On a cloudy midsummer's eve in June 2021, around 90 people met at Jesus Green, Cambridge, to play music, read poetry and publicly declare the rights of the river Cam. Far from being an idiosyncratic local gathering, this event can be seen as part of a growing movement to enshrine the rights of nature in law. Later that same year, the Green Party announced a new policy for a Rights of Nature Act to protect wildlife and habitats in England and Wales. If enacted, the act would put the UK alongside at least 17 other countries that have local or national laws on the rights of nature, including the USA, Canada and India.

Rather than seeing our environment purely as physical matter or property, rights of nature legislation grants the world around us legal personhood. Similar to human civil rights, rights of nature are granted to places, or ecosystems, offering the potential for significant social impact and protecting our natural environment in ways that are both novel and rooted in traditional indigenous practice. In some ways, the concept requires a fundamental change in thinking, from the human-centric to the eco-centric. Yet non-human entities already have legal rights: corporations have had them in some jurisdictions for years. Central to these sorts of laws is the idea that the rights of nature can be violated even if no humans are directly harmed. Whilst rights of nature builds on previous rights to nature law, the two ideas are different, as this paper from the European Parliament explains.

One justification for granting nature rights comes from the damage we are doing to our environment: the 2020 Living Planet Index from the World Wildlife Fund and Institute for Zoology showed a 68 percent decrease in the population size of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. The scale of the environmental havoc being wrought by humans is such that there is a strong case to tackle it in new ways as conventional approaches fail to make sufficient impact.

The scale of the environmental havoc being wrought by humans is such that there is a strong case to tackle it in new ways as conventional approaches fail to make sufficient impact.

Rights for nature often draw on the traditions of some indigenous cultures – such as the Anishinaabe in North America or Māori iwi in New Zealand – that see humans as part of nature rather than distinct from it. This approach considers humans as having an interdependent relationship with our environment and is increasingly being represented in law. And granting rights to nature is a surprisingly well-established modern legal principle. In 1972, US Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion on an unsuccessful attempt by the US environmental organisation, the Sierra Club of California, to halt the development of a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the Walt Disney Corporation. He argued that nature, rather than the Sierra Club, should be allowed to be the plaintiff. In 2008, the rights of nature were also incorporated into the constitution of Ecuador and since then have appeared in legislation in countries as diverse as Mexico and Uganda.

Such laws are becoming more important because of the urgent need for greater environmental protection in the face of accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss. The more widespread their use becomes, the easier these laws will be to implement in places that may not have adopted rights of nature legislation. Even proponents such as the Environmental Justice Network acknowledge that rights of nature are not a magic bullet for the looming environmental crisis. Like existing environmental legislation, they can suffer from weak enforcement, and in practice can also involve harm to people, as the Harvard Law Review found in March 2021. It can sometimes be hard to see how they are distinct from more traditional human rights. There are also difficult questions around not only the intrinsic purpose of, say, a river, but who decides that purpose – which makes it difficult to determine whether rights have been infringed. Overall, however, legislation protecting the rights of nature can itself be used to drive cultural change, and in this regard it can be an important tool for social innovators.

In May 2021 a novel lawsuit was filed against a housing developer in Orange County, Florida: the plaintiffs included Lake Hart and Crosby Island Marsh. If the natural world is taking companies to court to protect its own interests, humans might start thinking twice before exploiting it in future.