Sustainability and the Rights of Nature – Review
Sustainability and the Rights of Nature, by Cameron La Follette and Chris Maser, May 2017. CRC Press, ISBN 978-1-4987-8644-1, 434 pages. RRP $189.95 [hardback] Kindle version also available
It was at the beginning of June last year that President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be ceasing all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. He claimed that the Paris accord would “undermine the U.S. economy” and leave them “at a permanent disadvantage”. Throughout his presidential campaign this was what he promised he would do, because it “would help American businesses and workers”, in accord with his America First policy. But also last year a serious, heavy volume was published in the U.S., and this pointed in exactly the opposite direction. Its two authors, Cameron La Follette and Chris Maser, explore the potential for human rights legislation to be applied to environmental protection. They are both well qualified to do that. La Follette is professionally grounded in law, psychology and journalism and now directs an organization protecting the Oregon coast. Maser is a highly experienced research scientist in natural history and ecology.
Both in the United States and Europe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has already been interpreted in terms of environmental rights for human beings. Could it now be applied to the natural world itself? The chapters of this book lay out what La Follette and Maser call Nature’s Laws of Reciprocity and then propose strategies to include the rights of nature in legal systems. This could then ensure that human activities are kept within environmentally sustainable boundaries in an enforceable way.
This is a book that needs at least to be in our libraries. Some of the detail and legal complexities may make you furrow your brow. But the examination of feudal notions of obligation and principles of traditional indigenous cultivation will certainly provoke thought. It is good to read some further reflection on Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical. Particularly interesting it is too to learn that the legal systems of Ecuador and Bolivia have already integrated the rights of nature into their legal systems. Might they not one day come to serve as prototypes for other countries around the world, and eventually even the United States, to help ensure a global future of environmental sustainability for all living systems?
It is encouraging for all of us to know that such a study has been produced and that this huge area of great legal significance is now being actively opened up, not least in the context of the United States itself. We know that under the terms of the Paris Agreement the U.S. cannot withdraw from it until November 2020, and the White House has clarified that they will abide by this exit process. Until then the United States is presumably obliged to maintain such commitments as reporting its emissions to the United Nations. But 2020 will bring Donald Trump’s first term of office to an end, and we might well wonder how the United States will be by then.
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