It’s wrongheaded to protect nature with human-style rights


EXCERPT (Anna Grear, Cardiff University): How can the law account for the value of complex, nonhuman entities such as rivers, lakes, forests and ecosystems? [...] Some theorists argue that there’s a clear historical precedent for what we should do, arising from the struggle for universal human rights. ... Perhaps we should take the idea of ‘the human’ as a rights-bearer and extend it to the complex, nonhuman systems that we wish to protect, that we know are deserving of care and concern.

Tempting as it is, this move must be resisted. For one thing, human rights have proven to be exclusionary – even within our own species. Its emergence as a set of legal and moral norms betrays the fact that the white, European, male property-owner is the paradigm case of ‘the human’: others, historically, have had to fight even to be seen as fully capable of bearing rights. [...] In theory, human rights are for all humans, but it turns out that some people are more human than others.

Yet maybe there’s something to be salvaged from rights discourse all the same – if we can find a way to deploy the idea of ‘rights’ while decentring ‘the human’. [...] Certain dangers lurk in using human rights to capture the interests of the nonhuman. First, its language and conceptual framing risk blunting attention to the distinctiveness and particularities of such dynamic beings. We risk only having respect for things insofar as they resemble human experience and characteristics. ... Secondly, and just as important, is the related danger of diminishing our awareness of the human itself as a variegated mode of being in the world. This danger is already starkly present in the advent of corporate human rights, a development that has distorted the entire international human rights paradigm.

So, if we resist the idea of ‘human rights’ for nonhumans, and we carefully distinguish between ‘humanity’ and legal personhood, what is left standing? There are already ways of thinking about rights that are sensitive to various beings and systems. In a seminal paper from 1972(PDF), the legal scholar Christopher Stone [...wondered....] if the law might award ‘river rights’ to rivers, tree rights to trees, or ecosystem rights to ecosystems. Yet I think it’s important to move beyond Stone’s suggestion, and inch closer to acknowledging the complexity and liveliness of the nonhuman by admitting the porousness of our own boundaries... In the predatory global order of the 21st century, it seems better not to deploy human rights as a blanket of protection for nonhuman animals and other beings and systems – precisely because such varied partners in the dance of life deserve their own types of entitlement.... (MORE - details)
Rights and responsibilities are a dichotomy. Nature cannot have rights because it has no responsibility. Humans have rights because they are moral agents, and the only nature that is protected is what humans deem they are responsible for. Inherent human responsibility protects nature, but nature itself has no such inherent mechanism to protect itself or others.

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