No, Nature doesn’t have rights. And she’s not a person

[image: a timepiece, a threat to humanity’s harmony with Nature? Wikipedia; this is essay #264 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

“Humans once lived in harmony with the natural world,” begins an article entitled Humans Have Rights and So Should Nature, by Grant Wilson. Wilson is the executive director of Earth Law Center, which advances “ecocentric law and education” in the United States. I sympathize with Wilson’s aims, but his approach seems to me to be marred by really bad philosophy, just like the so called Gaia Hypothesis, which is often advanced with good intentions, is marred by really bad science. I’m seriously tempted to label them respectively pseudo-philosophy and pseudoscience. But labels are not useful unless they are backed up by arguments and evidence, so let’s plunge into Wilson’s arguments and see why they are wanting.

Beginning with that opening sentence, it’s not clear what Wilson means when he invokes some supposed early time in human prehistory when our species was in harmony with nature. We are the product of a messy historical-biological process of evolution, partly driven by natural selection and partly by random events. At the larger scale of the entire biosphere, paleontologists estimate that over 99% of species that ever evolved has gone extinct. Were they somehow out of harmony? The species Homo sapiens has experienced a number of genetic bottlenecks characterized by population collapse, sometimes itself coming perilously close to extinction, a fate that was not spared to every other species of Hominids that ever lived. I see no evidence of harmony in nature. Nature just is. And so do we, while we last.

Still, who is the culprit for the alleged disharmony that has recently plagued our species? “Western society has … lost its connection to nature,” writes Wilson. Of course, it had to be western society! Never mind that the things of which Wilson accuses westerners (e.g., the use of clocks, instead going with the rhythmic flow of a nearby river) are very much shared by eastern cultures, as well as, at this point, but almost every other culture on the planet. Also never mind that the alleged disharmony, still according to Wilson, began with the agricultural revolution that took place 11,000 years ago. Way before any conception of “western culture” was anywhere near the horizon. It seems like these days some people just can’t help themselves from gleefully blaming western culture for everything. That culture, like every other, does deserve blame for specific things, but disharmony with Nature isn’t one of them.

The fundamental problem, according to Wilson, is that “many elements of Western society treat humans as separate from and superior to the natural world.” That may very well be, but that statement is in direct contradiction with Wilson’s simultaneous contention that human beings are part and parcel of the natural world. If the latter is true, then even our attitudes toward nature, regardless of how destructive of the environment they may be, are “natural.” I understand where he’s aiming, but sloppy use of language is less likely to get us there. It is far better to think along something like the following terms: human beings are part of nature, and so whatever we do is, by definition, “natural.” However, some of our activities are damaging other species and the environment, which is problematic on a number of levels. So we should do something about it.

Wilson’s proposed solution involves “reclaim[ing] our deep relationship with nature, essential to solving the environmental crisis.” Such process is to be carried forth at two levels: cultural and legal. The cultural aspects will rely on the efforts of “artists, writers, and other creatives whose work reshapes our thinking by underscoring that humans are part of nature.” Notice the absence of both scientists and philosophers from this list. But the big conceptual problem, in my mind, is with Wilson’s legal approach. He writes that we need to “rewrit[e] the legal system so it represents nature’s rights and interests directly alongside our own. A new generation of ‘Earth lawyers,’ including me, have taken up this challenging task.”

Wait, what? Legal rights are human inventions, and they apply to persons, not ecosystems or planets. Which of course does not mean that we shouldn’t have environmental legislation, it just means that it cannot coherently be based on the concept of Nature’s right, because Nature doesn’t have rights, because Nature is not a person Or is she?

Wilson says that his proposed approach “recognizes that nature is a ‘legal entity’ or ‘person’ with fundamental rights.” While environmental law, he points out, is about preventing loss of habitat and ecosystem damage, it does so without addressing the root cause, which Wilson identifies as an economy that incentivizes maximum exploitation of nature for profit. Again, I am sympathetic, but if by such an economy Wilson means capitalism, then this is a very recent phenomenon, far more recent than the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic. While it can — and should — be corrected, I don’t think we need woolly notions of Nature’s rights and personhood to get there.

But let’s see how this would work out, according to Wilson. He provides some examples, beginning with a 2017 decision by the Constitutional Court of Columbia that the Atrato River is a “subject of rights,” and that such rights are to be guaranteed through a system of guardianship, analogous to that normally established for children. But this is unnecessarily obfuscatory language for saying that we are passing laws to protect the river as a natural system.

Another 2017 court decision goes further, and is worse. The Te Awa Tupua river in New Zealand was declared a “living entity and legal person.” Except that rivers are not, in any scientifically sensible understanding, “living entities.” And, philosophically speaking, they are not persons. And since I would hope that proponents of the concept of legal personhood would strive for logical coherence, then rivers shouldn’t be legal persons either.

Let’s do a brief detour on the complex debate of what exactly counts as a person, philosophically speaking. Some philosophers think that personal identity depends on psychological continuity: you are a person, and continue to be that person, because you have memories and other psychological states. There are problems with this approach. For instance, I think it is reasonable for me to claim that I am the same person as I was, say, five years ago, ten years ago, and when I was a child. But the further back in time we go, the fewer memories I have of those previous versions of me. If I don’t remember anything about me 50 years ago, does that mean I am a different person, ontologically speaking? (Of course I am different in the more trivial sense that I have changed my mind about things, I have accumulated memories, and so forth.) Or take someone suffering from neurological degeneration who doesn’t remember anything she did last week. Is she a different person?

That is why some philosophers have put forth the physical continuity account of personal identity. I am the same person I was at any other time in my life (again, ontologically speaking) because I am made of the same stuff as my previous selves. One objection here is based on the so-called ship of Theseus paradox, which goes back to the Pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus. Here is how Plutarch explains the problem:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” (Theseus, 23.1)

Is Theseus’ ship “the same” if we have replaced every single plank that makes it up? The situation is actually closely analogous to that of the human body, since our cells are constantly dying and being replaced, throughout our lives. So in one sense I am indeed “physically continuous” with myself 50 years ago, but in another sense I am made of entirely different bits.

There are several other accounts of personal identity on offer, but my take is that what makes a human being a person is, in fact, a combination of physical and psychological continuity. We are who we are because we have memories, character traits, experiences, and so forth, and those psychological traits are made possible by a degree of physical continuity, though not identity, with previous phases of our lives. The point is, no matter how you slice it, a river, or Nature, doesn’t even begin to fit the definition.

Incidentally, for some reason pretty much all the examples mentioned by Wilson — he goes on to discuss an additional three — are of rivers. Perhaps because they are dynamic natural processes regarding which it is easier to fool oneself that they are somehow akin to living organisms. But they clearly are not, a conclusion made painfully clear by the absurdity of a belief apparently shared by the Whanganui, a Maori tribe. They regard the river by the same name as their ancestor. But unless we insist in playing Humpty Dumpty with our words, “ancestry” has a specific biological meaning, and I guarantee you the Whanganui come from a continuous line of descent every single member of which belonged to the species Homo sapiens, no rivers included.

Wilson is of course right that “we can reinvent our language so that we no longer describe nature as our ‘property’ or a ‘resource,’” and it is possible that such reinvention of language will be psychologically useful to convince more people to give a damn about the environment. But we should give a damn for the right reasons, not on the basis of questionable philosophy or poetically attractive mythologies.

Besides, there is a danger that Wilson’s approach may lead to serious practical problems. If a river is a person, does that mean we shouldn’t use the water flow to generate clean hydroelectric energy? For that matter, if the good Whanganui people fish in the homonymous river, aren’t they exploiting a living being for their own purposes? This way lies a rabbit hole of absurdities.

To be clear, I understand — and share — Wilson’s goals, but I think we need to go about them in a more philosophically, and scientifically, grounded fashion. Like what? So far as I can see there are two well grounded reasons to preserve the environment:

* Pragmatic: as Wilson says, we are part of nature, nature is our home in the sense of what makes it possible for us to live and thrive. You don’t destroy or seriously damage your home, on penalty of having a really difficult time afterwards.

* Reduction of suffering: I am with Jeremy Bentham when he said, with regard to our treatment of animals: “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? ... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.” (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

I’m sure many will find these reasons either too self-centered (the first one) or insufficient (the second one). But they are neither. The pragmatic foundation for environmental protection is “self-centered” only in a very broad sense of the term, since the “self” in question encompasses all currently living human beings and all future ones. We are talking zillions of people. And if we add the suffering criterion, then my proposed approach becomes infinitely less self-centered, as it encompasses countless living creatures, again present and future. Moreover, the two criteria together imply that we ought to take care of the environment in a sense of the word that goes far beyond creatures capable of suffering, because those creatures would indeed suffer very much if we seriously damaged non-sentient life, or the workings of Earth’s ecosystems.

(Should you be unhappy because my approach does not include direct protection for plants and other non-sentient beings, my apologies, but I have no moral qualms that interfere with eagerly cutting into my arugula salad when dinner time comes around. After all, plants don’t think, or feel.)

I get a bit impatient when people say things like “our activities are damaging the planet.” The planet, not being living or sentient, cannot be “damaged,” since damage is a human concept. The planet just is. It is also bizarre to say that it will “survive” even humans. Again, since it’s not living, it will not survive or perish. It will simply be. Or not be.

So by all means let us take care of the environment because it is, indeed, the right thing to do. And let us do it urgently, because we are running out of time. But let’s do it for sound philosophical reasons, with our actions guided by the best available science, not on the basis of muddled thinking and charming mythologies.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts