The planet Earth in its present mode of florescence is being devastated. This devastation is being fostered and protected by legal, political and economic establishments that exalt the human community while offering no protection to the non-human modes of being. There is an urgent need for a Jurisprudence (system of governance) that recognizes that the well-being of the integral world community is primary, and that human well-being is derivative – an Earth Jurisprudence.
One of Thomas Berry’s major contributions to what he called the Great Work was his articulation of the principles and philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence. He originated the term and explained its key concepts over many years.1 A Gaia Foundation report acknowledges: “Earth Jurisprudence is the term first used by cultural historian Thomas Berry to name the philosophy of governance and law, in which the Earth, not human interests, is primary. It accepts that humans are born into an ordered and lawful Universe, to whose laws we need to comply if we are to be a benign presence on Earth.”2 Thomas developed these ideas over several decades in conversation with others.
As he saw it, even the United States Constitution is fundamentally flawed by reserving all rights for humans and recognizing none for nature. For Thomas, the deficiency cries out for a fundamental transformation of our modern ideas of law. At the heart of this transformation, he noted, is the shift from a human-centered to an Earth-centered understanding of our relationship with the larger community of life. A profound change in perspective, he felt, would enable humans to recognize and protect the inherent rights of the natural world.
Given that the prevailing jurisprudence system does not protect other species or components of the living Earth, Thomas asked what would a different system look like? He pointed to various sources of inspiration, namely nature herself and indigenous peoples’ understanding of law. The starting point, he said, is recognizing that the laws of the Earth are primary. They govern life on the planet and human laws should be derived from these. This is clear for indigenous peoples whose languages, customary laws, and governance systems are rooted in the understanding that nature regulates the order of living processes in which humans are inextricably embedded. Thus, to maintain health and wellbeing for people and the planet, humans need to comply with the dynamics of nature. For indigenous peoples, the relationship between land and species is regarded as sacred and involves reciprocity.
That nature has rights within this worldview is not difficult to affirm because every component of life is an interdependent dimension of the web of life with inherent rights to exist. But since the language of rights evolved in a modern context, Thomas felt that humans need to acknowledge these biases in recognizing rights in a more-than-human context. These biases include a modern anthropocentric perspective, the objectification of the natural world, a view of the world as inert or even dead, and the assumption of human domination that emphasizes a use relationship with nature in the current industrial system.
Thomas was inspired early on by Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California. Stone was one of the first to call for judicial reform, with his groundbreaking book in 1974, Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects.³ Stone argued for the rights of natural objects (trees) or ecosystems (forests, oceans, rivers) to have legal standing and to be represented by guardians to protect them, just as corporations and charitable trusts have legal representatives. He felt that these natural objects or systems should be recognized for their own worth and dignity, not merely their benefit to humans.
Thomas drew on this position of the inherent value of nature and of natural processes:
…every being has rights to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights. So too with the entire range of beings throughout the universe. All rights are limited and relative.
Thus Thomas emphasized that: “Every component of the Earth community, living and non-living has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat or a place to be, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.5” This position has been foundational for many of those involved in formulating and making operational an effective rights of nature approach rooted in Earth Jurisprudence.6 Similar perspectives have arisen in the contemporary period with scientific understanding of the interdependence of Earth systems, particularly in ecology. Thus, by drawing on both indigenous and scientific knowledge, Earth jurisprudence is arising to respond to the needs of the larger community of life…
Thomas Berry’s Ten Principles of Jurisprudence
Ten Principles of Jurisprudence
- Rights originate where existence originates. That which determines existence determines rights.
- Since it has no further context of existence in the phenomenal order, the universe is self-referent in its being and self-normative in its activities. It is also the primary referent in the being and the activities of all derivative modes of being.
- The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be used. As a subject, each component of the universe is capable of having rights.
- The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights: from the universe that brought them into being.
- Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.
- All rights are role-specific or species-specific, and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference in rights is qualitative, not quantitative. The rights of an insect would be of no value to a tree or a fish.
- Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other modes of being to exist in their natural state. Human property rights are not absolute. Property rights are simply a special relationship between a particular human ‘owner’ and a particular piece of ‘property,’ so that both might fulfil their roles in the great community of existence.
- Since species exist only in the form of individuals, rights refer to individuals, not simply in a general way to species.
- These rights as presented here are based on the intrinsic relations that the various components of Earth have to each other. The planet Earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself. Each component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment, which includes the predator-prey relationship, is integral with the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive community of existence.
- In a special manner, humans have not only a need for but also a right of access to the natural world to provide for the physical needs of humans and the wonder needed by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination, and the intimacy needed by human emotions for personal fulfillment.
Thomas Berry expressed the above principles terms of rights which he believed should be recognized in national constitutions and courts of law.