The Law Society of England and Wales along with Jigsaw Foresight – a group that studies resource availability and life in the future – has proposed in a new report that legal rights be given to plants, animals and non-living entities like rivers for meaningful coexistence on the planet. It fundamentally shifts the framework of survival from competition to cooperation.
The report, titled Law in the emerging bio era, envisions the beginning of a “biological age” – where humans will use biotechnology to interact and engage more holistically with the living systems around them – at the end of the current digital information age. Biotechnology encompasses all kinds of integration of life sciences with technology. Drugs modifying the behavior of cells and tissues, genetically modified organisms, brewing beverages, bionic robots, are all biotechnological innovations. The report speculates that as we progress through time, biotechnology will become even more pervasive in our lives.
Amid the climate crisis and man-made ecological destruction, the report establishes a framework to ensure that cooperation between man and the rest of the world is not fraught with conflict, abuse and damage to Earth. Granting adequate legal rights and protection to plants, animals and common life-sustaining resources such as rivers is one way to do this, the report says. Dr Trish O’Flynn, co-author of the report, gave an example of what the legal rights of non-humans might look like in the bio age for The Guardiansaying, “an example of entitlement might be evolutionary development, where a species and an individual…is allowed to reach their full cognitive, emotional, and social potential.”
In the bio age, such a legal framework would recalibrate the relationship between humans and their living systems, ensuring that the earth is habitable for future generations, the argument goes. It has to do with the fact that an anthropocentric view of the world has led to its constant destruction; recognizing ourselves as part of our ecosystem could fix that.
“We sometimes think of ourselves as outside of nature, that nature is something we can manipulate. But in reality we are of nature, we are in nature, we are just another species. We happen to be at the top of the evolutionary tree in some respects if you look at it linearly, but in reality the global ecosystem is much more powerful than us,” Dr O’Flynn said.
Dr Wendy Shultz, one of the report’s co-authors, added: “There is a growing understanding that something very different needs to be done if our children are going to have a planet to live on that is somehow enjoyable. , much less survival, so it is an expanding trend.
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The report calls for legal frameworks to protect not only living things from a human perspective, but also genetically modified organisms and manufactured products. This would cover everything from Labradors to lab-grown brain tissue and even robots. In the future, as technology and nature integrate into the bio age, protecting rivers and robots with legal rights would be equally important. The report further states that their framework would also cover pigs and cattle raised for food and separated from their children, and even pets. It demands ethical treatment of all life – and beyond.
Although alone in integrating biotechnology into its approach to a legal framework to protect living systems for the future, this report is not the first to talk about laws protecting other actors in nature. Legal protections for plants, animals, rivers, forests and mountains have been an ongoing conversation in different parts of the world for some time. One such approach, for example, is to designate shared cultural and natural resources as commons so that no individual can have full rights over them. This transfers equal responsibility for the protection of these resources to all members of the community, ensuring that they are protected from depletion and destruction.
Additionally, several indigenous communities around the world identify mountain rivers and forests as sacred beings and have enacted special laws that recognize them as legal persons entitled to special protection by law. Countries like Ecuador and Bolivia have enshrined legal rights for nature in their constitutions, while New Zealand, Bangladesh and Colombia have granted legal personality to rivers and forests. Activist groups are also trying to get the International Criminal Court to recognize ecocide as a crime under international law.
While it is commendable that countries and communities recognize the rights of rivers and mountains, it is also imperative that these laws are guided by a strong legal framework. In India, for example, the Uttarakhand High Court in 2017 recognized the Ganga and Yamuna rivers – sacred to Hindus – as living entities, citing a similar law from New Zealand. This decision, however, was quickly challenged by the Uttarakhand state government in the Supreme Court. The government has claimed that flood victims living on the banks of these rivers can now sue the river guardians for compensation. Eventually, the Supreme Court of India overturned the judgment of the Uttarakhand High Court. Granting legal personality to these rivers was seen by many as a sure way to get the country to clean up these rivers. Five years after the cancellation of the move, these rivers are still flowing polluted.
The examples of Ganga and Yamuna underscore the need for urgent laws – and a strong legal framework to support them – to protect nature from human damage and exploitation.
There is only one earth. The planet is home not only to humans, but also to several million other life forms, all of which depend on its unique climate, terrain and resources for their survival. And in the absence of a viable alternative, it is imperative that all these species live in harmony and respect the resources of this planet. Thus, recognizing nature and its various components as equal stakeholders is essential to arrive at meaningful solutions.