Rights of Nature

Vision and reality


Rights of Nature

Vision and reality

Rights of Nature: A Response to the 'Anthropocene'

by Matthias Kramm

Geologists have traditionally divided the history of our planet into different geological epochs. The current epoch is the so-called Holocene, which started around 11,700 years ago. A decisive criterion for determining geological epochs are the deposits in rock strata. As researchers increasingly find human remains in these, Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen suggested that the Holocene should be declared over and the Anthropocene proclaimed instead.

However, there is still disagreement among scientists as to the exact start of the Anthropocene. Suggestions range from a very early dating of around 5000 B.C. to a late one at the time of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. A working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy has been tasked with clarifying this question in the coming months.

A redefinition of human-nature relations

The concept of the Anthropocene shows that the conventional understanding of the relationship between humans and nature no longer applies: There are no longer humans on the one hand and nature on the other. Instead, humans and nature influence and determine each other, with humans emerging from the diversity of environmental factors and becoming the main factor in the Anthropocene.

It comes therefore as no surprise that the discussion of the Anthropocene has also brought forward the discussion on Rights of Nature.

After all, both new concepts aim to rethink the relationship between humans and nature. With regards to Rights of Nature, we can distinguish between an ecocentric and an anthropocentric interpretation.

Nature as a living being

An ecocentric interpretation of the Rights of Nature is carrying out a Copernican revolution that replaces humans with nature at the center of our world views. In a sense, this can be seen as a reaction to the condition of the Anthropocene, with humans wishing to return their own role as the main actor to nature. Nature can be understood as a living being, as intrinsically valuable or as an ancestor and relative of humans. In this capacity, it is then given its own rights. Like humans, nature or individual ecosystems also become legal entities.

Such justification strategies are often inspired by non-Western world views. For example, Māori philosophy conceptualizes the world as a network of reciprocal relationships, responsibilities and duties. In contrast to Western worldviews, which often reduce the world to a collection of individual elements, the focus here is on a complex network of relationships.

Ecocentric arguments can take this network of relationships as a starting point in order to derive their intrinsic value from the connection between humans and nature.

Granting rights

However, an anthropocentric understanding of the Rights of Nature is also possible: Therein, humans accepts their role in the Anthropocene as an involuntary protagonist, but at the same time try to tame their own destructive power. To this end, they grant nature rights of its own, through which it can defend itself against his influence. Nature is thus empowered before the law in order to be able to defend itself against human encroachment. An anthropocentric understanding of the Rights of Nature can, for example, refer to a new contract between humans and nature (as German lawyer Jens Kersten formulates in his work ‘The ecological basic law’) or to a reinterpretation of property rights and their extension to ecosystems (as formulated by German philosopher Tilo Wesche).

In both cases – be it an ecocentric or an anthropocentric justification of the Rights of Nature – it is worth asking to what extent nature or individual ecosystems are transformed from moral objects into moral subjects. If nature is understood as a living being with its own will or at least its own interest, it can defend itself as a moral subject. The only barrier then is to translate its will or interest into a language that humans can understand. If the justification is anthropocentric, nature is given its own rights on the basis of a contract or extended property rights. However, it continues to be represented by humans who defend it against other humans and their interests.

Translating or defending

While representation in an ecocentric paradigm primarily implies translation, in an anthropocentric paradigm it means the defense of nature by humans against other humans.

As soon as humans in the Anthropocene realize that they have involuntarily become the main actors, this requires an immediate reaction: they can either give nature back its place or at least limit themselves and their own influence vis-à-vis nature.

Thus, in the Anthropocene, the relationship between humans and nature must be redefined. Since humans and nature are so closely intertwined, a rethink is needed. This can consist of a new emphasis on nature, or of a self-restriction. Only in this way can both aspects of the Anthropocene, humans and nature, continue to co-exist and optimistically face a shared future.

Matthias Kramm is a political philosopher researching the Rights of Nature in Mexico at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Moreover, he is examines the extent to which Western legal concepts are compatible with indigenous philosophies. More information at http://www.matthiaskramm.com/

Translated by Imke Horstmannshoff.

Links & Literatur

  • Jens Kersten, Das ökologische Grundgesetz (transl. "The ecological basic law"), pp. 19-25
  • Matthias Kramm, 2023, „Rechtsphilosophische Aspekte“, In: Rechte für Flüsse, Berge und Wälder, hrsg. durch Matthias Kramm, pp. 69-83
  • Tilo Wesche, 2023, Die Rechte der Natur: Vom nachhaltigen Eigentum (transl. "Rights of Nature: Sustainable Property"), pp. 174-195