“Animal rights” always seemed to me like one of the most contrived and implausible concepts to come out of the politically correct left in the last few decades.
The idea conjured an image of urban hipsters whose main interface with wildlife was a fishbowl or hamster cage and who couldn’t believe that pickup truck drivers out in the boonies still did retrograde things like huntin’ and fishin’. Or, maybe a line of anti-fur activists shivering by the steps of an opera house in December, waiting for the evening’s performance to let out so they could toss stage blood at the fox and sable coats of exiting socialites.
And even if you’re a person who’s more disturbed by the suffering of animals than by the plight of billions of human lives blighted by war, famine, disease and oppression across the globe and around the corner, how would you even go about expanding jurisprudence to cover wolves and bears, birds and bees and all sorts of creepy crawlies that you’ll never see in a PETA campaign?
I once knew a vegan lawyer from Santa Cruz who did animal rights work. It would’ve been a waste of sarcasm to ask whether squirrels approved her billable hours and trout paid her retainer. I already knew that her group was funded by philanthropic foundations, just as environmental groups got money to sue logging companies for cutting down giant redwoods.
But even if somebody else is paying for your lawyers, aren’t rights something you earn yourself through boycotts, protests, elections and even revolts and revolutions, all uniquely human activities?
It turns out that the most basic rights are not in fact earned by people who complain loudly enough. And they’re certainly not granted by enlightened rulers out of noblesse oblige. Instead, rights derive from some source outside of national governments, whether God or existence itself.
For example, the Declaration of Independence asserted that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” More recently, in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed the equality of all people under law even if individual oppressive governments have at one time or another enacted laws that discriminate on the basis of race, sex or religion.
In Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, author Cormac Cullinan, one of those environmental attorneys who use the legal system to try to stop corporations from destroying nature, argues that rights come from creation itself. As such, humans have no more right to rights, so to speak, than any other being on our planet.
And unlike PETA, Cullinan would not restrict earthly rights to animals but would recognize them in even inanimate features of the landscape.
Consider the right of a river to flow unimpeded, for example. If people settle by a stream and use its water to grow crops and raise cattle, then that can be a good thing, since it strengthens the relationship of human and river, allowing each entity to realize more of its own nature. But should the human settlement balloon into a city that dams the river for hydropower and then drains it nearly dry for taking showers and flushing toilets, then the relationship has become exploitative.
It’s the same for animals, as Cullinan writes:
Earth jurisprudence demands that we do not respond by exterminating the aardvarks, or controlling the rivers until they cease to be rivers and virtually become sewers boxed in concrete. It requires that we develop and implement wild laws that are able to recognize and celebrate the unique qualities of rivers and aardvarks. This may mean finding suitable land for landless people, preventing the construction of dwellings within the floodplain, or restoring wetlands to prevent floods.
No more “man vs. nature”
What’s refreshing about Cullinan’s approach is that he overcomes the dualism that so often bedevils any discussion of what humans owe to non-human creation.
Wild Law shows that hugging trees or hugging our kids is a false choice. Instead, Cullinan argues persuasively that if we really care about our kids, we’ll also need to hug a lot more trees. And that will mean adding some “wildness” to our systems of law.
It’s not just for selfish reasons and to protect the ecosystems that keep humans alive that we should create a legal framework to put an end to the destruction that characterizes the Anthropocene Age, where 200 species go extinct every day.
Adding wildness to our laws is also about saving our human souls. Because even if there were no limits to the growth of human numbers and works, and even if global consumer capitalism could marshall the physical resources to go on forever, we wouldn’t be happy continuing to live as we do alienated from our fellow creatures and from our own true natures. As Cullinan writes,
If we continue too long on this course our consciousnesses, and those of the generations that follow us, will no longer be shaped through interaction with the beauty, diversity and sheer unexpectedness of nature. Concrete parking lots breed parking-lot minds: uniform, barren, predictable and devoid of any sacred or any transcendental meaning.
What’s to be done? First, we must recognize that the human world is not separate, but part of, the natural world. Then, we must learn to live as good neighbors with the rest of creation, including other humans.
For example, as Cullinan calls for limiting the ambit of human powers and encouraging practices that honor and respect the earth community — like the complex rituals that indigenous hunters undertake before going hunting — he also wants more autonomy for human localities separate from state or federal governments within the developed world and less meddling by developed nations in the affairs of indigenous peoples.
Cry, the beloved country
Cullinan, a South African who lived through the transition from white-minority rule to a multi-racial democracy in the early 1990s, is a realistic optimist.
He recognizes that the prospects for the world to shake off plutocracy and get off its ecocidal course before it’s too late for humanity certainly look grim right now. But he points out that breaking the grip of apartheid also looked unattainable in South Africa in the eighties under the iron rule of the white-supremacist National Party and President PW Botha.
So, just as both blacks and whites in South Africa became free from a stifling life under the pseudo-fascist apartheid regime, so today’s Earth Community, human and non-human alike, can free ourselves from an anthropocentric rule that oppresses us as it exploits rivers, forests and bears, supposedly for the benefit of our species but, in fact, merely for the profits of a small self-serving elite.
A weakness of Cullinan’s discussion is that he offers little political advice on how to start changing our structure of law in the developed world, aside from a few examples of places that have recognized the rights of nature already, such as Ecuador. But making such a monumental and historic change in jurisprudence in Washington, Brussels or Beijing will be an order of magnitude more difficult than changing even the constitution of a small Third World nation.
Yet, Cullinan’s approach has a can-do attitude to recommend it. Unlike some animal rights advocates, who see humanity as the bad guys, Cullinan invites people, as “unusually gifted members of the [Earth] Community,” to apply our impressive arts and technologies for the benefit of all species.
“Our responsibility for the Earth is not simply to preserve it,” as Cullinan quotes his guru, the late eco-philosopher and Catholic priest Thomas Berry, “it is to be present to the Earth in its next sequence of transformations. While we were unknowingly carried through the evolutionary process in former centuries, the time has come when we must in some sense guide and energize the process ourselves.”
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice