Giving Legal Rights to Animals, Trees Is Essential to Tackling Climate Crisis, Says Report
“An example of a right might be evolutionary development, where a species and individual … is allowed to reach its full cognitive, emotional, social potential.”
The Law Society of England and Wales along with Jigsaw Foresight — a group that researches resource availability and life in the future — proposed in a new report that legal rights be bestowed to plants, animals, and non-living entities like rivers for meaningful coexistence in the planet. It fundamentally shifts the frame of survival from competition to cooperation.
The report, titled Law in the Emerging Bio Age, envisions the beginning of a “bio age” — where humans will make use of biotechnology to interact and engage more holistically with living systems around them — at the end of the current digital information age. Biotechnology encompasses all kinds of integration of life sciences with technology. Medicines to alter cell and tissue behaviour, genetically modified organisms, brewing beverages, bionic robots, are all biotechnological innovations. The report speculates that as we progress ahead in time, biotechnology will become even more ubiquitous in our lives.
Amid the climate crisis and ecological destruction wrought by humans, the report lays down a framework to ensure cooperation between humans and the rest of the world is not fraught with conflicts, abuses, and damage to the earth. Granting adequate legal rights and protection to plants, animals, and important life-vital common resources like rivers is one way to do this, the report argues. Dr. Trish O’Flynn, co-author on the report, offered an example of how legal rights for non-humans might look in the bio age to The Guardian, saying, “an example of a right might be evolutionary development, where a species and individual … is allowed to reach its full cognitive, emotional, social potential.”
In the bio age, such a legal framework would recalibrate relationships between humans and their living systems, ensuring that the is earth inhabitable for future generations, the argument goes. It has to do with the fact that an anthropocentric view of the world has led to its steady destruction; recognizing ourselves as part of our ecosystem could repair that.
“We sometimes see ourselves as outside nature, that nature is something that we can manipulate. But actually we are of nature, we are in nature, we are just another species. We happen to be at the top of the evolutionary tree in some ways, if you look at it in that linear kind of way, but actually the global ecosystem is much more powerful than we are,” Dr. O’Flynn said.
Dr. Wendy Shultz, one of the co-authors of the report, added: “There is a growing understanding that something very different has to be done if our children are going to have a planet to live on that is in any way pleasant, much less survivable, so this is an expanding trend.”
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The report bats for legal frameworks to protect not only living beings from a human perspective but even genetically modified organisms and engineered products. This would cover everything from labradors to lab-grown brain tissues to even robots. In the future, as technology and nature integrate in the bio age, protecting rivers and robots with legal rights would be equally important. The report further states that their framework would also cover pigs and cattle farmed for food and separated from their children, and even pets. It asks for ethical treatment towards all life — and beyond.
Although it is unique in integrating biotechnology into its approach for a legal framework for protecting living systems for the future, this report isn’t the first one to talk about laws protecting other stakeholders in nature. Legal protections for plants, animals, rivers, forests, and mountains, are an ongoing conversation occurring in different parts of the world for some time. One such approach, for instance, is designating shared cultural and natural resources as commons so that no one individual can have complete rights over them. Doing so transfers equal responsibility of protecting those resources to everyone in the community, ensuring that they are protected from depletion and destruction.
Moreover, several indigenous communities in the world identify mountains rivers, and forests as sacred beings, and have enacted special laws that recognize them as legal persons entitled to special protection by the law. Countries like Ecuador and Bolivia have enshrined legal rights for nature in their constitutions, while New Zealand, Bangladesh, and Colombia have granted legal personhood to rivers and forests. There are also attempts by activist groups to get the International Criminal Court to recognize Ecocide as a crime under international law.
While it is commendable that countries and communities are recognizing the rights of rivers and mountains, it is also imperative for these laws to have a sound legal framework guiding them. In India, for instance, the Uttarakhand High Court in 2017 recognized the rivers Ganga and Yamuna — sacred to Hindus — as living entities, citing a similar law from New Zealand. This move, however, was soon challenged by the Uttarakhand state government in the Supreme Court. The Government claimed that flood victims living on the banks of these rivers could now sue the rivers’ guardians for compensation. Eventually, the Supreme Court of India overthrew the Uttarakhand High Court judgment. Granting these rivers legal personhood was seen by many as one sure-shot way of getting the country to clean up these rivers . Five years after the move was called off, these rivers still flow polluted.
The Ganga and Yamuna examples highlight the need for urgent laws — and a robust legal framework to back them — to protect nature from human damage and exploitation.
There is only one earth. The planet is host to not just humans, but several million other forms of life too, all of who depend on its unique climate, terrain, and resources for their survival. And in the absence of any viable alternative, it is imperative that all these species live in harmony and respect this planet’s resources. Thus, recognizing nature and its various different components as equal stakeholders is vital to arrive at meaningful solutions.
Amlan Sarkar is a staff writer at TheSwaddle. He writes about the intersection between pop culture and politics. You can reach him on Instagram @amlansarkr.