Essex Law School academic joins the UN’s Harmony with Nature expert network

Photo by Noah Buscher

Dr. Emily Jones, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, became a member of the United Nations Expert Knowledge Network on Harmony with Nature.

Dr. Jones offers below her input on the theme of Earth Jurisprudence.

Earth Jurisprudence is a philosophy of law and human governance that is based on the idea that humans are only one part of a wider community of beings and that the welfare of each member of that community is dependent on the welfare of the Earth as a whole.

What would the practice of Earth-centered Law look like from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective? How is that different from how Earth-centered Law is generally practiced now? And, what are the benefits of practicing Earth-centered Law from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective?

I am an international lawyer so I will comment mostly from within that field. Right now, I don’t think the law accommodates an Earth jurisprudence approach at all. Even international environmental law, the area of international law that is there to protect the environment, is very anthropocentric. We can see this by looking at the principle of sustainable development.

This is arguably the main overarching principle of international environmental law. This principle broadly notes that development needs must be sustainable for the environment. However, as scholars Usha Natarajan and Kishan Kohdy have noted, the principle is seldom used ‘to call for less development.’ Overall, this principle sets up a system whereby the environment is seen as a resource to be exploited, an object, with humans being the only subjects in this paradigm.

An Earth jurisprudence perspective would challenge that paradigm. We need to move from the current legal position which sees the environment as an exploitable object and start challenging human exceptionalism. Humans are deeply connected to their environments, impacting on and being impacted by them. An Earth jurisprudence perspective will push the law to see those relationships as opposed to always seeing humans as distinct from and superior to their natural environments. This shift will be urgently needed if we are to address the pressing environmental challenges of our times.

What promising approaches would you recommend for achieving the implementation of an Earth-centered worldview for Earth-centered Law?

I find a lot of hope in the emerging recognition of the Rights of Nature. The Rights of Nature are increasingly gaining traction and have now been recognized in over 27 countries on all continents. States are increasingly interested in applying Rights of Nature approaches and so this is something I think we need to push for.

Personally, I am interested in how we can start applying the Rights of Nature in international law. So far, the Rights of Nature have mostly been applied in local contexts e.g. to a river or a specific area where the boundaries are legally defined. However, for the Rights of Nature to have a global impact, they need to be applied globally. After all, ecosystems are not bounded entities but are deeply connected to one another. The UN Harmony with Nature Program has been key in getting the Rights of Nature on the international agenda, but there is a lot more work that still needs to be done.

I also think we need to do a lot more work to continue to amplify the voices of Indigenous peoples. There is so much knowledge that has, for centuries, been ignored and silenced. It can also not be forgotten that, while Indigenous peoples have not been involved in all instances of the recognition of the Rights of Nature, and not all Indigenous peoples support the Rights of Nature, with some questioning the Eurocentrism of the term “rights”, Indigenous worldviews instigated this movement. The Rights of Nature, as noted, represent a key shift in re-thinking out currently anthropocentric legal frames, and it is no coincidence that Indigenous peoples have played such a vital role in this moment thus far.

I also find hope in emerging calls for degrowth approaches. This is one way that we may start to challenge some of the dominant economic models and ways of thinking that justify the exploitation of the environment for so-called economic needs.

What key problems or obstacles do you see as impeding the implementation of an Earth-centered worldview in Earth-centered Law?

I think the key challenge, and one that international environmental law as a field has long faced, is getting things done. International law is based on state consent and states, as we know, are not always very forthcoming when it comes to protecting the environment.

There are many factors at play here, including the state’s need to promote its own economic development but also the pressure put on by powerful corporations. Our global order is so focused on neoliberal economics, on profit and on prioritizing the needs of corporations.

Pushing people to think differently, to think beyond those entrenched systems of thought and power, will be difficult, but I think we will get there – we have to!

What are the top recommendations for priority, near-term action to move Earth-centered Law toward an Earth Jurisprudence approach? What are the specific, longer-term priorities for action?

  • Promote the Rights of Nature globally. This means taking local, regional and international actions to get this on the agenda of lawmakers.
  • Engage the public. For us to move towards a legal system based on Earth jurisprudence, we need to ensure people are on board and are calling for this. The Rights of Nature sounds interesting to people when they first hear it but we need to work harder to explain this to people and why it matters.
  • In terms of getting the Rights of Nature on the international legal agenda, I think the next step will be applying the Rights of Nature to case studies. We have some examples from domestic legal systems where the Rights of Nature have been applied but, for the most part, how we can put this into action in international law remains unclear. We need to start doing that detailed work to show states and other stakeholders exactly how it can be done.

This Q&A is available on the UN’s Harmony with Nature Experts’ Library.

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