BLOG: Nature’s Right to Be

An interesting and topical piece about nature and how its rights (or lack thereof) sit within our legislation written by one of our 4Youth Community members.

As we start to settle into a post covid world, we are beginning to develop a new relationship with nature. Yet even with this newfound value of nature for human wellbeing, our relationship with the natural world remains inherently anthropocentric, viewing humans as having dominion over nature. As a result, nature and natural resources are regarded as property or objects which can be owned, used, and exploited by humans.

Rivers are a prime example of where the current legislation is lacking in its protection towards nature. Until Brexit, the UK government was a signatory to the Water Framework Directive. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) set a requirement that all EU member states achieve ‘good’ status for all surface water and groundwater bodies by 2027. Today 40% of all EU surface waters have achieved good or ‘high’ ecological status The UK in comparison is falling far behind with 14% achieving ‘good’ or ‘high’ status. Furthermore currently no English waterway, including rivers, lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters, are in good ecological or chemical health.  While the WFD requirements continued to apply following Brexit, the Environmental Act 2021 was implemented as a new legal framework for environmental protection replacing the requirements outlined by the WFD. This Act according to Part 5, section 89 gives the government the authority to change or eliminate the EU-derived water quality targets that the UK was set by the WFD. This section in particular allows the Secretary of State to change the way water quality targets are measured, as well as repeal, revoke, or modify any target or other water quality provision derived from the EU. This Act therefore leads to a looser interpretation of water quality standards, which could be harmful to the environment. Furthermore, this clause allows the UK government to avoid the costs associated with meeting EU water quality standards, allowing businesses to pollute without fear of repercussions.

While this may have seemed like a ‘worst case scenario’ the result of this act is already coming to fruition as it has just been released in the new River Basin Management plans that the target date for cleaning the UKs waterways has been pushed back by 36 years. With our clean target being pushed back, it is clear current legislation is not doing enough, and a paradigm shift in constitutional law is imperative to protecting our rivers.

“It is therefore important to question our fundamental relationship with nature as we begin to recognise its value in a post covid world. How can we establish an ecocentric relationship with Nature?”

To answer this question, we should cast our eyes to areas around the world where nature is regarded not as property but as an ancestral being…

The conceptual foundation of the Rights of Nature movement is the idea that nature is a legal entity with inherent rights, rather than merely property to be owned and controlled by humans. While this is a relatively new concept, its application can be seen throughout the world with Ecuador being the first country to grant legal rights to nature in 2008. It is envisaged that by re-imagining the natural world as a holder of rights, our behaviour towards the natural environment will be transformed. This will enable the dramatic shifts in behaviour and legislation required to protect the natural environment and establish a lasting relationship.

Rivers are a key example of where natural entities have successfully been granted legal rights. Giving rivers legal rights helps bridge the disconnect between humans and the natural environment by giving people a sense of responsibility towards protecting and preserving rivers. Legal recognition also means that governments are more likely to invest in sustainable management practices, such as controlling water pollution or providing better access to clean water. Ultimately, applying the Rights of Nature to rivers and other natural spaces creates tangible benefits for both people and ecosystems, while emphasizing the importance of nature in our lives, and is vital to the continuation of the very same people and ecosystems as we move through the 21st century.