What implications does Locke’s theory have on current environmental struggles?
On April 22nd 2010, in Cochabamba Bolivia, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change drafted the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth. The document advocates the bestowing of legal rights on nature, such as that to live, to exist, to continue its “vital cycles and processes”, and to clean water and air, amongst others.
The idea of giving rights to Mother Nature has been around for some time. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, for example, has helped many municipalities in the US draft ordinances defending the inalienable rights of their ecosystems to exist in the light of the threats posed to them by corporate mining or fracking operations. It has also helped Ecuador include environmental rights within its 2008 constitution. Most environmental rights legislation obligates governments (and allows citizens) to legally defend ecosystems from threats that would significantly alter or inhibit the ecosystem’s ability to regenerate itself.
The advancement of environmental rights is a noble endeavor, one that has been equated to the abolitionist and woman suffrage movements. It is often seen as an extension of existing rights to a subject which was previously deemed inferior or negligible. What is interesting, however, is to analyze the assumptions underpinning the granting of environmental rights. In fact, there are two different approaches to the issue: one occurring within Western juridical discourse and the other pertaining to aboriginal and indigenous cosmology.
According to Christopher D. Stone, nature could enjoy rights -and thus be legally defended in court- on the grounds that it cannot defend itself. This would occur in the same way as a senile elder or a child are defended in court by someone else acting in their stead. Thus, when citizens witness an ecological disaster, they could sue the party responsible for the damage by appealing to the ecosystem’s inherent rights. This has been termed the “guardianship” approach, and it works well within Western jurisprudential tradition. Its core rationale is that of extending the protection of existing rights to a previously uncovered subject.
The aboriginal and indigenous people’s approach is based on radically different assumptions. Their rights-claim does not demand a mere extension of existing rights but the recognition of explicitly non-western ones. It demands that Mother Earth be recognized as “an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny”, a being enjoying intrinsic value in itself. It is based on a holistic cosmology opposed to an anthropocentric (i.e. Western) understanding of nature. Within this cosmology, humans are but one part of a greater harmonious being that they are obliged to respect.
This approach breaks away from the philosophical thought informing Western juridical discourse. A brief glimpse into the theory of John Locke, the “grandfather” of modern liberal rights, will reveal how different these two approaches actually are.
John Locke builds his famous theories of individual rights and government by consent upon a hypothetical state of nature. Before modern civil society existed, humans hunted and gathered in an environment lacking property rights and political organization. The example Locke used to describe the state of nature was late seventeenth century north America, a wild and unexplored continent inhabited by Amerindian societies and those few European colonies huddled along the Atlantic seaboard.
“Thus in the beginning all the World was America”
Second Treatise §49
In this setting, Locke constructs his political theory by contrasting it to Amerindian societies. Amerindians still lived in the state of nature primarily because they lacked property rights. Property rights, for Locke, were conferred when individuals mixed their labor with an object they found in nature. For example, if someone made a pot out of clay, that object was said to be rightfully hers. However, Locke did not recognize as valid the forms of labor and modes of production practiced by Amerindians. In fact, he understood of “labor” as consisting solely of European production practices such as the tilling of land, large scale husbandry or the construction of edifices. These practices, says Locke, “improved” on nature and gave it greater “value”. In his theory only European forms of labor could confer property rights –hunting, gathering and other Amerindian production practices would not.
“For it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing; and let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.”
Second Treatise §34
Locke’s theory of property (a bedrock of modern jurisprudence), therefore, arises directly out of European practices of molding nature towards human needs. Modern political societies necessitate the mutual recognition of possessions acquired through labor: labor intended as the exploitation of natural resources (“improvement”) through European productive practices . Moreover, societies which do not do so (Amerindians) are perceived by Locke and his contemporaries as still inhabiting a superseded state of nature.
The approach to environmental rights which seeks to merely extend rights to nature does not go to the root of the problem, and corresponds to a typical liberal maneuver of absorbing alterity into its avowed universality. The rights-claim advanced by indigenous peoples, contrarily, seeks to force their world-view directly into the political traditions of Western juridical discourse. It attempts to replace the Lockean idea that nature acquires worth only when it is instrumental to human uses (i.e. surplus production) with a holistic approach demanding the recognition of nature’s intrinsic worth.
Indigenous claims to environmental rights explode the historical justification which European juridical discourse has constructed for itself by challenging the social contract theorists’ conceptualizations of the state of nature. In doing so, it forces us to reconsider the alleged universality of individual rights and problematizes the rationale informing the concept of private property.
Tully, J. 1993. “The Two treatises and Aboriginal Rights” in An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Stone, C.D. 1972. Should Trees Have Standing? –Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Available online @ http://www.derechosdelanaturaleza.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/C.Stone-Should-Trees-Having-Standings.pdf