Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Rocks Have Rights?

Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki has announced what will likely be his last campaign. His goal: To enshrine clean air and water in Canada's Charter of Rights. His announcement reminded me of a column I wrote in 2007 on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire—about whether rocks have rights.

In 1807, the British Parliament signed into law the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the first step towards the worldwide eradication of the African slave trade.

Today, over 200 years later, it seems obvious that people should not be bought, sold and enslaved. But back then the prevailing view was that the slave trade was necessary, even if it was brutal. 

Stopping it, it was argued, would have negative economic consequences; only a very few people believed that it was morally wrong. It took 20 years of tireless work by William Wilberforce, a courageous Christian Member of Parliament, before the trade was ended.

The abolition of slavery is just one example of how humans have evolved ethically. Other examples include the civil rights movement in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the extension of human rights to women, gays, people with disabilities and others.

It can be argued that the human race has often failed to live up to these ideals—shamefully, there are still parts of the world where people are enslaved, and there is still far too much discrimination. But most would agree that these are noble aims to strive for.

While progress has been made in developing rules to govern human relationships, we have not done as well when it comes to developing an ethic to guide our relationship to the earth.

True, there is a growing consensus that we need to change the way we live if humans are to survive. But real change won’t occur until we believe that it is morally wrong to pollute the planet.

Not wrong because it has negative economic consequences. 
Not wrong because it will negatively affect our way of life. And not even wrong because we will die if we don’t stop dumping on, paving over and polluting the environment. It’s wrong because that’s no way to treat anyoneor anything. 

Rocks, in other words, have rights, too.

It’s a radical shift in thinking. Traditionally, we have mostly thought of rights as belonging to human beings. But more and more ecologists are arguing that the earth is not to be prized because it sustains life, but because it has value in and of itself.

One of the earliest to promote this way of thinking was Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S.

In his classic 1949 essay, The Land Ethic, Leopold suggested that next human moral evolution would be the expansion of ethics to govern our relationship to the earth. 

Leopold proposed the following ethic for the way we deal with the environment: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the earth. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

More recently, Wendell Berry, a Christian environmentalist, author and farmer, has added a spiritual dimension to Leopold’s idea by suggesting that there is a sacredness to the material world, and all of its nonhuman inhabitants.

Berry argues that the earth, and all its aspects, are invested with value not just because they were created by God, but because they are expressions of the divine.

Says Berry: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us . . . we must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Many people today, including many religious people, are taking the issue of earth care seriously. That's all good, but maybe the next step is to believe that it is morally, religiously, spiritually and ethically wrong to abuse the earth—that rocks, trees, flowers and all other living things have rights, too.

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