Human Exceptionalism

Nature Rights: Radical Environmentalism Pushes the Agenda

I have warned about a coup de culture that is seeking to supplant human exceptionalism with utilitarianism, hedonism, and radical environmentalism, as the foundations of societal mores and law.  In that regard, I have written here and elsewhere about how Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s nominated regulations czar, wants animals to be able to sue their owners (and others).  Similarly, a radical American environmentalist organization influenced Ecuador to create the “rights of nature” in its new constitution.

I have also mentioned here that John P. Holdren, Obama’s science czar, promoted trees being granted “standing” to sue back in the 1970s.  Last month, illustrating the growth in respectability of this particular meme, a “contributing writer for ideas” at the Boston Globe wrote a long piece on flora and fauna bringing lawsuits.  From “Sued by the Forest” by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow:

Last February, the town of Shapleigh, Maine, population 2,326, passed an unusual ordinance. Like nearby towns, Shapleigh sought to protect its aquifers from the Nestle Corporation, which draws heavily on the region for its Poland Spring bottled water. Some Maine towns had acquiesced, others had protested, and one was locked in a protracted legal battle. Shapleigh tried something new – a move at once humble in its method and audacious in its ambition. At a town meeting, residents voted, 114-66, to endow all of the town’s natural assets with legal rights: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.” It further decreed that any town resident had “standing” to seek relief for damages caused to nature – permitting, for example, a lawsuit on behalf of a stream.

Shapleigh is one of about a dozen US municipalities to have passed measures declaring that nature itself has rights under the law. And in 2008, when Ecuador adopted a new constitution, it recognized nature’s “right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.” A campaign is also underway in Europe for a UN Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, which would attempt to enshrine such principles in international law, following the model of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of course, it would actually be environmental radicals doing the suing–with the intent of shutting down virtually all exploitation of our natural resources.

When I speak about these issues, the audience often rolls there eyes and chuckle, “Ha, ha. What will they think of next?”  But such “it can’t happen here” denial isn’t going to stop those committed to the cause from pushing these agendas  into our body politic and laws.  To the contrary, it helps them because people don’t mobilize to resist.

Critics dismiss the idea as grandstanding that could clog the courts with frivolous cases. But proponents see it as part of an ongoing progression, an expansion of rights that slowly brings about an increasingly just society. After all, not so long ago, slaves and women were in some legal regimes deemed property, just as nature is today. Now we all accept universal human rights. The concept of animal rights has also become familiar, if much more contested. Advocates of this agenda see the extension of rights to ecosystems as the natural next step…

In the view of proponents…the extension of rights invariably seems absurd before it happens. When the economy depended on slave labor, emancipation was unfathomable even to many who abhorred slavery. In retrospect, though, it seems morally imperative and historically inevitable.

This is not only anti human exceptionalism, but it devalues the concepts of “rights” altogether–in much the same way that wild inflation devalues currency.  After all, if rocks and streams are rights possessors, human rights cease to be special and the very concept of rights itself becomes oh hum.  And so “nature rights,” even more than “animal rights,” would both undermine our prosperity and diminish our self perception as a uniquely important species–a concept that is necessary for our also being willing to bear the important responsibilities we owe as the only duties-bearing species in the known universe to ourselves, our posterity, and to the environment.

But many think the opposite is true: That expanding rights to all the earth would force us to see ourselves as just part of nature, which would supposedly improve our behavior toward it. This concept is quietly gaining credence in the academy where so much that goes wrong with society often begins:

[T]he first sustained legal argument [in favor of nature legal standing] is usually attributed to Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California. In 1972, Stone wrote an article entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?”, which laid out the case for expanding rights that is now commonly cited. (The essay, originally published in the Southern California Law Review, will be reissued by Oxford University Press in 2010.)…

Stone drew an analogy to the legal status of “incompetents,” such as children or senile elders, who may not be able to articulate their interests: guardians can make informed judgments about those interests and represent them in court. As it happened, a highly pertinent case was before the Supreme Court at the time. In Sierra Club v. Morton, argued in 1971, the Sierra Club tried to stop Walt Disney Enterprises from building a ski resort in a pristine California valley called Mineral King…Serendipitously, Justice William O. Douglas had been slated to write the preface for an issue of the Southern California Law Review, and Stone had rushed his article into that issue, hoping that the justice would read it. The strategy worked: Douglas dissented, echoing Stone’s thesis. “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation,” he wrote. “This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.”

Anyone who thinks that such a radical alteration in the law “can’t happen here” hasn’t been paying attention for the last twenty years. The only way to stop it is to take the threat seriously and mobilize politically and intellectually against it.

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