ECW Press, 2017
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
It is remarkable to reflect, says this Canadian environmental lawyer and author, on the fact that although there are millions of species on Earth, a single species of hyperintelligent primates—Homo sapiens—has laid claim, through the assertion of legal ownership, to almost every square metre of the 148 million square kilometres of land on the planet.
Not only the land. We have also convinced ourselves that we ‘own’ all the other life forms living on that land. Which, when you think about it, is a preposterously arrogant conviction. For a bunch of historical reasons that the author briefly describes, it has taken us centuries to start growing up and realizing that this cannot continue. Finally, thankfully, all over the world, the situation is starting to change.
One of the things that has awakened debate on this topic is the dawning realization, based on a large amount of contemporary research, that we are not the only creature to have thoughts, emotions, self-awareness, high levels of intelligence and sensitivity and highly developed communication skills. Most other species have all these things in some degree and some have them to an even greater degree than we do. We no longer have an excuse for treating any other creature as though it were an inanimate object with no will or desire or feelings and no right to self-determination.
Despite the lingering attitude that sees the Earth and its inhabitants as ‘resources’ put here for the benefit of humans, part of the ‘growing up’ process is the embrace, by more and more people, of the concept of ‘intrinsic value’ which has, as Boyd points out, been incorporated into laws in Costa Rica, Canada, Bangladesh, Japan, Tanzania, New Zealand, and the European Union.
It’s a slow process. But we are finally starting to understand that just as we are the guardians and caretakers of our children, not their owners, we have a duty of care towards the natural world but no right to own it. The land does not belong to us. In fact if there is any ownership involved it is the other way around. We belong to the land. This understanding is deeply embedded in the spiritual beliefs of various indigenous cultures. Thus it was the influence of the indigenous Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand that led to the landmark agreement in 2014 (later enshrined in law) to change the legal status of the Whanganui River. The river no longer belongs to the Government or to anybody at all, but to itself. It is now, and forever will be, a ‘legal person’ with the right to sue anyone who tries to do it harm. Likewise the land known as Te Urewera, formerly a national park is now a legal entity that can sue anyone who tries to harm it.
There have been similar landmark decisions in Ecuador and Bolivia. The problem there has been not in creating the laws but in implementing them. As Boyd says, Even when a society recognizes the rights of nature in its highest and strongest law, there will still be tremendous challenges when these rights confront entrenched interests.
But the movement has started in earnest, and will assuredly gain momentum. It may have taken seven centuries to abolish the ownership of people (i.e. slavery) for good, worldwide, but because of the way the law works, and the importance of legal precedent, where countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand have plucked up courage to go, eventually the rest will follow, and one day all creatures will have similar ‘rights’ to those claimed by humans. So it should be.
One has only to look at the far-reaching results of that long-ago decision to make a corporation a ‘legal person’ to realize what a sea-change will happen when the rest of Nature is accorded that same status in the eyes of our human legal systems.
This book has given me hope. After all these barren years since I first read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation (1975) and enthusiastically embraced the idea of animal rights, it thrills me to see the world finally starting to wake up to this idea of rights for all of the more-than-human world. We still have a long way to go and I doubt I shall live to see animal rights enshrined in law worldwide or speciesism become as abhorred as racism. But I thank David Boyd for reassuring me that we are finally on our way towards those goals.