Beyond Peak Indifference #4 – Our time is often dubbed the Anthropocene – the earth age influenced by mankind in such a way that it profoundly changes our natural cycles. We have moves us in a defining role that goes way beyond the naming of an epoch. In a way that we have such a big impact on the planet does not come as a surprise. It is deeply rooted in our own history and all its expressions: We talk about the frontier mentality that apparently characterizes entire countries such as the US and Russia. President Kennedy defined outer space as the new frontier and until this very day it seems inconceivable that the United States can do without that key ingredient of the countries self-understanding.
Our entire legal system is based on humans as legal subjects and everything else either an object that one can own and possess or something that – legally speaking – is non-existent. Other legal concepts that do not know ownership have been marginalized on the global stage. Many of the people that have been conquered and exterminated by European colonists have in common that they shared those very ideas. They proved to be vulnerable against the aggressive human centered European legal world view. The repercussions of this are huge. ‘Owning’ the planet allowed us to exploit it beyond comparison and create human made substance that today outweighs all natural substance on the surface of the earth. ‘Owning’ the planet allowed us to hunt and fish all other animals and ‘owning’ the planet distorted our minds in such a way that we consider it our human right to take things away from nature.
But the latter is not self-explanatory and that world view has been challenged in a series of landmark court rulings. Nature more and more is considered a legal subject with its own rights and the possibility to appeal to courts (obviously represented by humans). We can already feel the results in the Netherlands: the Urgenda case. Instead of driving 130 kilometers per hour on motorways we are now only allowed to drive 100. The reason is nitrogen levels that otherwise would be exceeded which was considered a violation of human rights by the Dutch government in violating its legal obligations to protect its people against the effects of climate change. And there are more cases like that where the protection of nature has become an unalienable right of that very piece of nature.
Law is not static but a reflection of norms and values of societies and mankind as a whole. We adapt it to meet them and climate change and necessary action against it is no exception. One can speculate if soon oil companies or construction companies face the same fate as tobacco companies that have been sentenced to billion dollar damages because – despite knowing the opposite – they did not inform their customers clear enough about the health risks of smoking. Just imagine gas stations having to cover half of all surfaces with pictures of dead ice bears, fishes or people killed in bush fires and having to pay trillion dollar fines.
While penalizing climate vandalism behaviour is an growing field of jurisprudence, the focus should be not only on catching the bad guys. The more important aspects of environmental law should be a normative one. We need to get he rights of nature into our legal systems so that governments and the world community is bound by them when formulating laws of intergovernmental agreements. Laura Burgers – a lawyer focussing on the rights of nature – has a clear preference for that part of legal climate change action since its impact is much bigger. It literally can affect our entire collection of laws and regulations with the desired and needed big effect.
Thinking this through, one can speculate if we should not rethink our entire legal setup. Since 1948 we are protecting basic human rights universally. We have come to the global agreement that every human being naturally has a number of rights just by being human. All other rights are subordinate to these. But what are these rights worth, if at the same time the life support system – spaceship earth – gets destroyed, ultimately rendering all basic human rights worthless. Without a functioning earth we cannot live, think freely or own anything. I think we need to consider if those basic conditions that only make any other right only possible should not become a new set of rights formulated in a ‘universal declaration of the rights of nature’ that binds mankind and it’s right to exist and enjoy all the perks of being human. Uncharted territory to be explored quickly – the carbon clock keeps ticking.
by Markus Appenzeller