Securing the rights of nature

“If a council’s constitution can reference human rights, why shouldn’t it reference the rights of nature too?”, Green Councillor Stuart Jeffery submitted a motion to Maidstone Borough Council to add ‘the rights of nature’ to its constitution. 

Stuart Jeffrey campaigning
Stuart Jeffrey campaigning
Stuart Jeffery

Despite the shrill cries of some right-wing commentators, human rights have long been understood and are, of course, enshrined in law. People have rights and can exercise those rights through the courts if necessary. We have bestowed corporations legal personhood too, they can defend themselves in the courts despite them being a human creation that only really exists on paper. Nature, despite it existing in many forms and despite humans being a part of it, has no such ability to defend itself legislatively in the UK.

Other countries recognise that nature has rights, for example, Ecuador, New Zealand and Australia. Even the US has given rights to nature. Not in the UK though. 

A few hours after reading a news piece about the Green Party continuing to push for a Rights of Nature Act, I found myself looking at my council’s constitution regarding a different matter. I noticed that the document referenced human rights in a number of places. If a council’s constitution can reference human rights, why shouldn’t it reference the rights of nature too? Can we ensure that every decision is taken with due regard to both human rights and nature’s rights? A council gets to decide and amend its constitution so this would be within our gift. What I needed was to propose a motion to the council…

I did a little hunting around. Two councils in Northern Ireland have declared rights of nature but, as far as I could tell, no councils in Britain have done this yet. 

The Global Alliance of the Rights of Nature have a declaration which was the starting point for my attempt, but it was far too long and needed to be condensed. I needed something succinct enough not to allow other councillors to pick holes in it so I reduced the declaration to three key points: a definition of nature, a proposal of the rights that nature should have and a summary of the responsibilities that humans should have towards nature.

My motion then asked the council to start a process to add the rights in some form to the constitution and at the same time work out how this might work at a practical level when making decisions. There are a variety of ways that this second point could happen, ranging from the appointment of a nature champion to be the voice and conscience of nature on specific committees to a simple box on the front sheet of committee papers: ‘how does this impact nature?’. Obviously, the more voice that nature has the better.

Before submitting, I had the motion checked over by the Environmental Law Foundation (the lawyers with the best acronym ever) and Lawyers for Nature which is run by the great Paul Powlesland.

After my impassioned speech to propose it, the debate was quite patronising and demonstrated a complete failure to grasp the enormity of the current state of nature or humanity’s ambivalence towards it. But aside from the ‘we’re doing fine with our tree planting plan’ self-congratulatory back-slapping, there were a few interesting comments and concerns. 

Chief among these were the worries about creating legal personhood for nature. Despite the law bestowing legal personhood on wholly made-up bodies called corporations, why shouldn’t nature, which obviously exists, have the same abilities? There were strange comments that can be summarised as ‘nature needs humans’, exactly the type of hubris that has helped drive the sixth mass extinction, to which I replied ‘I think it managed better in the 4.7 billion years before we arrived’.

Maidstone Borough Council sadly voted against nature 5 to 30, but a marker in the sand has been put and this is something that can be built upon. 

Adding this to the constitution would not have been as powerful as an act of parliament, not as wide-reaching as a by-law and it only required action from a specific council, but it could have started the ground-level change of attitude that we so desperately need. It would be great to work with other councillors and councils who are a little more open to this and to start seeing this feature in constitutions. 

For Maidstone? I will repropose it in six months, per the constitution, and then probably every six months until I win.