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Nature’s Message: How Many Enforceable Rights Do Ecosystems Have?

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When the Spanish Senate made the decision in September to recognize the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon as a legal entity, it was nothing less than a precedent. Never before had a European ecosystem been endowed with enforceable rights.

A representative of the national conservative party “Vox” spoke of “legal nonsense”, not without lamenting the poor condition in which the “small sea” is as a result of local agriculture and tourism. However, he defends himself against an “ideological and radical bet” that has nothing less than the goal of “leaving our human-centric society behind”. His warning was in vain, all other parties agreed to the legislative initiative signed by over 600,000 citizens.

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Criticism of the idea of ​​introducing rights for ecosystems has so far mainly come from conservative circles. Because the treatment of natural landscapes such as forests, mountains or rivers as “legal subjects” breaks with a view that is deeply rooted in our culture; Let’s call it “enlightened anthropocentrism.”

Seat in the European Parliament for the North Sea?

What is meant by this is the traditional gap between the human being, characterized by morality and internality, and his environment, which lacks these qualities. The fragmentation of reality along values ​​such as subjectivity, agency and moral integrity, as the environmental law scholar Christopher Stone was able to show, is historically and geographically determined.

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It has been observed time and again that initiatives for natural rights have prevailed primarily in those societies that are shaped by the influence of indigenous cultures. In 2017, the Whanganui River was legally “personified” in New Zealand against the backdrop of Maori cosmology, which characterizes it as the ancestor and life-giver of the indigenous minority.

In Ecuador a few years earlier, it was the cosmological concepts of pachamama (“mother earth”) or sumak kawsay (“the good life”) that indigenous groups, together with NGOs, introduced into the debate about a new constitution. From a Western point of view, a holistic concept of nature, which sees humans, animals, plants and “inanimate” objects as potentially equal actors in a cosmic causal context, is considered a parallel of various indigenous cosmologies. Characteristics such as subjectivity, internality and intrinsic moral values ​​are also attributed to non-human actors.

This widespread spiritual phenomenon was first theorized under the vague term “animism” in the age of colonialism. Despite its eccentric origins – originally it served to demarcate and project “primitive” modes of perception – “animism” is by no means obsolete today.

Rather, in the European and American social and cultural sciences at the end of the twentieth century, it became an occasion and inspiration to overcome our hegemonic relationship to the environment. It is not uncommon for the pioneers of this school of thought, the recently deceased Bruno Latour (“The Parliament of Things”), Philippe Descola (“Beyond Nature and Culture”), Donna Haraway and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, to be the inspiration behind the initiatives for natural rights.

In Germany, an association for the “rights of nature” was founded this summer

The “North Sea Embassy” based in The Hague, for example, in obvious reference to Latour’s book title, demanded that the North Sea be granted its own seat in the European Parliament by 2030, in addition to its personal status.

Dead fish will be removed from the water surface of the German-Polish border river Oder in mid-August this year.
© Photo: dpa/PAP/Marcin Bielecki

Following a series of referendums – including those on the Wadden Sea, the Isar and the Sevenich floodplain landscape – an association for “Nature Rights” was also founded in Germany this summer. In the previous year, twenty lawyers and scientists came together to form the “Network Rights to Nature”. In view of the incidents surrounding the death of fish in the Oder, the clearing of the Hambach Forest and the construction of the Tesla Gigafactory in the immediate vicinity of the Löcknitztal moor, their concern is not lacking in explosiveness.

In addition, Frank Adloff (“What rights does nature need?”, 2021), Jens Kersten (“The Third Revolution: for an Ecological Basic Law”, 2022) and Alberto Acosta (“Radical Alternatives”, 2018) and their books are like-minded voices represented in public. Among other things, you can refer to the sociologist and political scientist Hartmut Rosa and his drafts of a “resonance theory” of the environment.

One direction from which legal initiative, despite its progressive orientation, has rarely been consulted is that of cultural appropriation. Andreas Gutmann’s prudent admonition that the natural rights movement must “resist the temptation to construct and appropriate a unified indigenous thinking in a romanticizing manner” covers only part of the ethical and philosophical challenges. Another touches, albeit accidentally, a representative of the Bavarian referendum “Rights of Nature”. In an interview with the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, he explained that a strategy planned for several years was being pursued, since such a fundamental transformation of the law “would first have to be put into practice”.

But how seriously do you take this “life”? Is this still about winning majorities for a new legal instrument useful for solving our environmental problems? Or is the concern more radical and aimed at the gradual dissolution of our “enlightened anthropocentrism”?

While the first draft is open to the charge of siphoning off values ​​whose religious and cultural roots are no longer sufficiently reflected; the second draft raises questions of a philosophical nature. What is it like not to direct your inspiration to a foreign style of music or clothing, but to a way of perceiving nature; How can this “ontological dimension” be experienced at all and translated culturally?

The German-Polish border river Oder in November 2022.
The German-Polish border river Oder in November 2022.
© dpa / Patrick Pleul

In order to bridge the gap between paragraph and reality, a whole series of French sociologists around Alain Callé have developed an approach which they call “methodological animism”. This anticipates current scientific research on the consciousness of animals and plants by wanting to ascribe subjectivity and intentionality to non-human beings even before empirical evidence is provided – albeit only in the sense of a purposeful “as if”.

The objectification of nature resulting from scientific modernity can – so the hidden admission – be overcome by science only tentatively and provisionally until it is revised, and it is likely to remain dependent on projections for that long.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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