Understanding the Rights of Nature: A Critical Introduction

Over the last two years, I have worked on two manuscripts that had been stewing for a while. One of them I wrote about in the previous post. Here, I want to introduce the other one, published in January 2022 as Understanding the Rights of Nature: A Critical Introduction.

I have been following the idea and practice of giving rights to nature for more than a decade. In this time, I have witnessed a growing diversity of views and a growing number of cases. As different places decided to experiment with giving nature rights, I have had to change my mind repeatedly about what these mean. With each iteration, new ideas came into practice, and new practices opened up interesting ideas.

While trying to keep up with the developments, I noticed that in media coverage of the rights of nature there was a strikingly similar, celebratory tone, that had very little to do with what was happening on the ground. I struggled to find any article that would describe the rights of nature in any particular case in meaningful detail. Instead, it was all about the latest thing that will “save nature” from “humans”.

In scholarship, there was more nuance. But some assumptions still reigned supreme: that rights are apt to solve environmental problems, that there is such a thing as “nature”, that Indigenous People are more or less uniformly supportive of this trend, and that using rights for environmental protection in this way corresponds to a historical trend of enlarging the circle of human moral concern.

These may be good assumptions, but whether they are should be argued, not just stated. Looking at different rights of nature I started to think that, even if some are well-founded, they are not so in every case. So, we need to think again every time we are confronted with a new granting of rights, so that we can be kept on our toes by what people are experimenting with in many different places.

Looking at things this way convinced me of the need to write a book that would examine reigning assumptions and challenge rights of nature advocacy and practice to think again. Of course, since publishing the resulting book I have also rethought many of its aspects! But that is precisely the point of critical discussion: to unsettle so that new lines of thought are given room to breathe. This is what I aim to do, covering the history of the idea as well as its contemporary life.

I tried to write the book in an accessible way, because I think that this topic is growing so much that it will, sooner rather than later, become common currency. And when that happens, it is important to have critical discussions that put their finger on the balance, trying to tamper optimism for some measure of lucidity. The more accessible the writing, the better.

That being said, there is a lot of case detail in there. That’s a big part of the point though: details are important! But I also try to lay out a general view that can help orient oneself through the increasing number of cases. If you want a sneak preview of the content and style, check out this video.

I worked with transcript Verlag for this book, and it was a great choice. I have nothing but praise for them. They made a beautiful and fairly priced paperback. Most importantly (and part of the accessibility idea), the book is also free to download in pdf. This really lowers the barrier to access for work that, as far as I’m concerned, the public already payed for (I am a pubic employee after all). So, if you – like me – prefer a tree-derived copy, you can get yourself one. But if for whatever reason you don’t, or can’t afford one, then you can still read.

The best moments of reading are when something in the text grabs me and makes me think something that is not yet mine, though I feel it quickly becoming so. There’s a weird moment of plagiarism, when I steal a thought whose origin I am sure to forget. Its movement is too quick, its destiny to circulate beyond the vanity of ownership. In the end, what remains is an enrichment specific to reading, the taste of a series of transformations that happened through and around the texts I was lucky to come across. I am etched by the work of others, shaped by them in unintentional, surprising, lasting ways. Often, when I go back to books I have already read, I am surprised to find ‘my’ ideas in there!

As a writer, the best I can hope for is that even one reader feel the undertow of the text and come out different, if ever so slightly. One never knows, of course, if that kind of dialogue happens, if some strand gets taken up by another. That uncertainty, perhaps, is what pulls me back to writing, to that possibility of dipping my finger in the anonymous swirl of ideas that connects us to one another and to this world.

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