The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The anthropocene and the rights of non-human persons February 8, 2013

We have entered a new age, what scientists are calling the “Anthropocene,” otherwise termed the “Human Epoch” by geologists. This means, for the first time in history, rather than having meteorological activity, substantial volcanic activity, or other natural phenomena which affect the entire planet’s ecology and geology, we have human-driven activity affecting it on a larger scale. To get a sense of the enormity of this fact, the Planet Under Pressure conference put out an informative website and video.  Here’s their video (their State of the Planet declaration is also worth a read):

 

More evidence about reaching our limits, or “overshooting” beyond them, can be found in the Limits to Growth, which does a very thorough, if not depressing, job of showing the human-driven stresses on our planet (and I’ve blogged about this book before).  These limits aren’t just felt by humans–but rather, all life on this planet is being radically impacted.

 

While scientists, policy makers, and the general public can continue to debate efforts to move towards sustainable solutions (or, worse, debate the fact that we are even causing problems), which are likely not to come in time to do any real good at least in the USA, perhaps what is being lost in here are the rights of other species–plant, animal, insect, and microbial–to life and the space to grow.  These are often called “non-human persons” in animistic thinking, the idea that you can be a person and not be human, to have a soul, a spirit, a set of unalienable rights.

 

Its something we don’t usually discuss: the rights of non-human persons.  But perhaps we should.  Bolivia recently made international headlines by enacting a law that contains eleven principles giving “Mother Earth” legal rights.  Now I want to clarify–my understanding of these is that they aren’t considered “protections” as much as actual “rights” and that’s a world of difference.  In the USA, we have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose job is supposed to consist of protecting our natural environment.  These protections are usually shoddy, underfunded, and corrupt.  In other words, we have a shoddy agency trying to save face while corporations and individuals continue to do whatever they damn well please.

 

Whether or not Bolivia will be able to overcome their oil and profit-driven industry’s motives and create something new that goes beyond paper and into practice is another story.  At this point, the law is a start, an intention, and we’ll need to see how it plays out and if this is first in a larger series of movements that make us recognize that our tribe must extend beyond fellow humans and to encompass all life.

 

The rights of all...

The rights of all…

An animistic perspective has something to offer to this discussion as well.  In animism, all living things (birds, trees) and natural material objects (rivers, stones) possess a spirit, a soul, something that transcends their physical well being.  (We can set this in stark contrast to the view held in various Christian religions, where only humans have souls).  This means that when you destroy a tree, or a river, or some other natural thing, you aren’t just destroying the physical thing, but you are also impacting a spiritual entity connected to the same web of life that you, yourself are connected to.  I think that thinking about the world in these terms makes us understand why mother nature, as a whole, and individual spirits within her great web (birds, plants, rivers) should have rights–the same rights that humans enjoy.

 

For who can decide what has the right to live, the right to consume resources, the right to take up space, and who does not?  Is that really our right as human beings? I would argue that in this age, we need to stop thinking about our rights and start thinking about those whose rights have been trampled.  We need to take more positive actions as Bolivia is attempting, we need to recognize and own up to the consequences of our own behaviors, and we need to build a better world.

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11 Responses to “The anthropocene and the rights of non-human persons”

  1. uncledeepak Says:

    Dana – I just typed out a long reply, but it disappeared without trace. As always, I agree with everything you’ve written. Since the electricity supply is so unreliable, and because I feel myself being sucked more and more into a modern, mainly Western, way of life with this computer, I’ve decided to sever ties with it, and get back to a more meditative lifestyle with no such distractions.

    I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing how serious you and your friends are about the pressing problems of today. How different from the “hippies” of the 60s and 70s, who were all talk and no action! Well done!

    With affectionate regards and all good wishes, from Deepak.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Good to hear from you, Deepak! If you are severing ties to the computer, does that mean I won’t be hearing from you in the future? This would be a shame–I do enjoy your thoughts. But I do understand your perspective (and I blogged about this subject last year: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/on-being-connected-and-the-toxicity-of-technology/)

      • uncledeepak Says:

        Well, I feel somewhat like Mark Twain, when he wrote that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated! I have returned to the local village computer, since there were howls of protest here when I stated my desire to withdraw a little further into the jungle. It was pointed out that with my knowledge of languages, I was a useful online watchdog to keep an eye open for any undesirable internet activity relating to people trafficking. We moved many children here from the city because there have been gangs of men – mainly Westerners – on the lookout for girls to be kidnapped and sold to the owners of brothels. Some people seem to have been born without a conscience. How can this be?

        Because of the appalling electricity situation, some clever man will be installing a kind of solar panel that will enable my little shack to enjoy uninterrupted power (in theory!). In addition, the others down the trail will be getting a similar modern system.

        There are several things I wanted to write to you, Dana, partly about your state of Pennsylvania. However, time does not permit. As you’ll know, the great sage of Punxsutawney, who never errs, has effectively deprived you of your beloved snowy weather!

        So long for the present. From Deepak.

        • Willowcrow Says:

          Hey, hey Deepak! Good to know you will still be online. I am very much looking forward to hearing what you have to write to me. Punxsutawney Phil couldn’t have been more wrong–we still have lovely amounts of snowy weather and I’m very much enjoying it.

  2. Amanda Says:

    I completely agree that progress on these things is much, much too slow. Speaking of the government, when I was in graduate school I took a class on Rarity, and we had one section on the Endangered Species Act. That was a revolutionary law at the time, since it said the government SHOULD protect other species, even ones that don’t have direct practical utility to humans. Unfortunately, like with what you say about the EPA, a lot of politics can get in the way of using the ESA to its full potential (one good example would be the recent delisting of the gray wolf due to pure politics, not science).

    In my Wildlife Ecology class in grad school, we were required to read “The Land Ethic” by Aldo Leopold. I really wish more pagans would read his writings (I also wish more pagans had *even heard of him*.) He makes an excellent case, in purely secular terms, about how over the course of human history, ethics have been expanded (we used to have slaves, but now ethics have been expanded to all human beings), and now we should expand them to include “The Land”, which he defines “to include soils, waters, plants, and animals.”

    But this was written in the 1940s! That was a long time ago.

  3. Kris Hughes Says:

    While I share you belief that all beings have rights, I can’t help noticing the enduring human arrogance that says “And we have the power to grant those rights.” for in saying that it becomes obvious that we have not fully assimilated the basic truth of what we assert. When one group “gives” rights to another, there is always a funny smell left lingering in the air…

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Of course, but I think even recognizing this process is a start. I don’t think we have the power to grant rights; I think the only thing we have done is systematically strip others of rights. If anything, what Bolivia and others are trying to do is restore the rights that have been post. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Alex Jones Says:

    I prefer to see this era as the Holocene. This new title “Anthropocene” is a media attention seeking gimmick. Humanity has a choice to make, destroy itself or be sustainable.

  5. William Says:

    You should watch & share this video documentary also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJX_E66tg48


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