ends only, rather than means; seeing their value in and of themselves, rather than always in relation to “us gods”. I think making a similar transition in relation to the environment more generally is very much more difficult, unlikely – and also philosophically fraught.

    Our global environmental system is interdependent, all the bits of it depend on other bits – and not always in ways which are “nice”. But how is this kind of interdependency related to both instrumentalism, and to the kind of positing of interests by us on the part of the environment and its constituent parts (in order to give it/them rights)? We want to protect the environment because it keeps us going, it sustains the preconditions that are needed for humans to be able to flourish and have rights recognised etc. But this is not about the environment, it is about us. And this leads us then back to very deep philosophical waters about the value of anything aside from how we value it. As I say, fraught!

  3. Paul Bernal says:

    Another truly immense subject. For now, I have two thoughts/questions/ways of looking at it.

    Firstly, isn’t one of the ways of looking at it to consider that one of the most fundamental of rights for humanity the right to have a decent planet to live on?

    Secondly, conversely, and rather ‘off the wall’, borrowing loosely from Lovelock’s Gaia theory, can it be argued that Earth itself has ‘rights’? A right to ‘life’ and a right not to be tortured spring immediately to mind, given some of the more extreme kinds of environmental damage being done.

    • Christina says:

      Yesss. Yes. We DO have the right to have a decent planet to live in, and it will repay us if we treat it with respect.
      Lovelock’s Gaia theory is almost Budhist (?) inthat the earth wants to breathe and regulate its body, much as we need to exercise and eat sensibly, He sees it as a living breathing organism, throw out the balance and like bacteria, or virus, chaos is the result.
      Two sideways points. Lovelock believes we’re too late, too much damage has been done.
      Conor suddenly god seems to be introduced?! Can’t we leave her/him out of it? Its a better responsibility, but if we must, perhaps Gaia is our god!

      (and that’s not all I’ve got to say!)

  4. Paul Bernal says:

    One more thing – at a symposium at UCL last year, Henry Shue presented a piece about climate change and human rights, called ‘Human Rights, Climate Change, and the Trillionth Ton’. It was pretty strong stuff, well worth listening to: this is from his introduction:

    “The desultory, almost leisurely approach of most of the world’s national states to climate change reflects no detectable sense of urgency. My question is what, if anything, is wrong with this persistent lack of urgency. My answer is that everything is wrong with it and, in particular, that it constitutes a violation of basic rights as well as a failure to seize a golden opportunity to protect rights.”

    The whole thing is available on the net, at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-rights/events/ShueHR.pdf

    There’s some significant overlap between what Shue said and what Conor’s said above – particularly in terms of the way that climate change has a vastly disproportionate effect on those who are already poor and effectively powerless in our modern capitalist world. I won’t repeat them here, but it’s well worth reading – and shows, amongst other things, that this IS an area of interest to many people who would call themselves human rights advocates.

  5. Richard Buck says:

    Drawing on Dr. Cochrane’s discussion of interests being the foundation of rights in Track 15, I am willing to draw the line roughly between animals and all other forms of being. Non-animals clearly have no interests because they have no senses capable of perceiving harm to their survival or flourishing. That is not to say that they cannot react to threats to their survival by automatic mechanisms. Some animals would likewise not have this capability, such as amoeba and other single-celled animals. Animals with nervous systems of sorts and some central processing of sense data bring us to the category of animals with interests: sentient or conscious beings. Peter Singer notes that such beings have an interest in not suffering pain. They may not have a right to life, but they have the right not to suffer pain when being put to death. Singer goes on to point out that animals that have an expectation of a future have an interest in not being deprived of that future: they have a right to life– that is, self-conscious animals. It may be true that only humans fall into this category, although some would argue that other primates and cetaceans do so as well, and some mentally-deficient humans do not. Therefore, I have difficulty in assigning interests to inanimate matter and plant life. Their protection, it seems to me, must be a function of their service to sentient beings.

    Long range protection of the environment requires justification based on human interests; that is, the interests of self-conscious animals that have an expectation of a future. To meaningfully address sustainable development and long-range environmental protection, we need to take the further step suggested by Conor of addressing the rights of future humans. One way of extrapolating the rights of today’s humans into the future is to consider that each generation has an interest in the future of the next generation ad infinitum. Any human action affecting the environment should take into consideration the effect many generations out. Therefore, long-range protection of the environment and sustainable development are human rights.

  6. Fatima Ahdash says:

    One way to look at it would be to see vulnerable humans and nature (i.e. animals and trees) as both being the victims of the current socio-economic system. So here I would agree with eco-socialists such as Rudloph Bahro who argued that the cause of the destruction of the environment was capitalism ( I would qualify that and say unregulated or US-style capitalism.) Here the poor and the enviornment share a common enemy as it were that infringes thier rights, and so the anthropocentric (in Arne Naess’s words) distinction between human rights and animal rights or environmental rights becomes less necessary i think.

  7. Alex says:

    I’m afraid that the idea of nature being afforded rights of a similar style to those we all expect as humans is not something I could ever quite make add up. It seems to be a vast over-extension of the human-rights cause; a rather odd step to be taking if addressing the core issue of ensuring that every man, woman and child on the planet is bestowed with a basic set of rights to dignity and equality hasn’t yet been addressed. I will set that aside for now though, but it will crop up again in my concluding comments.

    Environmental protections are key to ensuring the future generations have a chance to progress rather than regress, something which I agree is of vital importance. I think that attempting to give rights to future generations of an environment not left in a catastrophic state is a nice idea, but I honestly can’t see it receiving global uptake, which is more or less a necessary pre-condition to it being anywhere near successful enough to make any sort of difference. The only act which will solve the environmental crisis is finding sources of clean energy, making them more affordable to developing nations and removing the profit-incentive from exploiting the earth’s resources to exhaustion. To my mind a better invest of our time therefore would be ensuring that every human on this planet has a right to a decent life, livelihood and education so we can increase our chances of finding a long term solution rather than imposing a short term restriction on our actions. Restriction isn’t in our nature, and laws will do very little to change that, instead we should be working to our strengths rather than attempting to inhibit our flaws.

    • Richard Buck says:

      Alex, I grant that there is a risk of diluting our human rights efforts by casting our net too widely. There are plenty human rights abuses here and now against which can expend our time and energy. However, the need to deliver grain now to starving people should not deter us from promoting farming practices that will prevent famine in the future. You can bring relief to flood victims, but you can also move people out of the floodplain. How much of your precious resources of time and energy do you allocate to each activity? The human rights movement is in the same predicament. We can campaign for the release of those imprisoned for speaking out, but we can also work to replace repressive regimes. Getting a journalist out of jail tomorrow brings immediate gratification. Promoting sustainable development will over time result in the emergence of a middle class of small farmers and small business owners who will gain power and replace the repressive regime someday. In the first case we have helped one person. In the second we have help a whole nation out of repression. We may not live long each to receive gratification from the second strategy, but I would much rather put most of my resources there. Reacting to crises has never been my favorite activity. I would much rather work to get at the root causes of an emerging problem and avoid the crisis.

      Working for human dignity has to have a longer term perspective than reacting to current abuses. We still have to devote resources to those abuses. As humans, we need some short-term gratification, or we would become completely demoralized. Thinking about multiple generations into the future is probably beyond us. Look at how difficult it is to take the hard measures needed to deal with global warming. However, often the rewards for long term investments come pretty fast. I swim in a bay every day that was too polluted for swimming 10 years ago. The sewage treatment plant that eventually eliminated the pollution was built 20 years ago. Twenty years is not too long to wait for a return on an investment. Retirement planners tell us that all the time.

      I guess what I am saying is that time perspective on human rights has to start with now and at least extend through the lifetimes of the next two generations.

      • Alex says:

        I’m not suggesting that the correct response is to become reactive, but merely that we think long term in a different manner. I think that we should focus on the human issues and leave the environmental issues to the environmentalists who better understand the problems.

        • Richard Buck says:

          Alex, I do not disagree with that. Our focus should be human rights. For me it is more of a questions of allocating our energy. Personally, I would like to focus on long-term improvements in governments and economies that will create fertile ground for the flowering of human rights. Having said that, I recognize the difficulty in making the fundamental changes that are needed. China is the example. China is responsible for many human rights abuses that we can complain about and attempt to rectify. We should continue to do that. Our ability to affect long-term changes in China’s government and economy is questionable. Yet, optimist that I am, I believe that China’s involvement in world trade will eventually force changes in the worst features of their system. So, do we boycott China because it abuses rights, or do we trade and take incremental steps to encourage them to change in a fundamental way? Probably you have to do some of both. But whatever we do, I am convinced that we should not isolate China. We should continue to trade, but work on those factories that abuse rights–using sanctions here and there; rather than isolating the entire country.

  8. Once again I find myself agreeing with Anthony; I can’t help but feel that human attempts to give the environment rights are entirely self-serving. We are less interested in protecting the environment for its sake than for our own sake. While these reasons conveniently have the same goal, it would be dishonest of us to say we have the environment’s best interests at heart. We would also have to face the situation where the ‘rights’ of different aspects of the environment conflicted. What, for instance, are the rights of an algae bloom that restricts the ability for fish to survive in the water below? While the algae bloom may be the result of pollution, if we are to give plants rights then surely it would not be deprived of them due to the circumstances of its creation?

    If the concept of environmental rights will help us to preserve out habitats, then it can only be a good thing, but we need to be entirely honest about ourselves as to why we are doing it. If a cob of corn has rights, I find it hard to believe that those rights would ever trump those of a hungry human.

  9. Alan D.P. Brady says:

    I think that Conor’s illuminating analysis shows us that environmental protection and human rights protection have a great deal to learn from one another and in many ways they can exist side by side. I do have my reservations about a legally enforceable right for a tree, however delightful the tree might be, but I’ll return to that in a minute.

    The use of human rights language by environmentalists and the move towards the idea of a human right to a sustainable/clean/unspoiled environment is an interesting case study in the collective expression of rights. Human rights language and debate often struggles to break free of an atomised view of humanity. This is inevitable, since much of the thrust of human rights is about protecting the vulnerable individual from powerful organisations, be they state bodies or private entities. However, this focus on the solely individualised right is only part of the picture and must be understood as such. We value these human rights because we want all individuals to have access to them. So, for example, a right to vote is utterly meaningless if the only person who exercises it is the guy in the military uniform in the big palace in the middle of the capital city with all the armed guards and statutes of himself. The rights attach to the individual’s worth, but they are useful because they are available to all. It can seem easy to criticise a human right to a sustainable environment as being meaningless because there’s no one person to enforce it, but I think this is a false perception. Lawyer’s notions of justiciability and standing are useful in human rights protection, but they are not immutable and need not undermine the project of human rights.

    What I think the environmental movement has learned from human rights is a way of campaigning and a mode of argument which links their morality to the needs of individual humans. This is necessary since politics, law and society are all fundamentally human enterprises, and so human enthusiasm is required for change. By couching their arguments in human rights terms, they have been quite successful, as Conor documents.

    The core morality underlying human rights and environmentalism undoubtedly shares some common features as Conor notes. However, there are some core differences too. I once attended a lecture by a hardline environmentalist who advocates suicide, abortion and sterilisation as the answer to the planet’s problems. This active encouraging of the ending of human lives to serve an environmental purpose is entirely at odds with our Kantian human rights perspective. However, while it is certainly extreme, it is not necessarily at odds with the core morality of environmentalism, which is to prioritise the preservation of the eco-system, with humanity being merely one part of that system. I am not suggesting that most, or even many, environmentalists take this extreme approach, but there is undoubtedly a strand in environmentalism that wants humans to stop engaging in many activities which have, over time, greatly enhanced human flourishing. I’m not expressing a view on the legitimacy of those claims, merely highlighting their existence.

    Ultimately, differences of moral approach need not necessarily hinder a positive partnership between human rights types and environmentalist types. Even within human rights, there are differences of outlook and conflicts of morality. The two groups can work in coalition towards shared goals quite easily and the use of human rights language by environmentalists shows that. Pragmatism is far more useful in achieving political outcomes than much of our core morality might let us believe.

    Which brings me back to rights for trees. What environmentalists are seeking is political and legal change. All of the mechanisms within which human society arranges itself are directed to and exercised by humans. To give trees, animals or anything else that is non-human rights within that system means that those rights will have to be exercised on the tree’s behalf by a human. Ultimately we end up with a human speaking for a tree, without ever being able to speak to a tree. Therefore, a directly analogous legal right for a tree is just a right for an environmental campaigning human.

    This is not to say that trees cannot have moral rights or that legal mechanisms cannot be used effectively to protect those moral rights. Ideas like trusteeship seem very attractive. On a more old-fashioned note, I think that comprehensive environmental protection legislation with strong enforcement bodies is one of the best contributions that can be made to trees’ moral rights at the domestic level. Whatever approach is taken, it is human beings who will have to do the spade work.

  10. Favio Farinella says:

    The rights of animals may be considered part of a due environmental protection. We -as human beings- have traditionally taken profit of both in order to satisfy not only our needs but our selfish nature, that feeling of superiority over any creation. Hunting for pleasure or gaming are classic examples. I think of three perspectives: ethics, law and politics.

    From a ethical perspective there is no doubt about the justice of recognizing the basic right to exist to every non human being. Here the opposition between the ethic of rights and human actions and institutions is exposed. If the individual has traditionally damaged the environment, punishment is not the most effective solution. A change in human habits is needed, and this will only be possible by a previous change in ethics. And if an ethic based on environmental considerations shall be, a change of rationalities must take place.
    Our instrumental capitalist rationality aimed at immediate profit shall be replaced by an environmental rationality based on values, emotions and culture which points at limiting progress for the sake of inter and trans- generational solidarity.

    From a legal approach, we assert that the human being (or a group or a class) shall be entitled to represent both animals and the environment whenever they are menaced. At this point, we should consider the objections that may be raised against this solution, not to deny it but to be ready to answer when detractors start trying to stop us. I find two main objections.
    The first is related to procedural difficulties. The list would include (a) the capacity in which animals/environment is going to be represented (Should the plaintiff be the owner, anyone with an specific legal interest; any group from civil society?); (b) with respect to the judicial award, do we think of retribution or compensation for the damage?, a civil suit or a criminal prosecution?; (c) in relation to the jurisdiction concerned, will it be domestic or international?; and the like.
    The second objection is substantial. It is related to the foundations for worrying about animals/environment in societies which have not yet reached a minimum of effectiveness for the rights of their own human members. Inside these communities, how far the rights of animals and the environment could be guaranteed when human priorities are absolutely unattended and while humans go on enslaving, torturing or perpetrating genocide against other human fellows?. If environmental education is the key factor, we need to be prepared to wait for a long time until their results change undesired realities.

    From a policy approach, big powers and the UN must take the initiative. They are the only capable of leading an effective new environmental rationality. They design the economic policies to which the rest of states are then compelled to adapt, their governments have the means to control transnational corporations which make business around the world, many times taking profit of the social and environmental dumping that exists in host states. The UN should propose more creative ways of managing a sustainable development for those agricultural economies that live out of one or few crops and therefore are obliged to exhaust their lands.

    Finally and in relation to the last tracks, Business and Religion are inextricably intertwined with the environment. The sense that everything in the creation is unlimitedly at our disposal is present in both. It is time to reconcile this perennial feeling with another, more human that is based on solidarity and the right to live in a sound environment: a change to an environmental rationality which convinces us to treat life in a different way.

    Trees have the rights we are convinced we must exercise in their benefit.

  11. Craig Valters says:

    I think the debate between Richard and Alex is interesting. I can’t help but think somewhere in the middle of the two positions is right. No doubt, we need to look to long-term sustainable solutions to climate change. Environmentalists, who do not necessarily view this issue in ‘human rights’ terms, can play a role independent of human rights discourse. There’s no contradiction here, just good arguments looking to effect positive change. Looking at it from a human rights perspective also gives it a powerful universal and contemporary appeal.

    But let’s not kid ourselves: both sides of these arguments are simply instruments for the good! In the face of overwhelming evidence, most people now accept climate change is a catastrophic problem. From my perspective, its beneficial to come at this from all angles, challenging those in powerful positions to effect change, on any moral calculus you like – because there is a powerful element of science to this, a level of factual analysis which I really believe is crucial in underpinning all these attempts to effect genuine political change.

    Conor, you spoke previously of utilising (potentially innate) empathy to encourage change. No doubt forcing the imaginative leap into political discourse is crucial, such that the ‘future’ empathy becomes part and parcel of political decisions. But considering the horrendous potential impact of all this – and the diverse forms of life (humans, animals, nature) it will destroy – I think we need to throw every form of relevant argument in the mix. Strong scientific arguments (not something human rights discourse always has on its side) can inform any genuinely ethical approach to climate change.

    For those who are interested, an interesting interplay between the tracks on terrorism, corporations and this weeks track:


    And here, also: the future?

    http://www.postcardsfromthefuture.co.uk/ – I think campaigns like this go to show the diverse ways there are for influencing public opinion and thus political action on climate change.

  12. Christina says:

    Trees!!! I entered this as a discussion on Human Rights. Look to the language. You can’t change horses mid-stream. Just as universal sufferage means universal, not just some prisoners. Words are crucial. For me, clearly the whole issue of environmenta responsibility is just that: reaponsibility, not rights. Do we need lawyers to legislate us into living the (Platonic) good life? Do we need the government and the safety ‘elf to micro manage every aspect of our live or do we have reason and free will, and a human nature which at best is altruistic.
    NO, Conor, we do not need new laws. don’t tamper with the human rights act made law, or you dliute it and lose it. Remember Jack Straw was keen to change to a British, bill of rights and responsibilities, rather than a european wide law!!! If that’s the alternative! I’m with Tom Bingham, which of these rights would you give up?
    Responsibility is mine. Don’t tell me how to do it, drink responsibly, re-cycle, carbon footprint, etc, all a stick to beat people with. Much of the environmental damage, rain forest, delta pollution is down to global big business , arms manufacture: greed and profit, cutting corners on safety. They are global so local laws won’t help.
    YES, Conor , we did need those new laws. The Equality Bill made it possible for Fawcett to challenge the govt on the govt cuts, and the judge ruled that the govt, had failed to take acount. Don’t ask what happened next.
    A group of Asian women at Grunwich challenged equal pay in 68 and later, laws were passed, which still, 40 year on are not effective or implimented. Let’s first enforce the laws that we do have!
    Yes, you CAN challenge tha governement. Baroness Scotland challenge there was a case to answer over Guantanamo. Sonya/David Burgess, challenged Kenneth Baker,over immigration and went to the Europeana court to over turn the govt, and bring back the Sri Lankans. The destructive damn in Tasmania was halted by David Bellamy, and the activists and the media. When relevant use the law, but as a former contributer has said, until the women the children, the trafficked peoples, have their rights, speak to me not of trees.
    I have 3 points for consideration:
    1) we must assert Human rights. But are some rights more fundamental? Is there a hierarchy or can we all agree? In a war zone without food, water or medical attention, the right to vote, might seem less pressing.
    2) Use the laws that we have. Enforce them, make them media friendly, less of the dragon of Europe dictating how we live, which is what prisoners’ rights has become in both houses, they’re saying “Who runs this country?” a political football, not about rights at all!
    3)Julian Burnside QC has said “a govt, which talks “family values”, then locks innocent children behind razor wire…examine the true content of those words.”
    Look to the language and the media. How quickly was the scale of the Guantanomo compensation knocked off the headlines for a wedding. Even before the Mail could get in high indignation over millions paid to “terrorists”
    It seems we need Wikileaks to access us to the truth.
    Trees do not have RIGHTS, human or otherwise. We have RESPONSIBLITY to the planet we live on and the air we breathe. We need to hold global compnies accountable.

  13. Colin Harvey says:

    Is the clue to human rights in the title? The contribution that human rights can make is in both express recognition of the rights-based approach to climate justice (eg, in such things as bills of rights, see the recent example of the advice from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) as well as the rights-based conditions that make political struggles for climate justice possible. Humans share this world, but can human rights make a specific contribution through the recognition of environmental rights now, as well as our obligations to those human persons still to come. In this, should we acknowledge the limited contribution a discourse and practice of human rights can make and not permit it to colonize all the other values which exist, including appropriate ways of recognizing a shared and fragile world. In our capacity to cause and inflict enormous suffering and damage we humans merit a particular focus which is not necessarily tied to privileging us.

  14. Suzy Madigan says:

    If trees have rights does it become a crime to violate them? What kind of crime? If UN negotiations to define ‘terrorism’ via the Comprehensive Convention of International Terrorism were not deadlocked, we might have the agreement that:

    “1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:
    Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or the environment…”.

    After PC Mark Kennedy (“Mark Stone”) infiltrated an environmental protest movement using tactics and resources some might regard as more appropriate to thwarting a violent terrorist threat, twenty-six activists were charged for conspiring to break into the Radcliffe-on-Soar power station. Their defence? They aimed to prevent the greater harm of environmental damage. The jury was unpersuaded and they were convicted.

    But if the UN ever agrees that terrorism can be committed against the environment, will it be the power companies in the dock instead? Call me cynical, but somehow I just can’t envision it…


  15. Joe Hoover says:

    Hi, Conor. As ever, thanks for the provocative posts – I’ve been following along, even as I’ve not had time to contribute (or anything to say that wasn’t ably said by others).

    There’s a basic, but important, that you highlight, and which I would fully agree with. This is the fact climate change, and more broadly how we interact with the natural environment, has human rights implications. Draughts, floods, famines, the consequences of industrialized food production, pollution of the ground, water and air – all of these are serious harms that an adequate account of human rights must respond to.

    Regarding the more contentious issue of whether animals and nature have rights I’m in two minds about the extension of rights beyond human beings.

    First, we should be honest with ourselves, there is something deeply non-sensical in claiming that trees or pigs have rights. Clearly, at the very least non-human biological organisms or “natural” entities (how do you classify a river, for instance?) do not have rights in the way “we” human’s do – at best such talk provides a metaphorical device for thinking about important issues, which might be useful. From this point of view preserving the environment or treating animals well may be important ethical concerns, but they are not right’s holders, and to insist too strongly on this is to risk appearing ridiculous.

    I am, however, increasingly convinced that speaking of the rights of nature or animals may be valuable for rights-thinking generally. The cognitive dissonance of speaking of the human rights of animals, or of nature, reveals an absurdity that is internal to how we (often) think about rights.

    Speaking of animals or plants as having rights is ridiculous so far as we understanding rights as presuppositions that attach to descrete entities based on their essence, whether that is sentient carbon-based life capable of suffering or the autonomous rational agent. We participate in this way of thinking when we suggest that humans have rights because they have dignity, or some other trait – the logic of this then leads to the possibility of attaching rights to other entities, based on their essential traits, whether those entities are Kant’s rational but non-human beings or cows, trees and streams.

    I want to suggest, even though my claim isn’t adequately articulated/defended here, that the absurdity of the rights of animals or nature is the general absurdity of this way of thinking about rights. Talk of animal rights always leads to the question of whether incapable human beings have rights, as this intended to push us to acknowledge some trait other than the advanced cognitive capacity of human beings, and I increasingly think the callousness of this question should alert us to the absurdity of this approach to rights.

    The alternative I’d suggest, presented briefly, is that rights establish social relationships, which we hope are have the authority of ethical legitimacy and political power, whether though the law or other social forces that actualize our rights. Human rights have ambiguous aspirations, as the human rights project aims to both articulate universal justifications of particular forms of social relations, such that human rights legitimatize the authority of national-states (this is essentially Habermas’ argument, http://psc.sagepub.com/content/24/2-3), while they also universal relationships that connect all human beings to all other (Pogge’s cosmopolitanism account of human rights would be example of this). The process of understanding what these contrasting aspiration means, determining whether we find these claims ethically legitimate and making these rights practices politically effective is essentially what the work of human rights involves.

    This social account of rights is of course informed by our understanding of the social and physical environment in which we exist, and for this reason rights claims on behalf of animals and nature are useful. First, they highlight the embedded nature of our social relationships, such that our relationship/interaction with our environment effects us. This suggests that how we make use of nature (as resources, commodities, etc) is determined by social structures, and that our relationship to nature is part of our psychological (and perhaps spiritual) identity. To talk about the rights of nature brings these issues to light, opening up the relationships with our environment to scrutiny, to ethical evaluation and, hopefully, political transformation.

    The specific relations implied by human rights are important because they highlight (1) that all of us exist in a natural world, to be part of an environment is a universal condition – even if we are part of particular environment, and (2) it also allows us to more clearly understand, and hopefully respond more effectively, to environmental challenges that are truly global in scope, to mediate our universal relationships to a necessarily shared environment.

    I hope my somewhat abstract comments contribute something to understanding what it might mean to claim (human) rights for nature, and why doing so contributes to our understanding and acting to defend human rights.

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