National and transnational legislations, court provisions, and governance models across the world increasingly recognize the legal subjectivity of animals, rivers, and forests, among other beings and relations. The contested constitutional clause of the rights of nature (RN), for example, is a growing legal response to the “inter-related global crises of climate, food, energy, poverty, and meaning’ (Escobar 2016: 13). While the RN expresses the interdependence between ecological and social systems, the legal discipline is still deeply informed by the mindsets, practices, and institutions casting nature as a limitless source of goods and services to meet ever-expanding human needs. To state it in terms of scholar Thomas Berry—considered one of the founding figures of the Earth jurisprudence movement—the discontinuity between humans and nonhumans, and the ensuing bestowal of all rights to humans alone is at the root of the socio-ecological devastation of our planet. The task ahead, he insists, is that of re-inventing the human while re-embedding our social and normative systems within the broader community of life. A radical transformation of legal education is part and parcel of this challenging task. Here are a few ideas to help aid necessary transformations in the legal education as part and parcel of a global movement for socio-ecological forms of justice:
1) Teaching theories/practices of justice that underscore nonhuman suffering as part and parcel of a concept of justice.. The fact that human life is inextricably intertwined with life and non-life, human and not suggests that the concept of justice should include nonhumans as entities that can potentially be subjected to various forms of injustice. Socio-ecological justice embraces just social relations among persons, but also relations of responsibility and care towards the nonhuman world. This proposal derives from the full understanding of the entanglements between human and nonhumans, and how they both transform each other. In brief, social justice but also ecological justice; forms of social inequality, but also forms of ecological injustice are two sides of the same issue.
2) Teaching theories/practices of the state that redefine the concept of “state obligation” in terms of a new semantic and ethical approach to nature. The so called “anthropocene” requires a new understanding of the relationship between humans and the environments in which they live, and a series of positive obligations of the state vis-à-vis what different levels of state (from the executive to the judiciary) legislate and adjudicate “nature’s” rights. In this regard, we need to carefully consider a new socio-ecological contract that places nonhumans as subjects in their relations with the state (i.e. rights of natures and responsibilities to nature), both in terms of rights and obligations (Is a nonhuman a “responsible” entity?). Moreover, we should consider how certain forms of eco-centrism might transform institutional arrangements of the modern state, not only at the level of principles of governance (i.e. sustainability, environmental justice, reciprocity, precautionary principle), but also at the micro-level of institutional engineering.
3) Teaching an ecological political and legal theory: Legal theory should address not only human but human-nonhuman relationships, laying the ground for ecological political theory as a fundamental principle of governance at any scale (from the community to the state and the international realm). This might open up a possibility of a new politics that go beyond human-to-human power relations (but that also includes them), thus compromising the very way in which we (humans) conceive the making of the public sphere. In this sense, a principle of governance for these rapidly changing times should include “life” in all its forms, instead of the social life of the human alone.
Caveats: Retrieving the centrality of the ecological relations in the organization of public life has immense consequences for these 3 fields. A few questions emerge: 1) how to politicize nature without de-politicizing human relations (a legal theory of the anthropocene is not anthropocentric, but it cannot be just bio-centric). 2) How to consider the role of materiality, and the vulnerability of human and nonhuman bodies without neither romanticizing our relations to the environment, nor eclipsing social inequality. 3) How to actualize power relations analysis to understand the sources of inequality, without losing sight of ecological inequalities (i.e. the unequal distribution of harm across the Global South and the Global North), among others. It also suggests important questions of moral philosophy, and legal pluralism: Can nonhumans be moral subjects? Can we extend ethics to nonhuman worlds? What can we learn from grassroots legal pluralism?
How can you make a difference?
- Explore the indigenous history of where you live
|Local and Municipal||Federal & Provincial/State|
|Support local cultural activities based on the heritage of the region and reconciliation with Indigenous people||Ecological literacy for lawyers, judges and other adjudicating parties. Teach lawyers and other practitioners basic ecological principles (potentially as a requirement for the practice of the legal profession in social and environment-related fields: labor law, administrative law, constitutional law, corporate law)|
|Provide increased access to sanitation and emergency shelter spaces for homeless and other folks in need||Formally teach socio-ecological principles of governance in legal and political theory courses in universities. Students in higher education should have some level of socio-ecological governance literacy before graduating. For example, by teaching them classical contractual theories and how they change when we include ecological principles (i.e. symbiosis, resilience, complex systems, etc.)|
|Integrate grassroots knowledge into policy making around issues of justice. This means to treat community knowledge as “knowledge” in its own right (cognitive justice).|
|Support popular Socio-Ecological Justice Tribunals. People should be able to hold companies accountable for environmental damage. We need to attend to local justice systems to do this (i.e. how communities adjudicate justice in socio-ecological conflicts that affect them and their territories directly).|
|Declare indigenous territories as victims of environmental harm and socio-ecological injustice. For many indigenous communities land is person. This means that land can also be subject of injustice. We need to re-think our concepts of “reparation” and “reconciliation” to integrate ecological systems.|
|Formally recognize the existence of an ongoing colonial ecological injustice in history and policy. This means that as much as there are forms of injustice cutting across issues of race, class, and gender, there are forms of ecological injustice that specifically arise because of ongoing colonial relations. Any opportunity to acknowledge this in theory and practice is valuable.|
Allies, Related Resources, and E4A Publications
On peoples tribunals:
On indigenous legal traditions:
On the crime of ecocide:
On local initiatives for socio-ecological justice:
On cognitive justice: