Skip to main content

Ecological governance, Earth jurisprudence and rights of Nature

Posted by Cormac Cullinan on
User offline
Last seen 19/04/2021
Joined 09/10/2019

Request/ Proposal

Transformative change will not happen without transforming the governance systems that guide human behaviour, including legal systems. For this reason and the other reasons articulated below, the IPBES reports on transformative change should include a chapter on ecological governance which would discuss the Earth Jurisprudence approach (as well as other issues).

Root of problem:

The ecological destruction that IPBES is concerned with arises from anthropocentric world views which view Nature as natural resources that are available for human exploitation. From this perspective, humans are regarded as separate from, and superior to Nature, and consequently the exploitation and degradation of Nature in order to increase the availability of "resources" to humans is legitimate.  (Note: there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a radical discontinuity between human beings and Nature in general which would be a necessary basis for this world view.

Consequently it is essential to move to an eco-centric perspective which is based on the (scientifically validated) understanding that humans are an integral part of Nature, which means that human wellbeing is derived from ecosystems and consequently can only be maintained in the long-term by keeping ecosystems healthy.  (Conversely human well-being that is achieved at the expense of ecosystems is not sustainable).

Manifestation of problem

Ecosystem destruction is being caused by human activities, which indicates that human governance systems are maladaptive in that they enable and even incentivise humans to behave in ways that are destroying habitats for many species and for humanity itself.  This is because legal, political and economic systems (among others) reflect the anthropocentric world view. 

For example anthropocentric legal systems only recognise human beings and some human institutions (such as governments and corporations) as legal subjects with rights which the courts and other institutions recognise and protect. All of nature is defined in law as property (i.e. objects in the eyes of the law) which can be owned and exploited as resources by legal subjects. This legimises and encourages the exploitation of Nature in the same way as defining a person as property which does not have rights (i.e. as a slave) legitimises and encourages their exploitation by slave owners.

Primary challenge

Consequently the primary challenge is to transform these systems and the institutions that perpetuate them, so that they reflect an eco-centric perspective instead of an anthropocentric perspective.

For example an ecocentric legal system would recognise all aspects of Nature as legal subjects with the fundamental right to exist, evolve and play their role within ecosystem, and would prioritize the best interests of the whole community of life over those of any species or individual.  One of the manifestations of this "Earth Jurisprudence" approach is the rapidly growing rights of Nature movement.  ( and

It is important to appreciate that Earth jurisprudence is not the same as environmental law.  Earth jurisprudence seeks to transform anthropocentric legal systems by changing the purpose of the whole legal system from legitimising and facilitating human dominance to guiding people to act in ways that contribute to the well-being of the whole Earth community.  Environmental law is a sub-set of anthropocentric legal systems that seeks to reduce and mitigate ecological harm without fundamentally affecting the drivers of ecological destruction. 

Transformative change

The transformative change that is required is to change the systems and institutions of human societies so that they promote the recovery, health, integrity and functioning of ecosystems instead of ecological degradation. It is about changing from anthropocentric to ecocentric approaches as the solutions required are not available within an anthropocentric framework.

Adopting an Earth jurisprudence approach and recognising the rights of Nature would transform every aspect of human governance systems.

Questions to be answered

Given the fact that transformation must occur rapidly in order to be effective, the IPBES questions should be aimed at producing answers that are useful in achieving rapid transformation (rather than minor reforms) of existing governance systems.

Earth jurisprudence requires human laws to be aligned with "Nature's laws" which requires scientists to work with lawyers/ governance experts in order to achieve such an alignment. In order to implement rights of Nature it will be important for scientists to be able to define (at least broadly) what will be required to restore and maintain the integrity, vitality and health of key ecosystems and not merely the planetary boundaries which must not be exceeded.  Since we know that the human impact on ecosystems is already excessive, we now need regenerative/ restoration goals.

For example if it were established scientifically that to preserve the vitality and health of a particular type of forest ecosystem and the species that it supports, the area covered by that type of forest should be increased by say 20%, then from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective: (1)  human beings, governments and other human institutions would be under a duty to do what they can to achieve that restoration goal,  and (2) human activities that impede the attainment of that goal would be unlawful because they would infringe on the fundamental rights of that ecosystem and its members to maintain their integrity and functioning for the benefit of the global ecosystem/ Earth Community.

Discussion and research is also needed into how to establish local and regional institutions that are capable of establishing these governance goals at different levels of scale and with different degrees of specificity and to monitor the transformation of ecosystems.