Stepping stones

Tom Brenan discovers a wide range of voices from Earth law proponents around the world......

In his preface to this collection of short articles, the editor Peter Burdon, says that the book is intended to be one step towards fulfilling Thomas Berry’s call for the Great Work ‘to carry out a transition from a period of human devastation of Earth to a time when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner’. While it is focussed on law it also aims to appeal to those engaged in science, philosophy, religion and cultural studies.

The book is divided into four parts. The first considers what Earth Jurisprudence is and contains a number of reflections from those who knew Thomas Berry. We hear personal perspectives from those involved in nurturing the early seeds.

Earth Jurisprudence recognises that human wellbeing is derived from the wellbeing of Earth. The principle of interconnectedness and the resulting need for ecology to be the golden thread running through the fabric of human civilization will be a familiar message to Resurgence & Ecologist readers.

Indeed Cormac Cullinan, the author of ‘Wild Law’, highlights how he discovered that people from around the world were reaching similar conclusions about the need for a more eco-centric approach to law and governance from very different backgrounds without ever having come across the term Wild Law. 

The second part asks about the inspiration for Earth Jurisprudence and groups this into science, theology, philosophy and customary law. While science is often portrayed in a negative light with its reductionist focus on the detail, a subjective approach would assist us in developing a relationship with place which is fundamental for Earth Jurisprudence.

There is some useful food for thought here. So too with Christianity and the oft quoted ‘dominion over nature’. We learn of a second Genesis story in which to ‘till and keep’ the land should be understood as to ‘serve and protect’ it. This clearly gives a very different perspective and reads much more like the Aboriginal Dreaming stories in Australia.

Thomas Berry, a theologian himself, drew on the wisdom of indigenous communities and we discover more about the need to save and learn from customary law practices in Ethiopia and Kenya which are in tune with the rhythms of Earth’s systems.  

This eco-centric approach recognises that humans are part of a wider Earth community and leads us to the third part which considers what Earth Jurisprudence looks like in practice. Two fundamental principles of Earth Jurisprudence are that Earth is the primary source of law and that all beings have inherent rights.

This isn’t necessarily easy to grasp. Part of the difficulty lies with our perception of rights and one suggestion is that recognising the legal rights of Nature should be viewed as a transitional step towards humans feeling part of the wider Earth community. This would also entail a shift away from seeing Earth solely in terms of ‘resources’ to be exploited for our own use and towards a more ecological view of property rights.  

In some ways this may seem a very long way from where we are now but the fourth part, on international law and governance, includes consideration of the Earth Charter. This could guide public policy and has already been formally recognised by many organisations and governments. Using the Earth Charter as a template would help to ensure that we don’t break the implicit covenant to secure a healthy flourishing Earth for future generations. 

While the book may have benefitted from some tighter editing in the earlier sections to avoid repetition, it is still a very important summary of Earth Jurisprudence’s evolution. Maybe the steps needed aren’t so big after all.

Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence, Peter Burdon (ed.), Wakefield Press, 2011, ISBN 9781862549463

Tom Brenan is an environmental lawyer, working with communities, and a keen permaculturist. His interest in a more Earth-centred approach recently led him to the study of biodynamic horticulture and he maintains one hand in the soil and the other in the law. He is on the Wild Law UK steering committee.  

If you enjoyed this review you may also like to read a comment written by Tom on the rights of nature;



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