“There is no word for NATURE in my language. ‘Nature’ in English, seems to refer to that which is separate from human beings. It is a distinction we don’t recognize.”
–Audrey Shenandoah, Clan Mother of the Onodaga Nation.
If you’re old enough to recall, think back to 1992: the year of the original Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Way back then—in the days before space-age smart-phones, when newspapers were delivered daily by a kid on a bike, and college tuition was within reach for the working class—the human race was concerned about what we were doing to the planet. The attention of a hopeful world was focused on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a historic gathering of nations, tasked with developing solutions for the emerging crisis of climate change, environmental degradation and increasing poverty.
There, under the watchful gaze of Corcovado’s Cristo, the United Nations Earth Summit took place. Leaders gathered in the spirit of international cooperation: promises were made, treaties and accords were signed, protocols were developed. The term “sustainable development” rang out as the mantra ushering in a new era for “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Countries fell like dominos to the theory that a growing economy led by big business benefits the poor, and that once developed, countries could afford to protect the environment.
Students (like me) read about it in school, heaving a collegiate sigh of relief at a rather-unfathomable crisis averted, and took national pride in the leadership role we had played in such a monumental global undertaking.
Now fast-forward 20 years. Commitments made at the Rio Earth Summit have long since been broken. Turns out a “rising tide” absolutely does NOT lift all boats, and true environmental protection cannot be achieved alongside a corporate-led model of unlimited economic growth. As proof of that fact, we are rapidly approaching the tipping point—a 4º C rise in temperature, which will threaten everything we know about life on the only planet we call home.
Faith in the UN as a global “justice league” has all but been shattered. Critiques range from calling out the UN as a flaccid institution to the more cynical view that it has been co-opted, branded and sponsored by corporations.
So why should we care about the Rio+20 (years) Earth Summit this June?
For many activists currently packing their bags for Rio, the goal is to protest the “Green Economy”, the name given to the primary agenda for the Rio + 20 negotiators. What could be wrong with a Green Economy, you may ask? Haven’t environmental activists been promoting such a thing for years?
The Green Economy put forward by the United Nations Environment Program (nicknamed the “Greed Economy” by many) is about promoting the idea that we can only “save” nature by putting a price tag on what nature “does” for us. Proponents call it “ecosystem services” and from forests generating the air you breathe to the decomposition process resulting in the ground you walk upon, everything has its price, and corporations are wringing their hands with anticipation of what the Greed Economy could do for profit margins.
But the human connection to the rest of our living system is not contained in the calculation of the “flow of value to human societies.” Our Earth’s value is not merely that which serves people. You cannot put a dollar value on what is truly lost when island nations like the Maldives succumb to the rising tides of climate change, or when the seas themselves are void of fish—both of which are projected to occur in the next 50-100 years. So how is it possible to put a price on the system that governs all life, or break down an ecosystem into units of “service” and to what end?
Confronting the Greed Economy: The Rights of Nature goes to Rio
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 enforced by an earth jurisprudence that we are a part of nature.
Global Exchange and our partners at the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN), a growing network we co-founded, don’t believe putting a price on nature is the path to protecting nature, and in fact is a faster-track to privatizing and commodifying nature. But we’re not showing up just to stand up for what we’re against, but to articulate what we’re for, and to build the movement for Rights for Nature. We’ll be blogging from Rio, convening strategy meetings with new allies, talking with media and unveiling our new report at a special panel and signing ceremony for the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.
Rights of Nature Speakers:
·Nnimmo Bassey – Environmental Rights Action / Friends of the Earth, Nigeria
· Shannon Biggs – Global Exchange, USA
· Cormac Cullinan – EnAct International, South Africa
· Tom Goldtooth – Indigenous Environmental Network, USA
· Natalia Greene – Fundación Pachamama, Ecuador
· Osprey Orielle Lake – Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus
· Linda Sheehan – Earth Law Center, USA
· Dr. Vandana Shiva – Navdanya, India
· Pablo Solon – Focus on the Global South, Former Ambassador to the UN, Bolivia
The report directly confronts the notion of the Gree(d)n Economy of course, and is full of examples from around the world. But it is also a call out about what a true rights of nature framework would offer the world—and includes examples and updates of the growth of this movement, and new laws taking hold. And lastly, the report asks: if nature had rights, how different would our organizing look around water, Tar Sands extraction and Indigenous rights? And what would the economy look like? Contributors to the report include Dr. Vandana Shiva, Pablo Solon, Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Mari Margil and many others.
The report, Rights of Nature: Planting Seeds of Real Change will be available for free download from our website on June 15. Until then, we’ve selected two chapters for free preview and download now:
- Pablo Solon: At the crossroads between green economy and rights of nature (.pdf)
- Tom B.K. Goldtooth: Indigenous Sovereignty, “Green” Economy and the Rights of Mother Earth (.pdf)
Our work at Global Exchange with our partners at CELDF is to assist communities, native tribes, activists, and governments put these ideas into law. Confronting the Greed Economy alone won’t get us where we want to go—we’ve got to move beyond that, and fast.
Building a movement capable of actually changing culture and law to institute new economies based on community values and Earth rights is the civil rights struggle of our time. Changing the structure of law and shifting our culture toward a new way of living in balance with nature is the hardest work imaginable. But if we are really to change the course of humanity, we must be bold and believe we are able and strategic enough to know that building a real movement is not about ownership of an idea, but working together in solidarity toward a common goal in myriad ways.
- For more information on Global Exchange’s Community Rights Program and our international work advocating for Rights of Nature, please visit our website.
- For a full calendar of Rights of Nature events at the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit, go here.
- The Community Rights Program has entered a contest to win $5,000 towards advancing our work around engaging youth in the Rights of Nature movement! Please vote for our project on the Doing Good This Summer website. Voting begins Friday June 8th at 12pm and ends Friday June 29th at 12pm.
Shannon Biggs is the Director of the Community Rights program at Global Exchange. She recently co-authored two books, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grass Roots and The Rights of Nature. Her current work focuses on assisting communities confronted by corporate harms to enact binding laws that place the rights of communities and nature above the claimed legal “rights” of corporations.