In 2020, Orange County, Florida, passed a “Right to Clean Water” initiative. This initiative recognized the legal rights of ecosystems and species. Based on that county ordinance, two lakes, two streams, a marsh (along with certain other waterways), and environmentalist Chuck O’Neal filed a lawsuit against a developer to prevent him from filling in land for a new housing development. Yes, you read that right – the lawsuit was brought by bodies of water. (Of course, the suit was actually only filed by the human.) The case was eventually thrown out of court, as it was determined that the county did not have the authority to override state law – which puts environmental regulation in the hands of state government. As crazy as it is, the judge’s ruling didn’t even address the matter of whether or not it is possible for inanimate objects to file a lawsuit.
It seems rather weird that people would be trying to give actual legal rights to inanimate nature, but it is actually happening. In fact, it is a much bigger movement than you might imagine. As of this writing, Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia have all passed Rights of Nature (RoN) laws, with numerous other countries flirting with them in particular locales – including a good number of cities in the United States.
Rights of Nature (RoN) is a legal instrument that allows for nature to have inherent rights. These laws essentially provide the same protection for nature as people and corporations normally get through the legal system. Specifically they give ecosystems and species the legal right to thrive, and regenerate (ie. to flow, be protected from pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem).
Of course, these inanimate natural bodies don’t have the ability to actually bring lawsuits by themselves. They require human beings to be their spokespersons and stand in as their protectors. What we have here is essentially a new way to implement and enforce environmental laws – one that would prevent opponents from having any recourse.
This brings up some very interesting thoughts as it relates to the underlying reasoning that allows for RoN laws. How can anyone think that elements of nature could even be considered to have legal rights? Well, different worldviews have entirely different understandings of the very nature of reality – and there are people who truly believe reality exists in a way that understands nature to legitimately have rights.
Animism is the belief that reality consists of two parts – a material part and a spirit part. It is believed that the two parts interact with each other in a symbiotic relationship – what happens in one part affects what happens in the other. So, if human beings do things that harm or disrespect the spirits in nature, those spirits will retaliate by causing bad things to happen to individuals, and even to entire societies.
Based on the beliefs of this worldview, spirits are understood to be objectively real entities, with many of them actually inhabiting nature, who have the power to affect material life. It is understandable, then, that people who hold this belief recognize nature as something that can retaliate against human beings who disrespect it. As such, it should not be surprising that some Animists would seek to mitigate bad things happening by protecting nature using any means possible – including using RoN laws.
Naturalism is the belief that the natural universe, operating by natural laws, is all that exists. These people do not believe in any kind of supernatural reality. Many of the radical environmentalists who are causing havoc throughout the country fall into this camp. Being Naturalists, many have a great interest in promoting RoN laws, but their motivation is entirely different from people who are Animists.
This group sees environmentalism through a lens of the survival of life on the planet. The current fad among this group focuses on what they perceive as the global warming threat, but they are also concerned with pollution and other things they believe threaten the future existence of life on earth.
Many of these people are also interested in promoting RoN laws, but their motivation is to naturally protect the balance of nature, and ensure the continuation of life on the planet. Not having any objective moral reason for their activism, Naturalists’ interest is purely material. This also puts them in a position of not having an objective moral basis for their activities – that is, they don’t recognize any moral limitations on their activism. If they believe RoN laws can further their cause, they are willing to use them as a tactic.
Christian Theism has an entirely different basis for understanding nature. Christians believe that the earth is a creation of God, and that in the process of creation He set up mankind as His stewards (managers) over the earth. With that, human beings are permitted by God to use the earth’s resources to better their lives, but are also responsible to properly take care of it.
When it comes to RoN laws, a Christian worldview doesn’t see any sense in them at all. Rights, of any kind, are only applicable to human beings – which are the only earthly creatures that have the capacity for self-conscious thought. This capability is necessary in order to even conceive of the concept of rights. A Christian worldview causes Christians to always just look to do the right thing according to what God has revealed to be right, rather than looking to promote rights in places where it is objectively impossible to grant them.
When it comes to rights, an objectively real God is necessary for there to even be any rights that can be considered objectively real. Human beings can create and grant what they call rights, but these can only be temporal and based on a relativistic moral foundation. Human founded rights can be changed anytime there is a change of those in power.
So, What Rights Should Nature Have?
Bottom line: Nature should not have any rights. In fact, it is impossible for nature to have any rights. And it is beyond me why the various places that want to protect nature don’t simply make laws that protect the places they want to protect, instead of pretending nature has rights.
The truth is, only self-conscious creatures that are able to perceive the concept of rights are able to receive and implement them. Animism does not reflect reality. Naturalism does not reflect reality. It is only Christian Theism that provides humanity with a way of understanding nature that corresponds to the way the world actually exists.
Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books entitled The Truth Mirage, Rules for Christians Radicals, Liberalism vs. Conservatism, and his latest book Shattering the Truth Mirage and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.
You may also contact Freddy at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule him for speaking or leadership engagements.
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