Feature photo by Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya

For over fifty years in the United States environmentalists have tried to “protect the environment” by regulating the rate of destruction of the natural world. Despite the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, creation of the federal EPA and state-level agencies, changing the rate of destruction has succeeded in lulling conservationists into a stupor for more than fifty years, while Nature bleeds out. 

Who will argue that we must continue to subject the living planet to the deceit of scientifically managed ecocide, whether through more environmental regulations, hollow “30 X 30” plans, or poster-child activism of the “Save the Polar Bear” variety? 

Photo by Gryffn M

We know why the strategy of regulating the rate of ecological destruction failed – it was never meant to halt the profitable extraction of resources, the use of toxic technology and energy sources, and the over-production of frivolous commodities out of the very substance of the living world. 

The arguments against adopting local, state, national and international Rights of Nature laws that criminalize extinguishing communities of living beings for the accumulation of commercial profit insist that “the economy” must be protected at all costs. Especially against constraints on ecocide.

Feels like the mainspring in the wind-up toy of modern industrial society just popped a weasel. Wall Street and the survival of life on Earth, including human life, are in direct competition for strong political action and Wall Street is winning hands-down. That’s irresponsible, in fact it’s reprehensible. Wouldn’t you say?

Privatizing the Rights of Nature: the Latest Scam

It is still controversial to demand legal recognition and enforcement of the Rights of Nature, because the commodity-consuming society we’re constantly reeled back into by commercial propaganda is hooked up to an I-V drip shooting high-grade disinformation straight to our brains through every electronic orifice we’ve been gullible enough to bring into our homes and our children’s lives. Those sounding the alarm against further commercial exploitation of the environment are cast in the role of Luddites naively opposing so-called scientific “progress.” But science has been enlisted as Wall Street’s offensive lineman, clearly no longer an objective observer in the game of being human. The results of environmental impact statements and scientific studies on mining, logging and water usage are routinely skewed to handicap nature, to give the destroyers a seat at the table where the acceptable amount of poisoning and habitat eradication are negotiated. Environmental bureaucrats sit on team Wall Street’s side of the table. Meanwhile, Nature hasn’t been invited. Her interests are mostly irrelevant and her defenders are routinely sidelined for lacking legal “standing” to represent those interests. 

In industrialized nations, Nature is believed to be a smorgasbord of consumables, and in legal terms is utterly subordinate to the laws of property – which means that her every aspect is subject to privatization, removal from the sphere of public interdependence, and subject to monopolization over her uses and who will benefit by her exploitation.

Now the Rights of Nature paradigm is gaining traction globally. It’s an idea with deep roots in Indigenous cosmology, wherein the people who never separated from Nature conceive of Earth as a living community to which they belong. Initial industry reaction to advocates for the Rights of Nature was dismissive, then hostile.

These days, capitalists still insist that Nature consists of infinitely subdividable parcels of property. Property law still protects wealth accumulation against even nominal environmental regulations. The legal doctrine that if you own it, you can destroy it has not changed.

Photo by Christine Roy

But now Wall Street’s flying monkeys of capital are suddenly willing to publicly embrace Nature’s rights as a slogan and simultaneously invent clever ways to rebrand it, to make Rights of Nature work just fine for the bottom line. 

There’s clever guile behind money-powered projects to co-opt Rights of Nature as a market-friendly meme. According to the Next Billion website, quoting from “Natural Asset Companies (NACs): A New Way to Invest in our Planet” by IE Magazine Correspondent David Stead,Natural Asset Companies (NACs) are a potential game-changer on a global scale. NACs will be newly formed, sustainable enterprises that hold the rights to the productivity and health of natural assets like land or marine areas. They are a new asset class on the New York Stock Exchange enabling owners to convert nature’s value into financial capital, using that capital to re-invest in the natural assets to protect them or improve their sustainable use.”

Preternaturally, this scheme will guarantee that the legal owners of ecosystems will have authority to decide which and how many habitats get protected, and which and how many get “improved” for their owners’ sustainable use, and they can decide what that means, even to the point of evicting Indigenous and non-indigenous residents of land to which they lay claim, on the premise that they are diligently protecting Nature and her rights. 

Illustration by Blake Lavia

NACs are poised to write the final chapter in the privatization of everything, bringing to fruition what George W. Bush ominously proposed twenty years ago as the establishment of an “ownership society.” Corporate ownership and control over strategic swaths of the natural environment would effectively complete the enclosure of the commons, posting virtual No Trespass signs everywhere, placing the environment off limits to the bulk of humanity, and commandeering all of her for commercially defined sustainable use.

That seems more like a plan to undermine the fundamental principle of the Rights of Nature movement, which recognizes those rights as legal obligations on all of us not to place human interests above the integrity of the natural world, its biodiversity and ability to sustain its organic functions.

Preventing the emancipation of Nature by doubling down on her legal status as property seems like a very bad idea. Wouldn’t you say?

Normalizing Abnormality

With the normalization of Natural Asset Companies, the empire of capital or, more tellingly, the totalitarian matrix of deceit that is capital, will have transformed the world in its image. In direct opposition to the Rights of Nature movement’s insistence on humanity’s return to right-relationship with the rest of creation, promoters of NACs seek to immortalize the mindset that is responsible for climate change, human bondage to debt, and the sixth and intentionally inflicted great extinction event on Earth.

In 2006, following consideration of legal arguments for establishing rights for ecosystems raised by law professor Christopher Stone, in his 1972 book Should Trees Have Standing?, I was involved in drafting the first law to be enacted anywhere recognizing such rights. Two years later, the people of Ecuador, with a large Indigenous population, ratified a new national constitution recognizing the Rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth). In the ensuing years, other nations as well as numerous U.S. local governments have initiated legal actions affirming the legal status of Nature as a rights-bearing entity.

Yet, as with so many attempts to advance rights for people dehumanized in the legal realm by empire, religion, colonization and politically manufactured bigotries, reactive counter-measures are in play to neutralize the advancements of the movement to institutionalize enforceable Rights of Nature. One might ask: why has the legal system, along with the other arms of government, so predictably found it expedient to rule in favor of corporations dead-set on making a profit regardless of the ill health inflicted on human and non-human life? It is astounding to watch one court decision after another not only uphold the property-based rights of corporations over the human and civil rights of people but, even more baffling, that the courts refuse to hear arguments that would challenge that supremacy. 

Photo by Annie Spratt

Until you realize that rights vested in property and transmitted to owners of that privileged property are the cornerstone of U.S. federal and state jurisprudence. Many judges have gone the extra mile to expand those privileges and sanction community legal counsel for challenging the corrupt arrangements. 

Legal precedent has normalized a judicial pathology that goes undiagnosed by political scientists and pundits.

At the risk of expediting the die-off of most life on the planet, including most humans, judges continue to turn a blind eye toward the rights of natural communities – where humans live in harmony with their environment – while giving full-throated support for legal rights vested in corporate property.

Decades ago, satirist Robert Anton Wilson toyed with red-baiting apologists for the “cold war” between the Soviet Union and the United States, saying they were “immanentizing the eschaton.”  In other words, they were hurrying along the end of the world with their nuclear brinkmanship. Some true believers in the Book of Revelations were eager for the final showdown. Skeptics of their Christian utopian fantasies agitated for nuclear disarmament. Only the realization that a nuclear strike by one would precipitate a devastating nuclear strike by the other was effective in creating a stalemated detente. They called that pragmatic epiphany MAD, for “mutually assured destruction.” 

Where’s the equivalent realization that the transformation of capital into an accelerating march toward global extinction is a bad idea? The eschaton is imminent, with no god promising eternal life for capital’s faithful. With no promise of any life, for that matter. Aren’t they in the least concerned? Are they so afraid of change? They’re going to hate the changes they’re working so hard to bring about.  Wouldn’t you say?

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