It’s not us, it’s them! Encounters with the Murdoch press can leave us despondent – it’s easy to feel as though we are the crazy ones in our recognition that unlimited growth on a finite planet is incompatible with a sustainable future. But if existing growth trends continue, we are on course for ecological collapse by 2050. We need limits.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a hunger strike to draw attention to the ignition of a carbon time-bomb in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The strike achieved the desired effect: we secured a meeting with the board of Aurizon, the company that is the linchpin for the mining project. But to pin all hopes on an eco-friendly outcome would not be sensible, so in search of strategies to apply while the clock is ticking, I attended the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) Wild Law conference last weekend. Not at all the stuffed-shirt affair you might expect from a conference of lawyers. The multidisciplinary lineup included Ian Lowe, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation; David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia; Drew Hutton, president of Lock the Gate Alliance; and Larissa Waters, Greens senator and environmental lawyer. In a telling confirmation of the need to strike deeper, Waters’ conference confession – that petitions are never really considered on the senate floor – hit home.
No law conference would be complete without a mock trial, and AELA did not disappoint, aptly pitting the Great Barrier Reef against the Queensland government. With Ian Lowe in the role of judge and David Ritter in that of expert witness, the trial brushed upon more than a few allusions to actual trials in defence of the natural world. If the Great Barrier Reef were granted legal rights, and a voice to assert those rights, it is arguable whether Australia’s fossil-fool mentality would have the political and economic dominance it does at present. Although the requisite ‘tick and flick’ procedures in determining the rights of mining companies to exploit the resources of the Galilee Basin have been adhered to, the Queensland government is legally responsible for the damage suffered by the Great Barrier Reef.
Of course, in a mock trial we can create a happy ending. The mock trial’s hypothetical verdict is one that the global movement for recognition of the rights of nature is working hard to make real. And it is not without precedent.
The concept of corporate personhood – in which corporations have rights just as any human being would – is reasonably well known. Less well known is the concept of legal personhood for features of nature, as expounded by New Zealand barrister and solicitor Baden Vertongen. The New Zealand legal system, a conglomerate of Maori and settler perspectives, has set the precedent for recognition of the rights of living entities to be free from ownership and violation, with the most notable success so far the grant of legal personhood to the Whanganui River in 2012.
Ecuador, despite its relative poverty, is the first country in the world to have enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution, in 2008. As Natalia Greene of Ecuador’s Pachamama Foundation explains, the indigenous worldview that upholds the rights of nature was the missing piece in the puzzle of a constitution that has long recognized the rights of multiple indigenous nations. The rights of nature can now be defended by any Ecuadorian citizen under the framework of legal guardianship.
Equatorial Ecuador, where the Amazon meets the Andes, is a biodiversity hotspot, yet much of this biodiversity has been lost due to the destructive repercussions of the growth economic paradigm, with many losses due directly to the road-building required to facilitate increased volumes of trade. Under these conditions the rights of nature are not always easily upheld, as the cases of the Mirador mine – set to witness the extinctions of several species – and Yasuní national park attest. The Ecuadorian government is hampering efforts to uphold the constitution by claiming, in a fantastic example of circular logic, that for Ecuador to cover its international debts and develop economically, the oil in Yasuní national park must be sold in order to buy the freedom from economic burden that will empower the government to uphold the rights of nature.
The Bolivian government, also greatly influenced by its diverse indigenous groups, established 11 new rights of nature in 2011, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; the right not to have cellular structure modified or genetically altered, and the right of nature to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.
Australia, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, does not have the excuse of poorer nations that nature needs to be compromised in order to meet its population’s basic needs. As a nation we are far ahead of the economic game, and still retain immense natural capital, not to mention beauty that tourists flock to see. If we are to see a sustainable future we are going to need to shift our priorities. Yet with the de-funding of the climate commission, the removal of the science minister, and further palming off of executive powers onto the states by the new Abbott government, we are facing a crisis of governance and law, not economics. In this political climate the advancement of the rights of nature in Australia does not look likely.
The call to civil society is more powerful than it has ever been, and the government is failing us like never before. We need to make our presence felt.
Kari McGregor is a former university teacher (University of Adelaide) and co-founder of the Sustainability non-profit Sustainability Showcase. A lifelong activist, systems thinker and social critic, Kari also blogs as The Overthinker, calling attention to the most pressing issues of our time.