The ecological crisis demands we protect the Rights of Nature from being watered down.
On January 11, 2021, the Prince of Wales and maybe next king of England introduced a Terra Carta, "a charter that puts sustainability at the heart of the private sector." The declaration dangerously waters down recognition and enforcement of Rights of Nature, a radical demand that has been advancing for years.
The prince links the document to the rights of ecosystems, saying the next logical step from the Magna Carta is the eventual incorporation of Nature into the social compact with sovereignty. "If we consider the legacy of our generation, more than 800 years ago, Magna Carta inspired a belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of people," he writes in the Forward. "As we strive to imagine the next 800 years of human progress, the fundamental rights and value of Nature must represent a step-change in our 'future of industry' and 'future of economy' approach."
However, rather than advocate for establishing and defending legally enforceable rights inherent in natural communities and ecosystems, the Prince suggests honoring the Rights of Nature can be accomplished through new industrial growth under the control of corporate CEOs.
Unlike Rights of Nature advanced by indigenous-led social movements that subordinate wealth accumulation, exploitation and extraction to the Rights of Nature, Terra Carta instead proposes voluntary commitments from the worst corporate offenders.
Article 1 of the Terra Carta calls for "accelerating sustainable industries, businesses, products, services and supply chains while working within and across industries." It advocates "encouraging innovative financial instruments in order to scale and accelerate transition efforts across businesses, industries and countries." This is an aggravated appropriation of the idea of Rights of Nature for the purpose of perpetuating the existing system of privilege, wealth and power. Little surprise that it's been proposed by royalty.
Unlike Rights of Nature advanced by indigenous-led social movements that subordinate wealth accumulation, exploitation and extraction to the Rights of Nature, Terra Carta instead proposes voluntary commitments from the worst corporate offenders. The Prince asks industry to be "a little nicer to nature," as my colleague Pella Thiel put it. Thiel is the chairperson of End Ecocide Sweden and coordinator of the Swedish Network for Rights of Nature.
"It is very important to go back to first principles, like Magna Carta," Pella continues. "But Prince Charles' Terra Carta isn't going back to first principles. Nature itself has her own rights, [the prince] says ... but then when I read the document, he says ...'Today must be the decisive moment that we make sustainability the growth story of our time, while positioning Nature as the engine of our economy. To help us succeed, and to complement global efforts across public, private and philanthropic sectors, I am calling on CEOs from around the world to engage and play their part in leading the global transition.' I think," Pella says, "it is such a sign of the times to have a royalty pointing at the Magna Carta to nicely ask the powers of today, corporations, to behave. It is like satire."
It must be satire, yes. Because this manifesto is all about industry and extraction and consumerism "leading the way." The exact opposite of what is needed.
'Environmentalists' historic failures show need for powerful new paradigm
For over 50 years, environmentalists have tried to "protect the environment" by enforcing regulations that decisively avoid interfering with corporate profits. But the existing corporate hegemony has happily coexisted with those environmental laws.
Continuing down this path while politely curtseying Nature as a damsel in distress, as Prince Charles suggests, changes nothing.
Terra Carta calls for more regulations and incentives for the private sector. And if we've learned anything from the United States experience, it's that merely requiring minor regulations of industry through legislation like the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species acts falls far short of avoiding ecological and climate crisis.
Rather than peddle in false solutions, we can accelerate the world-wide adoption of local, state, national and international Rights of Nature laws that criminalize extinguishing communities of living beings for the accumulation of commercial profit.
This movement is well on it's way, winning new victories on a monthly basis. Oligarchs like Prince Charles won't be allowed to co-opt it.
Establishing and defending the Rights of Nature is intended to emancipate Nature from its current legal status as property; reverse the burden of proof from the victim to the perpetrator; and force political and legal reckonings to abruptly halt the ongoing destruction of the Earth's life-giving systems. Corporate interests have long opposed and attacked Rights of Nature movements, including law making and organizing efforts assisted by myself and my colleagues with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Corporate and state attacks are ongoing. And now we have to contend with an aristocratic campaign to co-opt Rights of Nature and convert it into yet another weaponized legal concept for the immunization of wealth from community accountability.
We know why the conventional environmentalist strategy failed: it was never meant to halt the profitable extraction of resources, the use of toxic technology and energy sources, or the over-production of commodities. Recognizing and defending the Rights of Nature is about flipping that legal system, which subordinates life and Nature to the laws of property, on its head.
The Rights of Nature paradigm is gaining traction globally. It is deeply rooted in indigenous cosmology and political organizing. People whose culture never separated from Nature do not conceive of the natural world as infinitely subdividable parcels of property. Instead, their way of being in-the-world rises organically from feeling, thinking and acting on the understanding that Nature is intrinsic to their lives and they are inseparable from it.
Non-native organizers must work in solidarity
In 2006, following consideration of legal arguments for establishing rights for ecosystems raised by law professor Christopher Stone, in his book Should Trees Have Standing, I helped draft the first law enacted on settler colonial-controlled land to recognize such rights. Two years later, the people of Ecuador, with a large indigenous population, ratified a new national constitution recognizing the Rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth). In the ensuing years, other nations as well as numerous U.S. local governments, have passed laws and initiated legal actions affirming the legal status of Nature and ecosystems as rights-bearing entities.
As demands for fundamental change to our political and economic systems grow, the demand that powerful Rights of Nature accompany such change is on the table. And it won't be watered down by those hoping to distract from paradigm shifts.
Rights of Nature organizers around the world ought to ensure Rights of Nature:
- Not be subordinated to administrative law; as we recently saw happen in Orange County, Florida. Fundamental rights are not subject to regulation;
- Not be financialized. That means no "carbon trading" and other market-based measures in the name of the "Rights of Nature;"
- Not superimpose existing legal status, such as "personhood," onto ecosystems. Rather, Nature's own unique rights should be recognized and defended;
- Continue to be led by indiginous communities and never be used to victimize indigenous people for their subsistence living on the pretense of protecting endangered species. They are not poachers. Living symbiotically with the environment is a lost human art that we must rediscover if we want to follow real natural law. (Nor should "wild" areas be off limits to all people except those extracting "beneficial [economic] uses" from Nature, as has been the case on many public lands worldwide. Such an outcome would mark the final enclosure, that is, privatization, of Nature.)