Does Nature Have Rights?

We all want a prosperous future, and we have rights to help us achieve that. We also want a sustainable planet. Are these two desires incompatible?

Human Rights

The issue of the rights that we have, as human beings, is one of great importance. In the founding documents of the United States, for example. mention is made to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights lays out various human rights like free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to bear arms, and several others.

Additionally, there are arguments over what other human rights should be. Should health care be a right? Does every person have the right to a job? A home?

Importance of Nature

From an ecological standpoint, we know that nature is very important. The vast array of life fits together in a great pattern. Each species has a niche, or a role, to play in making the world work properly. If you upset that delicate balance, it can have catastrophic impacts on all living things.

We humans are in the process of disturbing that balance. Through growing numbers, humans are crowing out other animals. We are clearing forest in order to grow crops for food or to support animal farming. Many species are endangered, and several have already gone extinct.

Humans and Nature

Tying these two ideas together, do we as humans have a right to have access to nature? Studies show that humans benefit from time in a natural setting. Time away from cities, and artificial noise, calms the nerves and leads to a more positive outlook on life. Should we all have  access to a place we can go to escape urban life? To forget, if only for a little while, the hustle and bustle of modern life?

Moreover, does nature itself have a right to exist? Should there be areas set aside that will not be used for human development? Not used for further cities, or for farming or other human-related activities?

There are several examples of the grandeur of nature that have been set aside as national parks or forests. These include the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, the Great Smoky Mountains, and many others. But beyond these natural wonders, should there be some land that exists to maintain biodiversity, and as a refuge for plants and animals, and the ecosystem in general?

Or is it the case that any parcel of land exists only for humans to use as necessary? If space or natural resources become scarce enough, can any and every place be used? Are the needs of humans more important than the needs of any other species on the planet?

Does nature have rights? Or are rights only reserved for humans?

Related questions: How can we maintain wonder? What is your retreat from the world? How can we appreciate life more? What is keeping us from sustaining the planet?

5 thoughts on “Does Nature Have Rights?”

  1. Does nature have rights? Unfortunately, I believe the answer to this question is no. I feel the word “nature” is too amorphous. However, I think there are other, more specific, ways to argue for the protection of nature — human responsibility, animal rights (individually and as species), and the protection of ecosystems, as examples.

    I’m going to keep this comment segment focused on human responsibility. However, I’d be happy to respond to questions about the other examples if anyone cares to ask.

    That noted, while I am an atheist, I am frequently drawn to an early verse in Genesis, where a word can be interpreted as either humans having the right to dominion over the earth or that we must be responsible stewards of creation. I feel humans, because of our power and intellect, as well as the existential crisis we are now facing with climate change, have an obligation to be stewards.

    Unfortunately, we — at least as Americans — have actively or passively chosen dominion as our relationship with nature. We guzzle fossil fuel as if there is no tomorrow. We grow an excessive amount of crops to feed livestock — and destroy huge tracts of land to do so — rather than get food to the nearly a billion people starving. And we produce gobs of single-use items, abdicating the knowledge that our planet has limited resources.

    So I guess I’d like to end this comment with a question: What must happen for us to abandon our addiction to dominance over nature and recognize that stewardship or creation is a moral imperative?

    1. I agree with you Michael, that while nature has no rights, we are under obligation to be good stewards of it.

      The scriptures that you mentioned are at Genesis 1:26-29. There it says that man was to have in subjection all of the animals and to subdue the earth.
      God’s quality of justice means that He did not create the natural world for humans to use the earth, and its resources, in any way we choose. He intended for humans to be responsible for maintaining and preserving the earth and His original purpose was for Adam and Eve, and their descendants, to spread the garden of eden until the whole earth was a paradise.

  2. This question reminds me of a famous quote from Chief Seattle:
    In 1855, Chief Seattle, in his famous reply to President Franklin Pierce regarding the sale of Indian land, eloquently expresses this belief:
    “…Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people….
    Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
    This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.”

    His words are challenging , but isn’t that the whole point of this blog – to stretch
    our minds?

    1. Tom, thank you for including Chief Seattle’s words. They resonate deeply with me.

      Many assumptions are built into this interesting question. Rights, of course, are a human construct. They do not exist independently, not in the same way that scientific laws exist and can be proven. Human rights are the product of a belief structure in which people tell themselves that they belong to a higher order of being than all other creatures on the planet. Therefore, so the story goes, we are entitled to privileges that other creatures are not.

      Human stewardship of nature is a popular concept that relies on this belief. As the pinnacle, the end point of evolution (or creation), people are the lords of the world, and we should act as responsible caretakers and stewards of “resources,” i.e. every other thing inhabiting the world. Unfortunately, it has never worked out that way. Such a system depends on people being better, less selfish, and more altruistic than we’ve ever been before.

      If we came to believe instead that we were one species in a vast tapestry of species, worth neither more nor less than the others, stewardship wouldn’t be our job, because we would no longer see other living things as commodities.

      I am surprised that after the statement “We are clearing forest in order to grow crops for food or to support animal farming. Many species are endangered, and several have already gone extinct,” the next question is not whether humans have a right to do this. That vast assumption is passed over without comment. The question instead is whether humans have a right to exploit nature in even more ways, and whether nature itself has a right to exist. It seems to be an inversion of the real question. Do we, as just one species out of millions, have a right to treat the planet as nothing more than our personal larder, playground, and garbage dump?

      We may indeed decide that nature does not have an independent right to exist. That doesn’t really matter. If we continue living in a way that outstrips the planet’s resources, and ignoring the scientific law that a population increases and decreases in proportion to its food supply, a correction will come soon enough. We are in the process of turning the entire planet into human food. Eventually, when there is nothing left to consume, the rights we feel we deserve will do nothing to help us survive.

  3. I recently came across a legal case that is ongoing, called Juliana v. United States. It’s not quite the same thing as nature having rights, but you can see it from there.

    This case features 21 plaintiffs, all young, suing the U.S. government over it’s action, or lack thereof, regarding climate change. Essentially, they are making the claim that burning fossil fuels is denying them the right to a safe and stable climate system.

    Read more about it here:

    From the website: “Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

    I think this case seems to reinforce the idea that nature itself doesn’t have rights, but humans have rights to nature. Or at least, in this case, a safe climate.

    The lawsuit has cleared a number of hurdles, and has specifically not been dismissed despite efforts to do so by the fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government. The plaintiffs are seeking a moratorium on all new drilling sites in the U.S. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case on June 4, 2019.

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