Should Lakes Have Rights?

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The Okanagan Valley is a spectacular vista of rounded hills, distant mountains, sparkling waters, and a unique ecosystem for human and non-human life to adapt and thrive.

Despite its apparent permanence, the Valley and the Lake are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems experiencing accelerating pressures from unsustainable patterns of settlement, travel, and economic development. The Valley is vulnerable to insect damage, invasive species, extinctions, drought, fire, flooding, and water contamination. Virtually all of these threats arise from human activities in one way or another.

Looking at it from a birds’ eye view, the Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal.

As Canadians we understand that rights have intrinsic value. Most agree that we would prefer to live in a society that recognizes and respects rights, rather than one that does not. While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.

In Western cultural constructions, nature is inert, a dumping ground for human wastes, or a storehouse of potential resources ready for extraction. Nature has not even been seen as a player in the cycle, much less as a rights holder. Since nature is a closed system, the degradation of nature is simultaneously and unavoidably the degradation of humans. The world is now fully ‘human’ in at least one sense: the fates of human and nonhuman alike are interlaced in a way not seen before in history. Human and nonhuman fates are planetary in scale.

Laws and politics have tended to wipe nature out of the ethical universe by limiting legal standing to parties with property interests. In other words, the legal conversation about value, loss and damage takes place only among those who are deemed to have an interest, namely, property owners. Even the representation of the public interest is narrowly circumscribed by the necessity of showing direct property-like profits or losses, rather than a public interest in a long-term trust relationship with nature.

Solutions to this problem already exist in law, but they are currently found only in isolated and disjointed legal opinions and cases, both locally and around the world. Recently the question of nature rights has risen in prominence in political discussions, partly due to the rising awareness of the planetary nature of environmental damage being experienced in the Anthropocene, and partly due to the increasing recognition of indigenous rights and the distinctly contrasting worldview of nature that such rights represent.

The Whanganui River decision in New Zealand, the rise of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, the Ganges decision and others are pushing back against the notion that nature is nothing more than property, sink, or resource. At the heart of this counter-narrative is the recognition that humans and nature are together, with common fates and interests, and that the inclusion of nature as member of the human family, worthy of respect, care and affection, is essential to human survival. This is represented by indigenous worldviews in varying ways around the world and set down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as many other international legal declarations and treaties. Both humans and nature have a right to exist, what is needed (even if it is a first step) is the recognition and affirmation of these new rights in politics, law, and development planning.

Rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world. Rights for lakes will help the larger conversation about how to move beyond the exclusiveness of property, to recognize the limits of the planet and the power of nature to act on human societies. Rights for lakes will reiterate the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. They won’t solve every problem, but not much can be started without them.

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