Wild Law

Wild Law

5 July, 2012
If nature had rights
Cormac Cullinan, environmental attorney and author of Wild Law

Imagine a day when a river, an elephant, and even the air itself could be represented in court. The idea is not so far-fetched, as some countries have been examining the inclusion of nature rights into the legal system. At an alternative climate conference held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth was drafted as a response to weak international agreements on climate change. We talk to Cormac Cullinan, who led the drafting of the Declaration, about the idea of the rights of nature.
Ecozine: Could you share more about your work?
Cormac: I work as an environmental lawyer at the oldest law firm in South Africa and the only one that is carbon neutral. While I spend my working life as an environmental lawyer, beyond that, in my part time work, I’ve led the creation of the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights and speaking about it as I feel the need to be an activist.
Ecozine: In your quest as an environmental lawyer and activist, you’ve created the idea of wild laws. Could you share more about this idea?
Cormac: The idea is to have rights for nature and for all beings. Humans are really a part of nature and it is difficult when the climate conversation is being seen as the problem rather than the symptom of the problem. Like a person’s temperature, we have to find out why there is a response to a cause, and why we are behaving in a way that is making the environment less friendly for humans and for our progeny to survive. It is a stupid thing to do in evolutionary terms - to think of ourselves as being separate and superior to nature. It is a mythology of dominant cultures that human wellbeing means to consume more and to have more material possession. We are exploiting the earth and pursuing happiness at the expense of the earth’s ewllbeing. If we see ourselves as part of the great community of life, it doesn’t make any sense because we can’t have healthy humans on an unhealthy planet. Human health impacts are connected to the planet’s health. Humans have rights, but they have become dominant whereas nature is seen as property. This imbalance has gone too far and we have converted too much land, caught too many fish, and polluted water and the air. Our legal systems are designed with the assumption that exploitation and infinite growth is good, and when we aim for that, it is a deeply unscientific approach and out of line with traditional wisdom. Unless we change that, we will continue to have problems.
Ecozine: Rather than valuing the rights of nature, we’ve instead placed a value on natural resources so they are easily traded. What’s your view on this?
Cormac: Valuing resources is a mistake. We fail to appreciate some things beyond value by putting a price on water and air, which are essential for life. We are essentially putting a price on life, and some are too poor to afford to live. By having a more rights approach rather than putting a price on everything, we can avoid having the wealthy accumulate all the goods, and a tiny percentage of the population owning the vast majority of money and possessions. It has become highly concentrated and over time, we will make everything for sale and a very few people will soon earn all of those rights as well. You can’t buy human rights and the right to life, so we need to distribute things more evenly to prevent concentration.
Ecozine: Could you talk more about the emergence of cases related to climate change that make use of the legal system?
Cormac: Immigration policies are toughening and but climate change is causing people to move with increasing pressure on southern countries. Wealthier countries are afraid of that. But with courts the legal system is biased, it is hard to win because it not a levelled playing field. You can’t represent a mountain or a river and their right to exist and flow, so there is a limit to what humans can do. With companies, their interests are taken into account and what they are entitled to exploit. Ecuador actually has constitution rights for nature. It’s really a question of changing the rules.
Ecozine: How do you see the role of earth rights especially for Asia?
Cormac: In Asia, Buddhism, Daoism, and other ancient traditions all point to maintaining balance. What we are doing is essentially digging carbon out of the earth and putting it into the sky so that there’s a yin and yang imbalance between the earth and the sky. This imbalance creates a lack of health, so we need to reconnect with these deep traditions and while they may not be strong as strong as current traditions, we have to go back to wisdom traditions and ask: did they not have the wisdom we now need? We are like a monoculture of plants and we look for genes that are resistant. Commercial capitalism is like this monoculture. It’s like a disease, and it’s causing the need to go back to other cultures that place emphasis on balance.
Ecozine: How has your experience in South Africa been unique and how does this relate to the way humans are dominating the earth?
Cormac: In South Africa, you are in the role of oppressor if you were born as a white person. In Africa, the dominant elite that depresses the majority of that society worked well for a while, and my life wasn’t bad but I did experience the segregation and apartheid and it took me awhile o see what was going on. It took more conflict to move forward and be part of one community, and for it to be whole and healthy again. If we are born as a human, we are already in the role of an oppressor. Unfortunately most cultures are disruptive of others and humans don’t see nature as a part of us. We need to expand the idea of community for us to be earth citizens. It took years to fight for women’s rights, the rights of children and indigenous people. There was the history of slavery. It took a moment of crisis to expand the idea further each time in history.

By: Ecozine Staff


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