December 8, 2008
People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants and Rivers
In what they deem a natural progression of age-old struggles for social justice, environmentalists gleefully predict that the 21st century will be an era of environmental justice. The freeing of nature from enslavement by man is their main objective for this period. Other goals include upholding the right of rivers to flow unimpeded, safeguarding the dignity of plants and consideration for the sensitivities of animals. According to environmentalists, social justice struggles have evolved from emancipation of slaves, suffrage for women and civil rights for minorities to, now, the fight for the inalienable, legal right of nature to exist and prosper.
If this sounds far-fetched, recent developments indicate that this phenomenon is clearly on the horizon. Wild Law - a concept that acknowledges that the elements of nature have rights and that humans exist on an equal plane with other members of the "Earth Community" - is gaining acceptance. Wild Law recognizes the rights of forests to remain unlogged, mountains to remain intact, a bog to resist a drainage project and polar bears to sue for air degradation. Recent laws in Switzerland, Ecuador and the State of Pennsylvania form the vanguard of this emerging crusade, as detailed below. Such a movement away from a human-centered world toward an earth-centered planet is a paradigm shift that could have serious consequences.
Consider: In April of 2008, the Swiss Confederation convened the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) to ponder the issue of plants' rights. Philosophers, geneticists, lawyers and theologians came together to contemplate the "moral consideration of plants for their own sake." In citing the commonalities of plants and animals at the molecular and cellular levels, those assembled determined that plants have inherent worth and their own interests, thus, deserve protection. The Committee ruled that plants, like other living organisms, should be considered as part of the "moral community," as they are living beings able to experience good and bad effects on their survival. Some panelists expressed the belief that plants actually have feelings. The philosophy of plant life devised by participants was published in a report entitled, "The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake."
In the late 1990's, the Swiss constitution was amended to protect the dignity of all living beings against genetic manipulation, but it didn't identify specific requirements for plants. As a result of the ECNH conference, constitutional protections are now in place for plant life as well. With the passage and enactment of these constitutional protections, scientists are now constrained in their research efforts. They are forced to consider the likelihood of their work affecting the dignity of various forms of vegetation. Before embarking on studies, they are required to plow through mountains of paperwork to obtain required government approval for their experiments.
The new Swiss law also considers the rights of "social animals." It requires prospective dog owners to complete a four-hour canine care course before purchasing a pet. The law prohibits fish owners from placing them in fully transparent aquariums and denying them "shelter." Rules for the size of enclosures for zoo animals are enforced under threat of fines. Even fishermen are constrained by prescribed "humane" fishing methods. No word yet about a de rigueur parenting class before conception.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Leftist president Rafael Correa recently pushed for the ratification of a new constitution that grants equal rights to nature on par with humans. It states, "Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. These rights should be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce these rights."
This means that forests, rivers, air and islands now have rights. All life forms enjoy constitutional and legally enforceable rights to survive and prosper. Natural resources can no longer be employed or "oppressed" for the benefit of humankind. Land development, fishing or mining can be interpreted as a violation of the fundamental rights of nature. Farmers, loggers, and fishermen can be effectively sued and their activities halted by the whims of environmental groups even if they claim ownership of the property in question. Damages can be assessed to an ecosystem much the same way compensation for injury is awarded to a person.
Closer to home, in 2006, a Pennsylvania community became the first U.S. municipality to recognize the rights of nature. The Tamaqua Borough Council in Schuylkill County passed a law that banned corporations from sludge and dredge operations in recognition of the "rights of people and natural communities." The ordinance recognizes ecosystems as "legal persons" for the purpose of enforcing civil rights. Other local municipalities are considering similar ordinances to curtail mining and factory farming to protect the rights of nature.
Even high-level religious leaders have turned away from the business of saving souls to speak out about the spiritual duty of caring for the environment. At a time when more Muslims than Christians attend religious services and when Britain is succumbing to Islamization and shariah law, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is focusing on improving stewardship of the earth and the church's responsibility for the size of the environmental footprint. The leader of the Tibetan people, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, is calling for environment preservation, and the Catholic Church has updated its list of deadly sins to include environmental pollution.
What does this moral equivalency of man with animals and plant life mean for humankind? With the inherent value of a species defined by its capacity to experience "pain," has man been reduced to just another species in nature? What implications does this have for the course of human life, for bearing and raising children, the human food supply, the pursuit of health and medical care, the construction of shelter and housing, the advancement of industry, or the future of the economy?
Clearly, the phenomenon of nature rights denies the intrinsic value of man created in God's image enshrined in Judeo-Christian values. Giving equal rights to nature diminishes the meaning of human life and punishes man for cultivating the environment for his benefit. Nature rights could potentially mean the end of economic prosperity, human starvation, reduced energy production and a planet that practices an anti-humanist philosophy of existence.