Earth Has Rights! Guest Post by John Henry Briggs

Since I am away out west, I sent intrepid reporter and number two son John Henry Briggs to the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY Graduate Center, where he witnessed the event “Nature Has Rights”, in which a panel asks questions like, “Does a river have a right to flow?” Happy Earth Day!

I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan five minutes early. I found my way to the auditorium where about 200 people were already sitting, idly chatting. In one conversation from the group in front of me, I caught the words “Republican”, “recount” and “election.”

The white-bearded David Harvey, a professor at CUNY, and this evening’s moderator begins introductions. First up, Shannon Biggs, a chipper looking lady with glasses and red-black hair. She works with an NGO called Global Exchange, their motto is “Building people-to-people ties”. Nature Has Rights

Second, a man in a garish shirt named Cormic Cullinan, a South African Environmental lawyer who just published his book “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice” which is available on the table outside for just $5.

Thirdly, Vandana Shiva, a self-described ecofeminist and environmental activist dressed in traditional Indian garb.

Next up, a very nondescript Maude Barlow, who holds the position of Chairperson to the Council of Canadians and is the Senior Advisor to the President of the 63rd UN General Assembly.

Last, but not least is Pablo Solón, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN.

Mr. Harvey puts the first question to his panelists: “What do we mean by rights of Nature? And why is it significant?” Each member ignored this and instead said what they came there to say. Biggs gets the ball started and complains that, “Nature can be owned, nature is property—like a slave.” Not missing a beat, she turns to the BP spill, complaining that only people could sue BP, but Nature could not. If Nature had rights, then Nature herself could get her cut from BP as well.

Continuing along the same vein, Cullinan stresses that, “We’ve become autistic to the natural world.” He insists in three different ways that there is an order to nature we must adhere to.

Shiva is the audience favorite. She is passionate and she ignores all questions. She begins ranting about the agriculture company Monstano and their genetic modification of plants. The audience bursts into applause when she said corporations should be punished for putting “toxic” in their plants. She then goes on to recount proudly the many things she’s protested against and ends saying that to be disconnected from nature is a psychiatric disease.

In contrast, Maude Barlow is dull, and only mentions some scary statistics that predict that demand for water is going to be 40% more than the supply in some-thirty years time. She recommends Al Gore’s idea of a “green economy”, the her idea that nature is worth $72 trillion is met with warm chuckles. She reiterates that she’s not saying bugs will should have the same rights as humans, but we can’t push them to extinction.

Ambassador Solón said that on the 28th of July there will be an event at the UN named, “From the human right to water to the rights of water.” Which we gather will be exactly what it sounds like (i.e., water has “rights”). He said that human growth should be limited “Only to satisfy our basic needs.” He signs off with a bombshell that brings down the house, “To fight for nature we have to fight against capitalism.”

The moderator then began his monologue, in which he mentions how silly the idea is of giving rights to something “fictional” like corporations similar to humans. But giving rights to Nature isn’t. He anticipates critics and said that the idea of giving rights to nature “Isn’t that weird.” He went on to mock his colleagues who consult for corporations, insinuating corporations “Willfully want to destroy the environment.” Somewhere in his rambling speech, he blamed world poverty on corporations and on capitalism.

At this point, Shiva comes to the happy realization, “There’s no debate here, everyone agrees with one another!” All smiled.

Cullinan, agreed and stated that the environmental movement is the, “Largest social movement ever.” He likened to the debate over the environment to the Galileo and Copernicus affair, repeating the myth that before these scientists humanity held the view that the universe revolves around humans. He said that, “If we don’t do something now, sometime in the future we may become extinct.” He claimed that, “Our offspring our less likely to survive” than us.

Shiva came back to the microphone and offered this conclusion: “We’ve been made to believe for humanity to succeed we need to destroy nature.” She also blamed India’s problem on capitalism and especially corporations.

As the panelists reiterated themselves for the dozenth time, they finally ended and then invited questions, which prompted the people with the strongest opinions to jump up to the mics and me to leave.


  1. Dang, all my dad did to punish me was to tan my hide with his belt. What did John Henry do to deserve this?

    He volunteered for it? That’s courage right there.

  2. Same old same old. This kind of diseased thinking (particularly at universities) has been going on for a long time.

    No, Virginia, animals, rocks, mythical godheads, nature, etc. do NOT have rights. It is easy to understand why they don’t if you consider what a “right” is and where they come from.

    A “right” [noun] means a claim, privilege, or prerogative. A right is something owned. Rights arise from agreements or contracts. Animals, rocks, etc. cannot make contracts. Therefore they do not possess rights. Rights are the opposite of freedoms. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Rights are the opposites of freedoms.

    A parable/example: imagine that you live alone (in the wilderness or Garden of Eden). Everything you encounter is yours for the taking, within your physical powers. Imagine there is an apple tree there. All the apples are yours for the picking. You can do whatever you want with them. You have ultimate freedom regarding that apple tree.

    Imagine that someone else (me) wanders into your wilderness and encounters the apple tree. I pick one and eat it, because I have physical power and freedom to do so. But we cannot both pick and eat the same apple. Our freedoms conflict. Your freedom has been impinged upon by my freedom. You are perturbed at my exercise of my freedom.

    We could fight about it, wrestle for the apple, perhaps engage in deadly combat, but we both recognize that negative outcomes could arise from the struggle. So we enter into a contract. We agree that you have a right (claim, ownership) to the apples on the north side of the tree, and I have a right (claim, ownership) to the apples on the south side of the tree.

    We mutually agree to diminish our individual freedoms in exchange for individual rights.

    That is, in essence, how rights are created. The contractual parties agree to diminish freedoms in exchange for rights. Only people do that, not rocks, animals, etc. People also establish legal procedures to adjudicate the contracts, because rights conflict and freedom is the natural state of affairs.

    For instance, in our modern society you do not have the freedom to come into my house, sit on my couch, and watch my TV or eat out of my refrigerator. That’s because I have the right to all that stuff, and it is an exclusive right which excludes you. However, you have the right to exclude me from your home, couch, TV, refrigerator. We both have mutually agreed to diminish our respective freedoms to go where we want and do want we want in exchange for exclusive rights.

    The contract we operate under is our Constitution enforced by our legal system. Neither of us signed it, but we are subject to that agreement anyway. If we deviate or deny that contract, and exercise ultimate freedom, we will soon enter into conflict, and our legal system will adjudicate and punish the party who violates the rights of the other.

    The conferees ostensibly wish to extend rights (claims, ownership) to entities that cannot enter into contracts. It is a chimera. What they really want to do is to diminish our freedoms without extending us the complimentary rights (claims, ownership). They wish to abscond with both our freedoms and rights, diminish us both ways, and accrue all rights unto their own elite selves. And to abuse our legal system to enforce their thievery (abrogation, usurpation).

    Old story. Call it fascism, authoritarianism, elitism, feudalism, whatever. Privileged (and unprivileged) classes are the historical norm. The idea of unalienable, egalitarian human rights is relatively new. Not everybody likes the new system. They prefer conflict without intelligently considered regard to the inevitable negative outcomes. Any excuse for abrogation and usurpation suffices, but apocalyptic predictions of the Death of the Planet are a common rationale, akin to religious dogmatism of earlier ages.

  3. Ray

    It’s a wonderful example of animism. Mother earth must be worshiped. The religion of choice of liberals and stone age natives in New Guinea.

  4. Speed

    I hope they all walked to the meeting from their organic canvas tents.

  5. Is the event young Briggs describes a cut scene from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”? The characters and scenario seemed somehow familiar.

    Kudos on the reportage and coverage, JHB. Well done. You must take after your mother.

    Btw. I saw your web page. Stay away from my granddaughters!

  6. Mike D. I will contract with you to faithfully steward and administer all rights awarded to nature and natural objects in and on the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. You may have the ones on the eastern slope and I shall take those on the west. Let the rights begin!

  7. max

    With rights come responsibilities. If nature has rights then it also has responsibilities. If a river has the right to flow then also has the responsibility not to flood. If a river is incapable of meeting it’s responsibilities it is incapable of assuming rights.

    When nature grows up and becomes responsible for it’s actions and stops infringing on the of others then we can accord it rights, but until then nature is not entitled to rights.

  8. Corporations are associations of humans who may assert a collective voice .

    The purpose of the first clause of the USA’s First Amendment is to deny standing to any group’s claim to be speaking for God or Gaia in federal court .

    Only in Jim Henson’s world does the Earth have it’s own voice .

  9. Annabelle

    Great report. BTW it’s “Cormac Culinan” not “Cormic Cullinan”.

    If Nature could sue BP, who would adminster Nature’s bank account? No doubt these people think they would be the ones to do so.

    Superb comment Mike D.

  10. Annabelle

    Oops that should be “Cormac Cullinan”

  11. Noblesse Oblige

    Whackos of the world unite!

  12. DirkH

    Let’s just see how Bolivia fares with their new Mother Nature law. Hard times for the fans of Li-Ion electric cars.

  13. gcb

    To ask the obvious question (at least to readers of Robert Heinlein’s work), if capital-N Nature has rights, it must also have responsibilities, so what are its responsibilities, and how can we hold it accountable for those?

  14. Rich

    I embrace these natural rights completely! My body is host to a thousand times as many cells that are not me as are me. I demand that these bacteria, etc have the right to live in the most hospitable environment possible, to have the very best food passed down to them and to live in an environment free of stress hormones. As their appointed legal representative I shall petition for substantial subsidies to ensure their rights are honoured. Bob, an amoeba who lives in the left side of my mouth has just pointed out that I am also 80% water. And water has rights!
    Just off to the bathroom now since my colonic flora have just exercised their democratic right to protest because I’ve been listening to oral fauna and they feel under-represented. And I’m on their side! Hoorah!

  15. ErisGuy

    “Largest social movement ever.

    I’m sure their Gulags and Death Camps will be the largest ever, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *