A Community Perspective on the Rights of Nature

Shannon Biggs
Monday, December 12, 2011

Allen Kanner’s article “Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change” comes as world leaders gather in Durban, South Africa, for the round of UN climate talks known as the COP 17.

Also gathering are pan-African and South African civil society and international climate justice activists. Some are coming to Occupy, protest, and critique the continuing failure of the UN process itself to reach agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Others are hoping to influence negotiators on minor concessions.

Although we live two continents and nearly 11,000 miles apart, as community organizers, Desmond D’sa and I look at climate change from similar perspectives — with our eyes on the ground in the places where we work. From these places, we see the results of the market-based global economic system as it transforms our communities and ecosystems into sacrifice zones for corporate profit. From these places, climate change is perhaps a bit of an abstraction, a byproduct of a colonial mindset that treats nature as property and values the production of “endless more.” As Kanner correctly notes, “The center of the ecological crisis is not the weather but the ongoing and wholesale destruction of life.”

Despite the physical distance between California and South Africa, we both work in the midst of communities where unwanted and dangerous corporate projects including oil refineries, natural gas “fracking,” massive water withdrawal, incinerators, industrial farms, forest clear-cutting, and the like are sited. Real places in time where society’s inventions leave polluted rivers, cancer clusters, poverty, and tons of carbon emissions in their wake.

Currently, U.S. state and federal law says that corporations don’t need community permission to drop pesticides overhead, or to site a toxic dump in town. We are told we cannot say “no” to the unwanted project because that would be a violation of the corporation’s Constitutional rights. We are also told that the ecosystems upon which we depend for survival are mere “property” under the law — human property to be owned and dominated, destroyed at will. But that is changing.

As a rights-based organizer in California, I along with my legal and organizing partners at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) assist communities to pass groundbreaking new laws that place the rights of residents and nature above the interests of corporations.

Desmond D’Sa lives and works in Durban South Africa, the dirtiest city in South Africa, and ironically, host city to the COP 17. There, he is the director of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), an environmental justice network. Over 300 toxic industrial plants — including two oil refineries — operate in and around the city, particularly concentrated in the neighborhoods of south Durban, an area particularly disadvantaged by the legacy of apartheid.

Desmond, who was to write this article with me, was called away to tend to community needs following yet another serious explosion at one of the refineries in his neighborhood. Explosions, accidents, spills, and other toxic exposures are part of daily life there, and the reason why Desmond has begun to introduce the idea of rights for nature and residents in South Durban.

Desmond is also the official convener/coordinator for the civil society gathering for the COP 17. As I meet these activists, I have been compelled to put Kanner’s theory to the test: I took a small informal poll on the notion of self-interest as a motivator for responding to climate change. So many of the civil society participants come to talk about climate change in the context of the tangible work they are doing to stop dams, incinerator projects, food sovereignty, indigenous rights, deforestation, and yes, species extinction.

Kanner asks us to grieve for what has been lost, and through grief, find connection to the rest of species of Mother Earth. Kanner is right, because changing our fate is not an intellectual task to be met merely with facts and logic. That’s what the climate-change-as motivator framework asks us to do. But we cannot feel the burden of atmosphere weighted by carbon storage, and therefore it elicits no real connection. And we soothe ourselves with the notion that a problem of such magnitude is not ours to solve — other than mentally promising to drive less, and buy greener consumer goods.

But can we engineer grief? Grief is an emotional response, a genuine heart-connected feeling of loss personal or otherwise. A prerequisite for grief is caring, compassion, and connection. It could be as simple as missing the once plentiful butterflies that were a common part of childhood or, as residents of south Durban see it, a loss of fish and aquatic life in the river, the loss of clean air and water, and the loss of access to healthy local food.

From the refinery fenceline in South Durban, the gathering of international experts offers no solutions on the ground. Inside the official space, negotiators speak in arrogant clinical terms of climate change “adaptation” (get used to it) or “risk assessment” (what are we willing to lose next to feed the economic status quo). As Kanner points out, this is “the expression of a cultural mindset in which society believes it can overpower nature with inventions so potent they force the world to its knees. It is no coincidence that most modern technology is ecologically harmful, for it was designed from within a system that seeks to subjugate the natural world rather than operate in harmony with it.”

Those of us working on the rights-of-nature framework are seeking to reconnect humanity with the rest of species. We seek to change human law that can only “see” nature as a thing — separate and apart from us, property to be owned and destroyed at will. We seek to change the law because our own salvation can only come from a cultural mindset that we are a part of nature.

Slaves and women were once considered property, but through massive shifts in law and culture they moved from being “right-less” to being rights-bearing. The cultural quest before us is this: can we envisage a future other than that which has come by enslaving Nature and treating all other life as mere “resources” for human exploitation? The time has come not just to intellectualize the recognition of Nature’s right to flourish and evolve organically, but also to breathe this recognition deeply into our culture. How different would our human societies, economies, and structures of law look as part of a connected, Earth-centered community?


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