Legal Rights for Whose Nature?

Authors: Jayme Walenta*, University of Texas - Austin, Ellen Kohl*, St. Mary's College of Maryland
Topics: Environment, Legal Geography, Environmental Justice
Keywords: environmental governance, legal rights, nature
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 28
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Since the publication of Christopher Stone's 1972 article, 'Should Trees have Legal Standing?', a small but growing group of activists have worked to extend liberal legal rights to nature. This has included ascribing legal rights to forests, rivers, and whole ecosystems. Known as Earth Jurisprudence, or Rights of Nature, at last count, there were over 200 instances of natures with ascribed legal rights, firmly giving rise to a novel form of environmental governance. This presentation explores this rising environmental activism as it seeks to transform considerations of nature from property to an entity with legal rights. Heralded a paradigm shift by the movement’s champions, we express caution at the extension of western liberalism’s universal promise of individual rights into the domain of nature as a means to protect it. Our caution originates from our engagement with critical race theory’s vital critiques of liberalism, which we put into conversation with Earth Jurisprudence scholarship. We underscore our caution through a brief demographic examination of the varied U.S. communities where legal rights have been extended to nature. Through these examples, we argue that liberal rights-based environmental governance has the potential to reinforce and strengthen white western liberal conceptions of rights, which have historically benefited some, while violently oppressed others.

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