woensdag, oktober 20, 2021

Should we give rights to Nature? – A dialogue with environmental lawyer Jessica den Outer

A new era for nature, law, and climate justice dawns. Environmental lawyer and activist Jessica den Outer puts it best: ‘We are on the brink of a breakthrough in environmental law, from nature as an object without rights to rights for all forms of life’.

Den Outer, whom the UN has formally listed as an Earth-centric law expert, has gained recognition for her progressive work in the field of environmental law. She is, among other things, involved in a national petition called ‘Maas in de Wet’. This petition, inspired by global initiatives that have successfully established rights for nature, compellingly advocates for primary rights for the river Maas. Den Outer is involved in various similar initiatives and projects that advocate for rights for nature. Through her local activist work, Den Outer is bringing a global, ecocentric movement to The Netherlands. 

On September 15, 2021, Initiatives of Change The Netherlands (IofC) coordinated an online interview and dialogue with Den Outer, hosted by Shereen Siwpersad. With this session, IofC has concluded its series of online human rights dialogues. This series is part of IofC’s Faith in Human Rights (FiHR) project, initiated by project coordinator Willem Jansen.

There is an increasing need to establish primary rights for nature, Den Outer says. This is a challenging task. In modern times, after all, global economic interests take precedence over environmental considerations. Assigning human guardians and advocates to nature is one way to safeguard nature’s rights, according to Den Outer. By giving a (legal) voice to nature through a human representative, nature is transformed from an object into a subject.

However, we should keep in mind that giving a voice to nature is by no means a novel concept. In Maori culture, for example, rivers play an important role in the (spiritual) daily lives of people. Indigenous groups have thus long-held ecocentric worldviews, as this example illustrates. In Europe too, we are observing an ecocentric focus as countries such as Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland are progressively extending nature’s legal rights. The Netherlands, Den Outer says, should join this movement as well.

However, turning nature into a legal subject is definitely a challenge, she adds. After all, this requires a radical change in our thinking. There is reason for optimism, however. In the past, we have seen that people with, initially, few to no rights, have been given equality. This proves that profound societal change, aimed at improving the lives of individuals, is possible. According to Den Outer, nature should be next in line for receiving equal rights. The fact that nature has a non-human status should not be an issue. ‘After all, companies and organizations have legal rights too’, Den Outer says. ‘So why should nature be excluded?’

Her compelling arguments invite many thought-provoking questions. ‘Should this movement include the call for universal recognition of ecocide?’ one participant asks. ‘How can we advocate for rights for nature when environmental concerns are structurally outweighed by economic and political interests?’ another participant asks. ‘How can we give a voice to rivers if they are not able to speak, quite literally?’ another one adds.

Den Outer replies that these are challenging issues indeed. ‘The advocacy for rights for nature is a work in progress, but it is a step forwards nonetheless’, she says. ‘There are some additional legal steps that we need to take. It is time that the International Criminal Court (ICC) begins to treat ecocide, like genocide, as a crime against humanity. However, I believe that we should broaden our understanding of nature’s rights by going beyond the practical and the legal. Instead, we should extend our understanding by interpreting these rights more poetically, and more philosophically.’

However, no matter how you choose to interpret nature’s rights, it is certainly true that the term proposes a new way of thinking, a holistic worldview in which everything is connected. As Den Outer points out, we ourselves can advocate for nature by using our humanity, imagination, and creativity. She illustrates this point by mentioning a notable example. During a town council meeting in Zwolle, the participants discussed whether the town should expand its residential area along its local river the IJssel. One participant chose to advocate on behalf of the IJssel by reciting a poem written in the perspective of the river. ‘Nature might not have a voice’, Den Outer concludes. ‘But never forget: you can always use yours.’

By Willem Jansen.
Transl. by Shereen Siwpersad.