Earlier this year, the New Zealand government bestowed the legal standing of personhood on the Whanganui River, granting it all of the same rights as a person in legal matters. This isn’t the first time that a country has done something like this: in 2008, Ecuador voted to give its rivers, forests, islands and even its air “similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans“, agreeing that “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights.”
In a recent First Things article titled “Old Faithful Should Not Have ‘Rights'”, Wesley J. Smith explains just what these new “nature rights” mean:
Promoted most prominently by the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund, the laws center around “the rights of people, natural communities, and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish” — in essence, a “right to life for nature.” When these rights are deemed to come into conflict with human activities, nature must be given equal consideration. If there is no other way to mediate them, the disputes will go to court with environmentalists acting as nature’s “guardians.”
Smith finds such thinking disturbing, for it amounts to nothing less than a direct strike at the concept of human exceptionalism, i.e., that human beings have a higher moral standing than the rest of nature. “Nature rights” seeks to address that imbalance “by elevating the natural world to moral equality with human beings—effectively diminishing us to merely another animal in the forest.”
Though the concept of “nature rights” might strike many as odd, Christians will likely take a special umbrage at the concept, for we believe that humanity, and humanity alone, has been created in the image of God. Though Christians have long debated how, exactly, that works, the general consensus has been that our possession of the Imago Dei differentiates us from the rest of creation, and bestows upon us a different status. In other words, we are definitely not “merely another animal in the forest”, to use Smith’s verbiage.
As I read about the development of “nature rights”, I wonder how much of it is driven by “the abandonment of faith in the increasingly secularized West” that Smith mentions, and how much of it is, at root, a reaction to Christians failing to live up to the calling that God gave humanity at the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1:28 (ESV):
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
All too often, we place an inordinate emphasis on the words “subdue” and “dominion” in that verse, an emphasis that can manifest itself in a sentiment similar to this Ann Coulter quote: “The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.” I’ve always been troubled by that sentiment, Coulter’s hyperbole aside. Why would God, who had deemed His creation to be “very good”, want such a creation to be abused and degraded by an aspect of it? Furthermore, why would Christians willfully mistreat something that we believe our own Heavenly Father made, and thought was great?
What would happen if Christians understood that verse, and the concepts of subduing and dominion more from the standpoint of stewardship — or a gardener, for that matter? That God’s very good creation has been given to us, not to be simply used and abused as mere raw material for our own pleasures and ambitions, but rather, to be enjoyed, tended, and yes, even defended at times. Not because it has some intrinsic rights of its own, but rather, because God Himself declared it to be “very good” and if God believed that, than we should too. Would “nature rights” even be an issue were Christians laboring to protect nature and help it to flourish — again, not because we believed that the creation had rights in and of itself, but rather, because we believed that doing so was nothing less than an act of worship to the Creator?
For more on the challenges faced by traditional notions of human exceptionalism, read my piece titled “Scientific Advance, Art, and Horsing Around With Humanity”.
Photo by Jason Pratt.