Environment: Developing a better relationship with NatureMay 21, 2023
Jurisdictions are increasingly introducing Rights of Nature provisions into their legal systems. International shipping needs to steer a better course to zero emissions. Rewilding Britain one stream at a time.
Our relationship with Nature
Members of many Eurocentric cultures, encouraged in some cases by their religious teachings, have over the centuries developed a belief system that humans are separate from and superior to nature. Consequently, nature exists for the benefit of humans who have a right to dominate it and use it however they see fit. This perhaps reached its zenith with the capitalist view that the resources available in the environment are a ‘free gift’ to be ‘extracted’ and turned into commodities for the generation of profit.
In recent years, in response to growing public and political concerns about the destruction of the natural environment, capital has adopted a different language and approach. Now, we hear much more about the essential ‘ecological services’ that nature provides to humans (a term and a concept I abhor) and that to protect them, or provide ‘stewardship’ of them, we must put an economic value on them so that they can be included in corporate balance sheets. Nature has become ‘natural capital’, or at least those part of it that are of economic value to us – beggar the rest.
I’m no moral philosopher or environmental ethicist but it seems to me that one can see a clear progression here from dualism to free gift to ecological services to natural capital. The fundamental orientation remains fairly unchanged, however. Humanity regards nature (the environment) as something that exists, if not solely for our own benefit, as always available for our use. We can now see that nature also needs to be protected, for which we will provide ‘stewardship’, but mainly because humans will suffer greatly if it is damaged too much, not because it has intrinsic value.
Many indigenous cultures have a radically different view of the relationship between humans and nature. They regard humans as just one of the many elements that make up the complex, interconnected, mutually dependent, organic and inorganic package that constitutes nature. Such a belief system sees a relationship of reciprocity between humans and nature’s animals, plants and land- and waterscapes. All parts deserve respect and have an obligation to protect and provide for the others.
Rights of Nature
Advocates for Rights of Nature legislation have a view of nature that is much closer to the indigenous perspective than the western or capitalist one. They argue that humanity is just one of many mutually dependent living beings (animals, plants, fungi, microorganisms, etc.) and inorganic structures (rivers, mountains, forests, etc.) that form Earth – call it ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Gaia’ if you wish. Seeking a more respectful, more sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of nature, one that better protects nature from humanity’s assaults, the Rights of Nature movement asserts that nature has its own inherent worth and wants legislation to recognise this. The advocates aim to give nature the status of ‘personhood’ in law – rather like the rights and privileges that other non-human entities such as corporations enjoy under the law.
What would happen if animals, plants, features of the physical environment and nature at large had legal rights? Where has this happened already? Dion Bull from Stacks Law Firm provides global and historical context to this question. The Rights of Nature concept has been around for about 50 years and several countries (and regional jurisdictions) have conferred legal rights on the environment, ‘Mother Earth’ and specific rivers. For example, Ecuador has included it in its constitution, an Indian court has recognised the rights of the Ganges River, the city of Seattle has recognised the right of salmon to pass through the city’s dams, and Uganda has recognised the rights of its forests.
Bull asks, if others can do it, why not Australia? Why not legal rights for the Murray Darling, the Great Barrier Reef or Tasmania’s forests?’
Bull also points out, however, that such initiatives may well struggle to get traction with governments that don’t support a Bill of Rights for citizens, never mind nature! And just because legislation is introduced doesn’t mean that the rivers, forests, salmon etc. are safe.
If humanity is to avoid devastating global warming and loss of biodiversity and the consequent immiseration of billions and possibly total extinction, it has a clear choice about the nature of its relationship with nature. Do we see a better future from treating nature as natural capital, protecting only those bits that are of economic value to us? Or is the legal Rights of Nature path more likely to deliver a safer, more equitable, more environmentally sustainable future?
The who, how, where and when of greenhouse gas emissions
The rather complex pie chart above displays the total greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of each sector of the economy of every country. The top ten emitting countries (midnight to 8 o’clock in the chart) are responsible for two-thirds of all emissions. Australia is 14th with 80% of 10th placed Canada’s emissions.
The world’s top three emitters (China, USA and India) are responsible for 15 times more emissions than the bottom hundred.
The hyperlink leads to an interactive version of the pie chart that displays details for every country. It also provides access to another interactive feature, developed by ClimateWatch, that shows historical emissions for each country by year and the cumulative amount to 2021, both per capita and per unit of GDP. Graphs and databases such as this are an incredible resource if you want to keep an eye on greenhouse gas emissions.
International shipping’s contributions to climate change
For obvious reasons, in 2020 there was a reduction in the CO2 emissions produced by international shipping. This was reversed in 2021 as international trade picked up. Regardless of these yearly blips, however, international shipping is responsible for about 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions.
International shipping’s CO2 emissions.
Just like every other sector, international shipping needs to navigate a course to zero emissions. But it has two major problems. First, not only are 99% of international shipping’s energy needs met by oil, ships’ engines burn the dirtiest, most polluting type of oil available, bunker fuel, because it’s cheap. As well as producing lots of greenhouse gases, bunker fuel produces lots of particulate matter, mercury and sulphur. The second problem is that ocean going ships tend to have a 25-30 year life and are slow to turnover.
Biofuels, methanol, hydrogen, ammonia, batteries, wind sails, on board production of electricity from the wind and sun, it isn’t clear which alternative sources of power will prove most useful for shipping’s transition but it’s certain that one, or more likely several, will have to play a part. A major challenge will be to avoid Scylla and Charybdis, the false solutions offered by liquefied natural gas and nuclear that will just cause more problems.
The International Maritime Organisation has been slow to respond to the problem so far but the pressure is increasing for it to develop strategies for shipping to steer its way to zero emissions. Bearing in mind that shipping carries about 90% of global trade, it’s important the solutions start to be implemented soon.
Rewiggling the Lake District’s streams
A little while ago I mentioned that there is no natural vegetation left in the UK as a result of centuries of cropping and grazing, both of which have frequently involved re-engineering the topography as well as changing the fauna and flora.
For the last 200 years, the residents of Swindale in the Lake District have been straightening the beck to speed the flow of water and increase the farmable land. The faster flow was no good for vegetation or animals that like the slow moving waters found in bends and pools, and no good for spawning – bye-bye salmon and trout. It also carried more sediment downstream which made the water murkier and reduced light penetration – yes, the sun does occasionally shine in the Lake District.
In 2016 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds began three months of action, with partners including the local water company, to make 1km of the beck (or creek) meander again. The improvements began immediately: ‘We now have vegetation in the river, where young fish can shelter. There are gravel banks, deep pools and riffles – shallow, turbulent parts of the river where the water draws in oxygen. It all benefits the whole food chain. It’s like a living thing moving through the valley now, while the old, straightened river was just like a sad canal.’
The UK government is funding similar conservation schemes for farmers to boost biodiversity on their land. Encouragingly, the pilot scheme was massively oversubscribed. The RSPB wants the government to provide more money.
Finally a heartfelt plea. Can all Australians please note that the area in NW England with lots of hills and lakes is called the ‘Lake District’ (singular) or more colloquially ‘The Lakes’ (plural). There may be lots of lakes there but it is most definitely not called the ‘Lakes District’. Just saying.
Elsewhere in Britain
On the other side of the Pennines, the North Sea is steadily eroding large sections of the coast, causing lots of problems and heartache for homeowners, authorities and seekers of traditional British Fish and Chips.