Recognising the Rights of Nature

| 8th February 2013

Should Earth and all her inhabitants have rights recognised by law?

Environmental lawyer Tom Brenan introduces Earth Jurisprudence and related concepts. These ideas, whilst unfamiliar to most, should undeniably be known - and practised - by all.........
We need to place Earth at the centre of our governance systems

As an environmental lawyer I am very aware of the shortcomings of our current environmental laws in preventing the degradation of the Earth. One of the reasons for this is our disconnection with the Earth and failure to live within Her limits.

This means that we see ourselves as separate from Nature and view the natural world in terms of 'resources' to be exploited for our own purposes rather than our life support system and source of wellbeing. The legal protection offered comes from this human-centred starting point.

The geologian and cultural historian Thomas Berry identified the need for what he called 'Earth Jurisprudence', to re-envision our governance systems by placing Earth back at the centre. Such an approach can be referred to as Earth-centred governance. We need to recognise that we are one of many species that make up the amazingly diverse Earth Community and so rebalance our relationship with the Earth.

Thomas Berry said that we should see the Universe as a ‘communion of subjects’ rather than a ‘collection of objects’ and it is from this that the principles of Earth Jurisprudence flow. It draws many lessons from the practices of indigenous communities which have largely been forgotten by Western society.

'Wild Law' is the legal element of this and is explored in a book by a South African lawyer, Cormac Cullinan. Our current legal system seeks to protect human rights but fails to recognise the rights of other members of the wider Earth Community. All our actions should be based on maintaining the integrity of the Earth Community.
I see much overlap with the Deep Ecology approach and it is this recognition of ourselves as part of the natural world rather than outside it that we need to embrace. To me, permaculture thinking, working with natural processes, forming guilds etc, resonates strongly with Earth Jurisprudence principles and practice.

There is some evidence that a change to Earth-centred governance is beginning to take place. Over the last few years there have been several examples of local law making in the United States in which the rights of Nature have been protected. At a national level, in 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to formally recognise the rights of Nature in its constitution and,following its introduction in April 2011, Bolivia officially declared its Law of Mother Earth in October 2012. 

I am a member of Wild Law UK , a group of lawyers, academics, students, activists and others dedicated to securing the rights of Nature in law and policy and re-establishing and celebrating our connection with Nature. Wild Law UK is part of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature campaign to persuade governments to endorse the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Declaration was drafted at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia on 22 April 2010. The Global Alliance is seeking to encourage as many people as possible to write to their governments in support of the Declaration which recognises Mother Earth as a living being, the interconnectedness of ecosystems, natural communities, species and all other beings, and that the pursuit of human wellbeing should contribute to the wellbeing of Mother Earth.

To read the Declaration and to find out more about the campaign see:

There is also a petition to ‘Value Nature as a living being’ which you can sign here:

An earlier version of this article can be viewed here;

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.  
You may also enjoy this book review written by Tom;


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