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Does Nature Need Legal Rights?

Polluted lake
Granting legal rights to ecosystems could change how we think about nature and help to protect our planet
  • New research conducted explores ways to improve and safeguard our natural eco-systems
  • Granting legal personhood to entities of nature could enable society to protect biodiversity for future generations
  • Giving nature legal protection could help prevent future pandemics

Reconsidering our position and role as humans in the natural world is the biggest challenge of the 21st century. Recent alarming reports warn that we will drive Earth’s nature and ecosystems into mass extinction if we do not act now.

Many believe that the Coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic calamity is just one illustration of what can happen when habitats are destroyed and species exploited by humans. However, despite the devasting effect of the pandemic, multiple studies show that nature is still inadequately protected in many places across the world.  

We know that there are many international treaties and national laws aimed at protecting the environment and vulnerable species. Unfortunately, the current situation reveals that those have not been effective. Economic interest usually wins over ecological interest. It’s clear that something fundamental needs to change, and experts at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands believe they may have the answer.

What if we completely changed how we viewed nature? What if we gave nature legal rights? According to new research conducted by Dr Tineke Lambooy, this might provide an effective solution to this existential threat.

Currently, nature itself is not legally represented as a stakeholder in any decision making regarding its use, excluding it from the discussion. It’s the people in governments and companies that decide the fate of a river, lake, forest or mountain. In particular, they determine to what extent an environment can be used for human benefit, polluted or abolished. Nature itself has no say in these types of decisions.

But according to Dr Lambooy, a Professor of Corporate Law at Nyenrode, granting legal rights or legal personhood to ecosystems could change how we think. “If we create a situation in which nature can take decisions in its own interest, we could see nature as having intrinsic value,” she says. “We could acknowledge that nature can co-exist with us on our planet. That would constitute a systemic change in our thinking concerning ourselves and nature.”

Granting legal personhood to ecosystems would ensure that we see nature as a legal subject instead of as a legal object. “Ecosystems in different countries on all continents have been granted rights in recent years, or proposals have been launched to that end,” she says. “Across the world, 369 initiatives have been launched with the aim of granting rights to nature. The majority of them were successful – an entity of nature or a specific animal or animal category now currently hold legal rights. These initiatives indicate that people consider it high time to show respect to the environment. Ecological destruction, species extinction and cultural beliefs are among the many motives which people claim for the rights of nature to exist.”

Dr Lambooy believes that engaging in new legislation and governance aimed at protecting nature for current and future generations can result in real transformative social change. Her own research into the matter focuses on the possibilities of granting rights to the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea. “This natural area has been valued high for its biodiversity, among other because of the millions of migratory birds that visit the area every year,” she explains. “The Wadden Sea is a unique tidal area which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Area. Hence, we should attempt to treat it as a heritage site and look after it for future generations”.

Interestingly, in a review of the economics of biodiversity commissioned by Britain’s Treasury, and authored by Professor Partha Dasgupta, an economist at the University of Cambridge, it concludes that nature needs to become as valued as traditional gauges of economic wealth such as profits in the future. Professor Dasgupta warns that current economic growth and prosperity have “come at a devastating cost to nature”, stating declines in biodiversity and the environment’s ability to provide food, clean water and air are “fuelling extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies and well-being”.

“Nature is more than a mere economic good,” he said. “Nature nurtures and nourishes us, so we will think of assets as durable entities that not only have use value, but may also have intrinsic worth”.

Many argue that climate change is the biggest threat of our time – and there is certainly an abundance of evidence to suggest that we are currently pushing our planet and its’ species to the point of exhaustion and extinction. This research indicates that giving nature legal rights could provide a means for it to push back, hopefully moving us away from using gross domestic product as a measure of economic success, and instead recognising the benefits of protecting our remaining natural assets such as forests, soils and oceans.

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