Defending the rights of nature

RIGHTS-OF-NATURE_web_LOW-06_905 ‘The Rights of Nature and the Nature of Value’ was the last SustainRCA event of the season.  The speakers, chaired by Paul De Zylva from Friends of the Earth, framed a vital debate exploring the complexities of how and why we value and protect the natural environment.  The IPCC has just published its latest report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” asserting that  “Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts”. Climate change, in conjunction with changing habitats, over-exploitation, pollution and invasive species mean that a significant proportion of land and freshwater species “faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century.”   As for our marine species, climate change and loss of biodiversity will “challenge the sustained provision of fisheries productivity and other ecosystem services”   As the warnings become ever more stark, the debate becomes even more critical.

justwoodtablePippa Murray, designer and maker, was the first of four speakers at the SustainRCA event.  Pippa presented ‘Just Wood’ her final year project for her MA Design Products at the RCA.  For nine months Pippa was based in a 45 acre Cumbrian woodland, consisting mainly of British hardwoods, as an apprentice at Danny Frost Timber.  Pippa developed an adhesive free method for moulding greenwood shavings in an affordable batch process.  The greenwood shavings are a by-product of pruning the hardwood trees.  Pruning, or coppicing, is a traditional form of woodland management.  In contrast to mono crop woods that are clear-felled in twenty year cycles, hardwood trees play many different roles in their lifetime.  Writing about Britain’s ancient woodlands recently in the Financial Times, Matthew Wilson, managing director of Clifton Nurseries, noted that a single mature oak can host up to 25,000 individual animals.  Pippa hopes her process offers the potential to make good use of the 649,000 hectares of unmanaged woodland in England today. While pruning and reshaping the trees, Pippa was mindful that the impact of her actions will be revealed in 100 or 200 years time.  On a greater scale, Pippa’s reflections remind us that our interactions with nature have repercussions far beyond our own lifetime.  In closing, Pippa asked, “What is our generation leaving for the future?” 

Hopefully not the sound of the chainsaw that filled the theatre as Andrew Simms (author, nef Fellow, Global Witness) played a short cartoon highlighting financial ties between Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor and climate champion, and tropical forestry companies, a number of whom were implicated in illegal logging.  It is a lighthearted look at a serious issue, not Schwarznegger’s reputation, but the impact of industrial logging, and the role of investment vehicles as intermediaries.  There has been much written about valuing nature’s resources and services, but this presents a paradox, Andrew reminds.  While something is invisible to the system unless it has a price, if you do price it, then it becomes vulnerable to the vagaries of short-term markets.  Nature becomes commoditized and its value reduced to its monetary price.  Yet, Andrew went on, orthodox pricing models fail as you can not put a price on civilisation.  What price for that last barrel of oil?  If monetary values are reductive, even to a Western model, then what alternatives are available for decision-making?

TJ Demos, UCL, while calling for full natural capital accounting as a means to end unsustainable resource exploitation, swiftly challenged us to look at the politics of ecology.  TJ presented works from a number of artists exploring the growing conflicts around ecology and climate change.  Red Ant Dream, directed by Sanjay Kak, and The Sovereign Forest, by Amar Kanwar, look at the impact of mining on the landscape and communities of Odisha (formerly Orissa), India.  Here the artists are protagonists and inquisitors challenging our socio-economic and political culture and its concept of value.

nef first published the Happy Planet Index in 2006.  The HPI measures which countries offer long, happy, sustainable lives for their people.  Small and island states perform best (the UK is ranked 41 out of 151 states).  While economic growth and development is often viewed in a vacuum, devoid of social, cultural, ecological or spiritual values, for many communities nature is central to their heritage.   Earth Law recognises that the Earth is the source of laws which govern life, something that many indigenous peoples and local communities have been practicing for centuries.  Earth law, earth jurisprudence, or wild law recognises the rights of nature , its right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.  In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to adopt Rights of Nature in its constitution.  This changes nature from an asset (that you can put a price on and offset) to an entity than can assume agency in a legal situation.

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Recognising the rights of nature changes our understanding of nature and the purpose of law and governance, from property-owner to trustee.  In this context, it is much harder to put a price on significant harm, as the final speaker, Polly Higgins,  environmental lawyer and author of Eradicating Ecocideargued so eloquently.  As Polly noted, we do not ask what price to put on child abuse, domestic violence or theft.  They are simply crimes.  Ecocide is, “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”  It is not a radical, dark green manifesto, it was included in the UN’s draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind and examined for 11 years as the fifth Crime Against Peace in the Rome Statute before being mysteriously shelved at the last minute in 1996.  Wish20 – Eradicating Ecocide is the global citizens campaign to create a global duty of care and end Ecocide by 2020.

A more holistic approach towards nature, environmental ethics and governance, is one of stewardship, where nature is not an asset to own, where the value of something is greater and more complex than its present monetary price tag.  In the context of SustainRCA, artists, designers and makers have a powerful role to play in envisioning a better world, challenging the status quo, and mediating a more sustainable social, cultural, environmental and economic compact.  Andrew ended with John Ruskin’s quote, “There is no wealth but life”, I shall add, Ai Weiwei, “Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.”

Image credit: Eradicating Ecocide, Pippa Murray, SustainRCA

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2 thoughts on “Defending the rights of nature

  1. Pingback: House of Fairy Tales | carefullycurated uk

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