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.
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.