This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
In the space of a week, three rivers in different countries have been recognised as people under the law. New Zealand became the first country in the world to take this step by granting legal personhood to the Whanganui River this month. A few days later the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand did the same for the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.
Under the changes, all three rivers are considered to have the legal rights of a human being and can be represented in court. The intention is to provide greater protection to the health of the rivers as well as address historic grievances in the case of the Whanganui River and the local Māori communities.
These world firsts represent important legal advances because they provide a promising means of protecting the environment. But their significance is greater than this — they represent a growing challenge to the anthropocentric nature of our societies.
Our political, economic and legal systems have largely been built around placing human rights and interests first. This has led to considerable environmental problems, from climate change and resource exploitation to species extinction and mass pollution. Reversing this damage (and preventing new problems from arising in the future) requires balancing human interests with those of the natural world which sustains us. The decisions of New Zealand and India are the the most recent examples of this growing awareness.
In 2008, Ecuador recognised the legal rights of nature in its constitution, as did Bolivia a few years later in 2011. These decisions did not emerge from nowhere. As with New Zealand recently, they were the result of extensive campaigning by Indigenous people to recognise the long-held spiritual and cultural importance of the environment to them. The changes incorporated a different way of valuing the environment, which is less about its use value and more about its inherent value.
Underpinning the New Zealand law, in fact, is the more holistic view of nature held by the local Māori community. Te Awa Tupua is protected not just as a waterway but as ‘an indivisible and living whole’ and comprises the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”
But it’s not just Indigenous knowledge that is changing our valuation of the environment. Scientific and technological advances are increasing our appreciation for the complexity and value of non-human life as well as our own relationship with nature. Research is giving us new insight into the cognitive abilities of animals as diverse as apes, crows, dolphins and octopuses suggesting they’re capable of metacognition, counting, play and, in the case of dolphins, ‘naming’ each other.
A recent study by Stanford University found that people felt a greater connection to nature and greater awareness of the potential impacts of their consumption habits after using a virtual reality headset to experience the perspective of a cow heading to slaughter or coral being eroded due to ocean acidification.
In economics, the services that ecosystems provide, for instance water filtration by wetlands, are increasingly receiving a monetary value so that greater weight is given to protecting them. The value of the pollination of farm crops provided by honey bees in the US in 2010 was estimated at $29 billion by Cornell University while the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been estimated to provide between $5.7 billion and $7 billion annually in economic benefits.
None of these are silver bullets for our problems and many have their shortcomings. But to find the myriad solutions we require to greatly reduce our impact on the natural world, we must embrace new and old forms of knowledge which help us more wholly and accurately value the environment.
This will inevitably involve reassessing ourselves and our place in nature in meaningful and concrete ways. The Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change provides promising direction to help us do just that.
The declaration has been designed by the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment to stand alongside the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It holds that to adequately tackle climate change we need to properly recognise and protect human rights, and this means protecting the environment. After all, by damaging the ecosystems we depend upon, climate change threatens our security and prosperity. The declaration would compel governments and businesses to take action on climate change in order to avoid harming people and denying their human rights.
The declaration, like the decisions in New Zealand and India this past fortnight, reflects a growing appreciation of the dependence of our long-term wellbeing on the health of the environment. They suggest that we’re beginning to recognise the inherent value of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s this awareness that will help us properly clean up our act and take the action we need to safeguard our future.