Her love for plants and animals, and a desire to play a part in protecting them against human destruction, is what gets Dr. Michelle Maloney out of bed each morning. In this episode, Dr. Maloney discusses her work within the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) creating systems change towards an Earth-centered culture. She defines an Earth-centered culture as one where all elements of a society’s governance system demonstrate respect and care for the living world on which they depend; and each day people consider their relationship with the Earth and their place within it – what they eat, where their water comes from, and what our impacts on the environment are. This may be a new idea to Industrialised societies, but it is an old idea to most Indigenous people and older cultures.
The concept of the Rights of Nature is commonly seen as first being raised by Christopher Stone in the early 1970s, when he wrote ‘Should Trees Have Standing’ Thomas Berry, an eco-theologian, has played an important role in the Earth jurisprudence and Rights of Nature movements, through his many books and articles, including “The Great Work: Our Way into the Future”. In the early 2000s, Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil founded the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which pioneered early Rights of Nature and Community Rights laws in the USA. In 2010, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature was formed, which is a global organization dedicated to the universal adoption and implementation of legal protection for the Rights of Nature. GARN also includes an international tribunal that holds hearings on cases involving abuses of the Rights of Nature.
In this conversation for the Earth Charter Podcast, Dr. Maloney discusses how Human rights and the Rights of Nature are inextricably connected because without healthy ecosystems to provide food, water, and oxygen, there are no human rights. More than 100 countries recognize and protect the right to a healthy environment in their constitution; however, this still only focuses on what humans need from nature. In contrast, she highlights, the Rights of Nature and Earth laws hold that nature has its own intrinsic value, separate from humans needs. While some argue that we must first address poverty and ensure the right to development to meet people’s basic needs before worrying about the environment, Dr. Maloney argues both go hand in hand; we cannot alleviate poverty unless our planet is healthy and can support people; “there’s no economy on a dead planet.”
She shares with us that over the past decade, the Rights of Nature has become a rapidly growing legal and social movement. She outlines how we’re seeing two ‘branches’ emerging within the laws that recognize nature as a legal entity: one is the recognition of the Rights of Nature across an entire jurisdiction, as in Ecuador, Bolivia and recently Aruba, and the second ‘branch’ is the recognition of the rights of particular ecosystems such as rivers and forests, as we’ve seen in New Zealand, Bangladesh, Colombia, Canada and many more places. In Colombia, courts recognized the biocultural rights of the Atrato River that requires the government to enforce its protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration. In New Zealand, the Māori people have successfully worked to gain legal personhood rights for the Urewera Forest and the Whanganui River.
Dr. Maloney sees many connections between the Rights of Nature movement and the Earth Charter’s work. Both have a strong earth-centric focus and emphasize the protection of the environment while also acknowledging humans’ place within it. The Earth Charter focuses on caring for the community of life, ecological integrity, and social and economic justice. Both the Earth Charter and the Rights of Nature movement encourage people to think about their connection to nature and what they can do to protect it. She believes that the Earth Charter is “a timeless statement that can be used at any scale” and a “nice grounding point for people to start from or return to.” Whether you are an engineer, accountant, or potato farmer, the Earth Charter can provide wisdom and guidance to make the world a better place.