There’s an interesting article by Anna Grear in Aeon, criticising the idea that Nature should have human-style rights, and linking to the website of the Centre for Humans and Nature, which has lots more interesting discussion.
I’ve recently written a contribution to a forthcoming book by Tim Hollo, in which I take the opposite view. My central point is that corporations are routinely treated as persons for legal purposes, and that the effect is frequently harmful to Nature. There is in my view, no reason in principle, not to give legal standing to representatives of Nature, similar to that given to the representatives of social constructions like corporations. A lengthy extract over the fold.
If property rights are social constructions, what implications can we draw in relation to rights for Nature. On the one hand, we can rule out essentialist objections, along the lines that the concept of property rights cannot encompass rights for Nature.
There are, of course, practical issues that must be resolved. Neither Nature in general, nor particular species and ecosystems have the kind of agency required to exercise and defend property rights. Rather these property rights must be exercised by humans, bound by obligations to act in line with the interests of Nature, and these interests must also be defined by humans. There is nothing particularly unusual here. Our current system assigns property rights to infants, who are in exactly the same position.
The same is true of property rights assigned to more-or-less abstract collectivities such as BHP or ‘the people of Australia’. While the people represented by these collectivities may have a role in choosing their representatives, they must rely, most of the time on the fiduciary and constitutional responsibilities that bind these representatives.
On the other hand, having rejected the idea of ‘natural’ property rights for people, we must reject this idea for Nature also. Whether or not people (individually or collectively) have moral obligations to Nature, these obligations do not translate directly into property rights/
Rather, any assessment of property rights for Nature must ultimately be pragmatic. Would the creation of property rights for Nature serve to promote the achievement of fairer and more sustainable outcomes (bearing in mind that these terms will themselves be contested). Alternatively, would these goals be better served by an expansion of the current system in which the protection of the natural environment is part of the responsibility of governments, operated primarily through legislative and regulatory constraints on environmentally damaging activities?
The case of bankruptcy law provides an instance where there would appear to be at least a prima facie case for assigning property rights to Nature. There have been numerous instances where mining companies have done substantial environmental damage before declaring bankruptcy and passing the responsibility for any cleanup on to the public in general. In a few cases, such as that of Linc Energy, the damage has been such as to lead to criminal charges.
However, the protections of corporate and bankruptcy law mean that, even in cases like this, the costs fall on the public rather than on the directors and shareholders of the company. Linc was fined $4.5 million and the cleanup costs estimated at $72 million (Smee 2018). The CEO and main shareholder, Peter Bond, dismissed the fine as meaningless and stated that the company would not have to pay anything (McKenna 2018). As always under limited liability, Bond’s own liabilities were confined to the value of his shareholding, which was lost when the company went bankrupt.
An explicit assignment of property rights to Nature might have changed this. If environmental damage were regarded as constituting an unpaid debt to Nature, it might be possible to force a company like Linc into insolvency well before it ran out of cash. Moreover, the offence of trading while insolvent is more clearly established as a basis for prosecution than are the laws under which Linc and its directors are currently being pursued.
Similar problems have arisen in the United States, where mining companies have been permitted to engage in ‘self-bonding’ to cover the costs of reclaiming abandoned mine sites. That is, rather than posting a bond, the companies were allowed to promise to pay the costs of reclamation out of their own assets. As more and more companies (particularly coal miners) have gone bankrupt, governments have been left to pick up the bill. In West Virginia, more than 60 per cent of the future cleanup bill is associated with bankrupt companies.
The problem is made worse by the inadequate level at which bonds are set. In Kentucky, for example, forfeited bonds covered only half the estimated cost of reclamation.
The practice of self-bonding has come under increasing attack. In Wyoming, which has the largest open-cut mines in the United States, proposals are being put forward to limit self-bonding to firms with a strong credit rating and significant remaining production. In practice, very few coal companies are likely to meet the criteria.
This shift is welcome. However, the outcome is a long way from that which would arise if Nature had explicit property rights. In that case, the normal outcome would be that mine owners were required to pay compensation for damage to natural assets as that damage occurred, or even in advance, as is typically the case when mining activities impinge on the value of privately owned land and other assets.