Common Rights: Humans as Nature, Nature as Human

by | 21 Jul 2011

Humans as Nature: geological forces

In an article published in Nature in 2002, Nobel winner chemist Paul J. Crutzen had argued that, given the unprecedented effects of human activities on the global environment, the planet has entered into a new geological era, which he proposes to call Anthropocene[1]. According to him, since industrialization gained steam power in late 18th century, the Holocene epoch, a twelve-thousand year period of relative stable climate that allowed agriculture and urban civilizations to flourish, was about to give space to a new age in planetary evolution that is distinguished by the historical fact that humanity have turned out to be the equivalent of a natural force which is now determinant to global ecological processes. In other words, in the last two hundred years, both humanity and the planet, simultaneously, have entered into a period of radical and interdependent transformations, to the extent that the divisions that once separated history and nature have collapsed. Culture thus turns into a natural force, and natural variations are now part of human history.

In 1990, with the publication of The Natural Contract, Michel Serres was already anticipating the consequences of this new socio-geological order we have created. As he wrote, humanity has became “physical actors in the physical systems of the Earth”[2], and therefore, it was necessary to imagine new forms of relation between humans and nature that would re-define the ways in which modern societies and modern sciences have conceptualized the natural world. For Serres, nature could no longer be understood as inert resource materials available for limitless appropriation. Instead, ecosystems should be conceptualized as living and vibrant agents with which humans were co-existing in constant and delicate interactions. The necessary transformations were at the same time epistemic and legal, philosophical and political. Ceasing to be passive objects, non-humans should be included inside a new form of social contract that would encompass all those things we have left outside our definitions of the social. The natural contract advocates for a new legal-ecology that Serres calls “rights of symbiosis”, a political-epistemic frame in which humans and non-humans share a common legal status. “Rights of symbiosis are defined by reciprocity: however much nature gives man, man must give that much back to nature, now a legal subject”[3]. As history has made humans equivalent to natural forces, reversely, nature should be endowed with the same rights as the ones conquered by humans along history.

Nature as Human: legal rights

Michel Serres philosophical speculations gained a real dimension in 2008, when Ecuador adopted a new constitution in which nature is granted inalienable rights[4]. Alongside the fundamental rights attributed to the citizens of the State of Ecuador, the constitution establishes fundamental rights to natural communities and eco-systems, inscribing nature as a subject of the national legal code. The interesting aspect introduced by this law could be read as a way of addressing a question presented by philosopher Etienne Balibar in his critical analysis of human-rights: -“the use of nature is submitted by practically no law”[5], he writes, and insofar as property is conceived as an universal right according to human-rights legislation, and moreover, insofar as nature is the primordial object of property, for Balibar it was a question of introducing a way of protecting the right of collectives to access and use natural elements that, although essential and common to all human life, were running the risk of being converted into alienable, commoditized, and privatized objects. Much of the current debate in different political forums, most notably the United Nations, around the “right to water” or “right to environment”, for example, are the practical manifestations of attempts to overcome that paradox by drawing new forms of regulating vital common resources.

But the answer given to this political-legal flaw identified by the philosopher at the core of human rights legislation through the Rights of Nature destabilizes the current common sense. The animist conception of the law, for which elements such as birds, mountains, rocks, river deltas, and so on, are granted rights as if they were humans, implies both a legal and an epistemic shift. Because being attributed with definitions ordinarily bond to citizenship, non-human natural communities abandon the status of property – even of “common property” – to become bearing-rights entities. At the same time, nature ceases to be framed as an object of which forms of possession and use should be regulated by government in order to be presented as a form-of-life which right to existence should be guaranteed and protect by the State.

Etienne Balibar’s own answers are somehow limited in this point, for even identifying in ecology a crucial point for re-considering the politics of human rights, he only underscores the importance of the “universalization of property” beyond collective and private delimitation. He calls for a form of property without a subject– “a fictional subject represented by all human kind”. Yet what is crucial in relation to the Rights of Nature is that the “fundamental property” of all human beings is truly universalized by the fact that is ceases to be a property, insofar as Nature becomes an “universal subject” herself. The politics of rights implied here is drawn from the right of rather than the right to the environment. Not the rights that attempt to grant equal and just possession of nature, but the rights that nature itself possesses. To put it differently: the political problem of the commons is not addressed by protecting and regulating collective or universal appropriation, but to the contrary, by questioning the very idea of appropriation that comes together with the concept of property, even if property becomes universal or common. Not only a legal frame drawn around an universal subject to define what a common should be, but a radical universalization of the idea of the subject established through the definition of human and non-human common rights.

Paulo Tavares, Dec. 2010 | first published in italian here.


[1] Paul Cruzten and Eugene F. Stoermer, The Anthropocene, IGPB [ International GEosphere-Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41, 2000

[2] Michel Serres, The natural contract, 1990, p. 18

[3] op cit., 38.

[4] “Art. Rights Entitlement: Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments. Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law. Chapter: Rights for Nature: Art. 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.”

[5] Etienne Balibar, 1994 – “What is a Politics of the Rights of Man?”


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