Human nature can be ignored

The difficult endeavor to give nature its own voice

Imagine that you are a tree and you can talk. You would be in the middle of a large forest on the outskirts of a city, right next to the hiking trail that is used by urban residents as a recreational area. Would you be kind to the strollers? What would you say to local politicians who are planning to turn the trail into a road? What interests would you have if you were a fish that lived in the river next to the forest, or if you were even the river itself?

These thought experiments, which may seem a bit bizarre to most, are actually part of serious considerations. For several years now, scientists in the Netherlands have come together to create the "Parliament of Things". The idea: Instead of just letting people decide in parliaments, plants, animals, rivers and forests should have their own voice. Whenever it is affected by larger human projects, nature should be represented by scientists or NGOs who, like an ombudsperson, try to protect the sole interests of plants and animals.

New form of empathy

The project, which originally goes back to the French philosopher Bruno Latour, is still extremely experimental. For the time being, the scientists want to make nature understandable for people, they say. They want to make the noise that fish and dolphins experience from ship traffic audible for people, or show people the world that an eel experiences underwater. This should enable a new form of empathy with living beings in this world.

But what interests do animals have exactly? They can feel pain and joy, many have a well-developed social system, so they are interested in not suffering and surviving, argue animal rights activists. But can rivers and forests also have a self-interest? How much could the ombudspersons in parliament assert themselves against industrial interests? And is the perspective in the end again shaped by the "western" view of nature, which tries to humanize animals?

Nature as a legal subject

To be sure, there has not yet been such a nature parliament. Nevertheless, the idea of ​​giving nature its own voice is taking on concrete form in more and more countries, as rivers, lakes or plants are granted their own rights that can be enforced in court. As early as 2008, Ecuador included nature as a legal subject in its constitution and recognized the indigenous expression "Pachamama" (translated "Mother Earth") as a synonym for nature. According to the constitution, every person and every community can call on the relevant public authority to implement the rights of nature.

The new rights of nature have already had an impact in some cases. When road construction threatened the Vilcabamba River a few years ago, local citizens filed a lawsuit arguing that the river had the right to follow its natural course and that changing its state would endanger the human right to a healthy environment. In the judicial decisions, the local citizens and the river got right. Since then, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court has also stopped other economically significant and environmentally harmful large-scale projects. In the meantime, countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, New Zealand and Brazil have also granted individual rivers, ecosystems and nature parks their own rights.

Another position of power

"So far, and in most other countries, nature has been seen as an object that is only worth protecting under certain circumstances," says lawyer Michaela Krömer, who specializes in climate and environmental law. Depending on the case, nature will either be protected in terms of property rights or as a public interest in a special matter. "This is a completely different position of power than when nature itself can raise its voice and become proactive," she says.

The success and advantage of natural law lies in the details: what, how and in what form is introduced. Because how the rights of nature can be implemented varies from country to country, said Krömer. In some cases, nature is represented by independent environmental advocates or collective bodies, in other cases such as Ecuador, where the legal system is more open, every person can assert the rights of nature in court.

In Austria nature has so far no rights of its own. Krömer does not have high hopes that the idea could soon take shape on a large scale in this country as well. Instead of a constitutional reform like in Ecuador, one day certain ecosystems, such as the Alps, which have a high emotional value in the population, could get a new, holistic legal status, said Krömer.

Strong economic interests

But the past has also shown that - despite new rights - in many cases it is not possible to enforce the "interests" of nature in court. In Ecuador, many cases brought against businesses by indigenous peoples have not been successful. In the USA, too, residents of the state of Ohio who voted in favor of giving the heavily polluted Lake Erie its own rights have been dismissed against the interests of the agricultural industry. Although three communities in Brazil have already recognized nature as a legal entity, the slash and burn operations in the Amazon rainforest continue almost unchecked.

With the current economic system and the interests anchored in it, implementing such an idea is often difficult, says Krömer. In the end, she is convinced that the economy can also benefit from this. "We need a paradigm shift in times of the climate crisis: away from human-centered thinking towards a view that sees nature as an opposite, on whom we are dependent. This is an understanding that rather corresponds to reality, namely a world in which everything and everyone is interrelated. " (Jakob Pallinger, April 25, 2021)