Granting legal rights and protections to non-human entities such as animals, trees and rivers is essential if countries are to tackle climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, experts have said.
The authors of a report titled Law in the Emerging Bio Age say legal frameworks have a key part to play in governing human interactions with the environment and biotechnology.
Ecuador and Bolivia have already enshrined rights for the natural world, while there is a campaign to make ecocide a prosecutable offence at the international criminal court. The report for the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, explores how the relationship between humans and mother earth might be recalibrated in the future.
Dr Wendy Schultz, a futurist and report co-author, said: “There is a growing understanding that something very different has to be done if our children are going to have a planet to live on that is in any way pleasant, much less survivable, so this is an expanding trend. Is it happening as fast as any of us would want? Possibly not, which is why it’s important to get the word out.”
Her co-author, Dr Trish O’Flynn, an interdisciplinary researcher who was previously the national lead for civil contingencies at the Local Government Association, said legal frameworks should be “fit for a more than human future” and developments such as genetic modification or engineering. This means covering everything from labradors to lab-grown brain tissue, rivers to robots.
“We sometimes see ourselves as outside nature, that nature is something that we can manipulate,” said O’Flynn. “But actually we are of nature, we are in nature, we are just another species. We happen to be at the top of the evolutionary tree in some ways, if you look at it in that linear kind of way, but actually the global ecosystem is much more powerful than we are. And I think that’s beginning to come through in the way that we think about it.
“An example of a right might be evolutionary development, where a species and individual … is allowed to reach its full cognitive, emotional, social potential.”
Such a right could apply to sows in intensive pig farming, calves taken away from their mothers and even pets, said O’Flynn, adding: “I say that as a dog lover. We do constrain their behaviour to suit us.”
Developments in biotechnology also pose questions about the ethics of bringing back species from extinction or eradicating existing ones. Scientists are exploring reintroducing woolly mammoths and there has been discussion of wiping out mosquitoes, which carry malaria and other diseases.