Can we give nature legal rights? What does that mean, and how would it change things? Our resident Kickstarter and law expert Charlie gives an overview of ‘rights for nature’ and how this could be a game-changer for the environmental movement.
The root of the matter: ‘legal personhood’
Firstly, what is ‘legal personhood’? In Western legal systems, there’s a difference between a person and property. A person or thing that has legal personhood has rights and obligations, and can sue and be sued by others. People have legal personhood by default, but this hasn’t always been the case - slaves were historically considered ‘objects’. In the time since the industrial revolution and colonialism, the law has played catch-up and given rights to people exploited as slaves, women and children, and even companies. With legal personhood, companies can sue or be sued by other people, which has very conveniently allowed businesses to flourish and has made a real impact on the people benefitting from them. If rights can be given to companies, surely it’s not a stretch to give them to the land itself?
In the UK, natural features, such as rivers, lakes and trees, are classed as property and can be owned publicly or privately. The concept of the ownership of land became popular in our laws following the Enlightenment era emphasis on humans being separate from nature. This disconnect from nature has led to natural features being seen as dead things, resources for human use that can be owned and exploited. In the present, protections of natural features only extend as far as their ‘owners’ are concerned. For example, if someone damages a river or tree, then it is the person who owns them that can sue, and if the case is successful, it’s their owner that receives compensation. This approach means that the natural feature does not benefit from the law, but, not surprisingly, the people that own it do. However, countries around the world are changing legislation to recognise the rights of nature, often in places with indigenous populations who believe in the inherent worth of nature.
Planting the seeds of change
Rights of nature activists in the UK have made small advances in exploring legal personhood for rivers such as the Thames, but the closest attempt has been the proposed bylaw by Frome Town Council in 2018 to grant personhood to the River Frome. This would have encompassed the rights of the river to flow freely and maintain biodiversity, among others, with the council and Friends of the River Frome as its guardians. The passing of this bylaw could have marked the beginning of a change towards a regenerative culture and set a precedent towards recognising the value of nature in itself in the UK. More practically, this would have allowed its guardians to bring a case against people or companies for damaging its health, and instead of gaining compensation, a court could impose an order for whoever damaged it to restore it. Not only this, but bringing a case on behalf of the river would be more accessible to the council and individuals.
However, the bylaw was rejected in 2020 because there were similar existing environmental laws (5). Ironically, those existing laws are not adequately protecting nature, nor are the bodies tasked with its care. The laws that are supposed to be protecting nature are largely dismissed altogether, rivers are particularly affected by sewage and agricultural runoff, and starkly, every river and stream in England has failed pollution tests.
Growing a culture of responsibility
So, can granting legal personhood really help our rivers and other natural features? Some sceptics say that the rights of nature are incompatible with dominant Western systems and worldviews, which promote the idea of ‘property’ and ‘ownership’. Some indigenous populations also feel ‘rights for nature’ shouldn't be necessary – nature should be respected outside of any law (3). However, in countries that have granted natural features legal personhood, there have been marked behaviour changes, with councils meeting with nature guardians to talk about planning (4). In this way, changing the law can be a powerful way to change or influence how society sees nature.
“The rights of nature movement is learning from an indigenous worldview rather than the other way around. The use of rights of nature can help to reorient the law around indigenous relationships and responsibilities to nature.”
~ Michelle Bender, Earth Law Center (3)
There are drawbacks of the proposed Frome bylaw: the river flows into other constituencies and therefore out of the bounds of local law; guardians may not have the funding to bring actions on behalf of the river if it’s damaged; and the water in the river may be owned by a water board that is not taking care of it. Despite this, the power of such bylaws cannot be understated in their commitment to put the rights of nature at the forefront of the conservation conversation and provide practical means of protection. The granting of legal personhood to natural features at the local level is a building block to legislate our way towards a culture where the rights of nature are embedded in society, and not just the law.
Branching out: what you can do to help
Everyone has the power to influence the law. Here are some ways you can get involved:
Write to your local MP. Some are more open to this issue than others. Highlight the importance of nature to the community and its heritage. Find your local MP here.
Attend council meetings and planning committees (they are open to the public!) to raise your concerns about local land management. People are stakeholders in the environment, not just companies and public bodies.
Sign the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers here and forward to local and national government. You can ask your workplace or university to sign this too as an organisation.
Get involved with charities and NGOs. Lawyers for Nature is a good one, as is Friends of the Cam for issues relating to rivers and water management. The Earth Law Centre has information on global rights for nature projects. It’s also highly worth checking ClientEarth, a charity with 166 active environmental law cases.
1. Stone, C. (1974) Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. https://iseethics.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/stone-christopher-d-should-trees-have-standing.pdf
2. de Toledo, N. (2020) To protect nature, we must rethink its legal status. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/nature-legal-personhood
3. Barkham, P. (2021) Should rivers have the same rights as people? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/rivers-around-the-world-rivers-are-gaining-the-same-legal-rights-as-people
4. Westerman, A. (2019) Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans? A Growing Number Of Voices Say Yes. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/08/03/740604142/should-rivers-have-same-legal-rights-as-humans-a-growing-number-of-voices-say-ye?t=1628689762198
5. Kaminski, I. (2021) Laws of nature: could UK rivers be given the same rights as people? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/17/laws-of-nature-could-uk-rivers-be-given-same-rights-as-people-aoe
6. Laville, S. (2020) Shocking state of English rivers revealed as all of them fail pollution tests. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals