Does Nature Have Rights? Victorian Polymath John Ruskin Thought So

Yves here. Famed Victorian intellectual and art critic has gotten a bit of a revival due to views of the relationship of man to nature that prefigure current environmental interests. But as the essay below explains, Ruskin was also a fierce critic of capitalism, based on his belief that capitalism was at odds with the principles of nature. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia underplays these views, while the Ruskin Museum puts it front and center:

One of the great visionaries of the 19th century…

Artist, Critic, Pundit on Aesthetics & Ethics, Thinker, Seer, this social revolutionary challenged the moral foundations of Victorian Britain. He despised Capitalism & the barbarians who know the price of everything & the value of nothing.

Ruskin believed in the power of art to transform the lives of people oppressed more by visual illiteracy than by poor material conditions. His passionate desire was to open people’s eyes to the free beauties surrounding them – sunsets, tender dawn light, iridescent feathers, spectacular natural crystals, green leaves against blue sky, clouds, the vitality of Gothic architecture and ornament. His creed was: ‘There is no wealth but life.’

By Jeffrey L. Spear, Associate Professor Emeritus of English, New York University. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website</strong>

By John Ruskin (1819–1900), Fragment of the Alps (1854-56), watercolor and gouache over pencil on paper, 33.5 × 49.3 cm, Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Since I first wrote about the Victorian art and social critic John Ruskin, economics, and the environment over 40 years ago, the foreboding cloud of ecological disaster then on the horizon has become experiential climate change. Human activity has initiated the 6th great extinction in the planet’s history threatening at least 25% of Earth’s species and, if not humans as a species, certainly the ethos of perpetual economic and population growth dependent on fossil-derived fuels and chemistry.

Ruskin challenged the premises of the Liberal economic order in terms that are, if anything, more relevant today than in 1860 when he declared the first principle of his economics: “There is no wealth but life.” Consequently, “that country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and by means of his possessions, over the life of others.”[1] Given when he wrote, it is no surprise that Ruskin privileges human life, but the expansion to all life does not alter the underlying principle. The opposite of this wealth is not poverty, but what Ruskin called “illth,” not simply what is literally to death devote, like weapons, but also the things that must be consumed to maintain human life ranging from the byproducts of agriculture and husbandry, to the resources we take from the earth, to industrial waste and wear and tear on the body itself. The goal is to produce the most wealth, that is the greatest abundance of healthy life, with the least possible illth. Progressive economists like Herman Daley in The New York Times make the same point, but with no polemical punch. Does growth, he asks, really increase wealth? Is it making us richer in any aggregate sense, or might it be increasing costs [he includes environmental costs] faster than benefits making us poorer?” Ilth says it all in one word.

Ruskin formed his ideas before Marxism provided a potential alternative to the capitalist order, so his radical critique of economic liberalism called into question the underlying assumptions of industrialism itself, not just its capitalist expression; likewise, his rejection of competition does not imply a socialist alternative. The combination of influences that led Ruskin to criticize the liberal economic order at the moment of its triumph in Victorian Britain were unique, but several have a place in contemporary analyses, so I will begin with a brief account of assertions Ruskin made that have gained urgency since his time; then recount how the post-Romantic aspect of his critique has, in effect, been reborn as the literature of re-enchantment and conclude with reasons why the Rights of Nature legal movement, if it can be established — and that is a big if — has the potential to be both transnational and more effective than environmental legislation.

Ruskin was born in 1819 into a strict evangelical household. He was drilled by his mother on the Bible, the Scottish paraphrases, and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from the time he was a toddler. As an adult, he transitioned to The Wealth of Nations, and, along with much else, regular re-reading of Plato. His first work of social criticism came directly from Smith. It was not the well-known passage on productivity to be gained by the division of labor, but rather the less familiar passage in which the moral philosopher predicts that the division of labor will have so damaging an effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of workers and thus society at large that only intervention by the state on their behalf could prevent it. “It is not, truly speaking,” Ruskin wrote, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail” (10:192).

It was an article of Ruskin’s faith that Adam’s God-given assignment to tend the Garden did not end with the Fall, but was transformed into the labor of restoring Eden. As the sectarian faith of his childhood faded, he followed the Romantics, particularly Wordsworth, in finding spiritual and moral value, even solace, in Nature rather than its presumptive creator, and a duty to preserve not destroy. Ruskin had nothing against private property, but believed that it was, in effect, held in trust, and that responsible use of natural resources had to take the effect on others into account. The fact that you own riverfront property, can build a factory there, and use the river water, does not give you the right to pollute that water, or dirty the air without any attempt at mitigation. Correspondingly, righteous consumers should consider how the products they purchase came into being, not simply price.

The traditions Ruskin drew upon when examining political economy each imply a test question: the Gospels ask is it moral, moral philosophy asks is it ethical, Plato asks is it just. Looking at the Victorian market economy with its emphasis upon competition, the notion that private greed can be a public good, the positing of an abstract, rational, economic man as a consumer as opposed to the whole human being, assuming profit and return on investment as the purpose of businesses rather than the reward for producing useful goods or services, Ruskin’s answer was no, no and no. What economists like John Stuart Mill tried to add back into the system, the kinds of things now called externalities and such sub-fields as behavioral economics, were to Ruskin essential.

Moreover, the assumption of rational choice in a competitive marketplace neglected an important incentive in that system, the incentive to cheat, whether directly, by say adulterating a product rather than improving it, or indirectly by the advantage of wealth that enables the systemic robbery of the poor by the rich — the reverse, “robbing the rich because they are rich being,” he noted, “rarely practiced by persons of discretion” (17: 58). Using contemporary examples, if it is the purpose of an energy company to provide fuel, it can legitimately raise prices to cover increased costs, but not to take advantage of a tight market to increase profit margins. As for cheating, one need go no farther than the oil companies’ campaign to discredit climate science after their own research confirmed that carbon emissions were a key driver of global warming. Robbing the poor by “taking advantage of a man’s necessities in order to obtain his labour or property at a reduced price” needs no elaboration. It is often affected by “occult theft,” that “hides itself even from itself, and is legal, respectable, and cowardly, [and] corrupts the body and soul” (27: 127). If this language seems unfashionably moralistic, consider the Great Recession and the gap between the common understanding of justice – the perpetrators and profiteers of misery should be jailed – and the fact that what they did was legal under The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. If the body politic has a soul, surely it is corrupted when what is legal diverges radically from the common understanding of right and wrong.

Free market capitalism violates what Ruskin called “The Law of Help.” Drawing on 19th-century chemistry, Ruskin noted that both animate and inanimate substances consist of atoms that cohere, but while inanimate structures cannot help or repair themselves when injured, living things can. Help is life, helplessness is corruption or death. “The highest and first law of the universe – and the other name of life is, therefore, ‘help.’ The other name of death is separation. Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition … the laws of death” (7:207). Although Ruskin comes at it from a religious and Platonic standpoint, the Law of Help approximates what the contemporary materialist Jane Bennett calls Vibrant Matter, which I will get to shortly.

Translated into modern terms, Ruskin thought of both Nature and the economy as interfacing whole systems anticipating the science of ecology and, regarding the economy, something like General Systems Theory. It is now commonplace to see that the segmentation of natural systems into parcels that can be owned and exploited without regard to the whole can alter those systems so radically as to cause the extinction of whole species. I stress that Ruskin thought of the natural order and economic system the same way because we are not used to thinking of individually owned and operated entities doing business with others as parts of a complex interdependent system that is more like a web than a linear progression from production to sales to consumption. This reality has been brought painfully home by the so-called supply chain crisis precipitated by Covid-19. The complex systems of political economy in the broadest sense of that term need to be recognized, and in some way managed or controlled, if we are to avert catastrophe.

In the United States publicly held energy companies advertise going into renewables, but when their dirty assets are neither cleaned nor closed, but keep on producing behind the veil of private equity, the only thing going green is the corporate image. Likewise, the energy savings produced so far by the rising sales of electric vehicles in the US has been offset by the growth of energy-hungry cryptocurrency mining that is keeping coal-fired plants in operation that were supposed to be taken offline and held in reserve. Water rights in the US are a mare’s nest of legal and regulatory complications because surface water and the aquifer have traditionally been treated as distinct entities with differing rules of use and ownership rather than features of the water cycle.

In 1972 Barry Commoner noted that the wealth of modern societies “has been gained by rapid, short-term exploitation of the environmental system, but it has blindly accumulated a debt to nature.” We have not paid our debt, so Nature has begun to foreclose.

The Neo-Animism of Re-enchantment

Since the Jungian Thomas Moore called ecology a “Sacred science” in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life back in 1996 there have been at least 20 books in English dealing with the relationship between humans and nature with enchantment or re-enchantment in the title or centrally referenced. It is a new version of the Romantic and in some cases Christian tradition that Ruskin drew upon, the belief that there is something essentially spiritual in our relationship with the natural world that has been denied to our present and future sorrow by the zeitgeist of industrial and now post-industrial modernity with its abstraction, mechanization, exploitation and the fetishization of perpetual growth. To put it another way, humans have instrumentalized non-human nature at the immediate expense of the non-human, and the long term-expense of humanity itself creating a void once filled by belief that humans were part of Nature, a state of enchantment. “Re-enchantment” is the attempt by writers, largely philosophers, theologians, and social scientists to fill that void. The popular association of “enchantment” with magic practiced by humans, creates a space where believers in religions of the book with their transcendent but omnipresent deity can, as Ruskin did, find a duty of care for nature as we see in books with titles like Alister McGrath’s The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis, or Mark Wallace’s When God was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-enchantment of the World. This last title rejects the “otherworldly theologies” of traditional Christianity by treating Christian symbolic metaphors as reversible, making the holy dove akin to Thoth, the Ibis-headed god of learning in ancient Egypt, which may be a hard sell. Ruskin did something similar when he wrote about Athena as the Queen of the Air rather than the Goddess of Wisdom.

In the conventional history of religion animism is the oldest form of belief, but from a secular point of view, it is the newest. The idea that we are mammals and consequently part and parcel of the natural order, not beings apart, goes hand in hand with the discovery that sentience and communication are not the purview of humans alone, nor even mammals, but permeates the natural world. In the words of marine biologist Dominic Vitelli who studies octopuses, “it is not a question of how intelligent they are, but how they are intelligent.” Thanks largely to the work of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who had to overcome both gender bias and the fact that timber companies fund most forest research, we now know that trees have an elaborate means of communication by way of symbiotic fungi and can share information and nutrition even across species, demonstrating that clear-cutting and monoculture of trees are both self-defeating and a capital crime against nature. As Simard says: trees and plants have agency. They perceive, relate, and communicate… cooperate, made decisions, learn and remember. By noting how trees, animals, even fungi – any and all nonhuman species – have this agency, we can acknowledge that they deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves.” Mistreatment of one species is a mistreatment of all” (Finding the Mother Tree: 294).

For materialists, neo-animism is where science and faith link up with no need for a transcendent spirit. In the light of the new science a leading secular voice, the political theorist Jane Bennet, author of The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001), has dropped enchantment and titled her 2010 materialist manifesto Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. “I believe,” she concludes, in one matter-energy, the maker of all things seen and unseen… this pluriverse is transversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things … it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms… there is a common materiality of all that lives” (122). The literature of re-enchantment expresses a necessary change in attitude but does not advance a direct mechanism for change.

The Rights of Nature

Federal protection of the environment in the United States relies largely on legislation passed in the 1970s and early 80s that established The Environmental Protection Agency, created superfunds to clean up the illth that padded the profits of abstract corporate persons at the expense of flesh and blood, established clean air and water standards, and protected endangered species. In the early 1970s, when smog had turned Los Angeles into a blurry smear below Observatory Hill, the need for regulation clearly justified its attendant expense and bureaucratic hassle, but just as a new generation arose in biblical Egypt that knew not Joseph, so once the air and water cleared, the need for enforcement to maintain or advance clean air and water became obscure to many, and the expense and bureaucratic hassle more problematic. The steady pressure of industry for deregulation and attendant court decisions have hobbled enforcement. This regulation cycle makes essential regulation the victim of its own partial success — not to mention that new computer-based industries have largely evaded both regulation and taxation. Uber and its ilk, for example, have crippled traditional taxed and regulated livery services while increasing the number of cars cruising urban areas increasing congestion and pollution. In Pennsylvania, gas from wells scheduled to be capped is now fueling unlicensed generators powering crypto mining. The seven major crypto enterprises in the US now use as much power as Houston, a city of around 2.5 million people. We need a more comprehensive and international approach in the face of impending disaster and the international Rights of Nature movement is one possible way forward.

Dissenting in the 1972 case Sierra Club versus Morton, William O Douglas, the last of the New Deal Supreme Court Justices, contended that “if a ship is a person for maritime purposes, and a corporation is a person for purposes of the adjudicatory processes … so it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.” Douglas was paraphrasing a draft of the now classic article and subsequent book by Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing” (1975, 3rd revised edition 2010). Arguably an ecosystem has a better claim to limited recognition as a legal entity than a corporation, which has no body and no claim to sentience in and of itself.

In July, the Washburn fire threatened to destroy the Mariposa Sequoia Grove in California even though fire is part of the Sequoia life cycle – but this fire was just too hot. The mother tree of the Grove, the Grizzly Giant, was a sapling when the Roman Reality Show was who killed Germanicus and what will Tiberius do about it, but even a celebrity tree has no direct standing in court to challenge the human activity that threatens its existence. Apart from guardianship arrangements and popular support, efforts to give conditional legal standing to ecosystems in the US have failed whether in appeals court as with Lake Erie or by panicked passage of an actual ordinance against such recognition as happened in Florida. The major successes and current promise for the Rights of Nature have come from another direction, late-stage decolonization. Responding in 2008 to demands from its indigenous population, Ecuador became the first nation to recognize the Rights of Nature in its constitution. In 2010 Bolivia passed a law on the Rights of Mother Earth followed in 2012 with a framework law dealing with implementation. The most famous case is the long struggle of the New Zealand Māoiri to have the sacred status of the Whanganui River recognized by the state. As of 2017, the river became a legal entity called Te Awa Tupua that can sue and be sued. On that model, Colombia granted the Atrato River, its tributaries, and its basin, the right to be protected, preserved, and restored. The High Court of India followed suit in regard to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, though they were reversed by the Supreme Court not on principle, but in regard to practicality.

The UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, endorsed by the United States, asserts the rights of “ethnic and religious or linguistic minorities have the rights to their own culture” within nation-states. Within that frame, The International Labour Organization Convention no. 169 in 1996 established a framework for empowering indigenous and tribal peoples and their right to define priorities for their own development. A group of nations is now calling for a Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth. The special promise of the Rights of Nature movement is that it functions both within and between nation-states.

This brings me to my final point. In the homelands of Liberalism, its three pillars —- the rights to life, liberty, and property — are deeply engrained in law and culture along with the legacy of religious traditions that gave man sovereignty over nature. But cultural and religious traditions elsewhere, the Daoism and Hinduism of East and South Asia example, are much closer to those of the indigenous peoples who are leading the way. A recent Law review article by Sequoia Butler argues that “Unlike a treaty rights approach or international human rights approach, environmental personhood allows tribal communities to insert ancestral knowledge and spiritual beliefs into plans aimed at preserving the land.” Following the New Zealand example, the Yurok tribe in Northern California has declared the Klamath River to be a person under tribal law. The same logic could apply to Federal lands in general. As the old animism joins hand with the new there is at least some hope that the Law of Help may be realized with the help of the law.


[1] Unto This Last, E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds. The Complete Works of John Ruskin, vol. 17:104, hereafter cited in the text.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Very interesting essay. In many ways the rigidity of Marxism and other all embracing theories of industrial socialism have done as much damage as good to the anti-capitalist cause. Many 19th century critics of capitalism like Rushkin have been either forgotten or sidelined, but have a lot to teach us. In many ways, because they saw the transition to capitalism and colonialism in its rawest form, they understood the processes more clearly. More recent likeminded philosophers like Ivan Illich have been sidelined in modern thinking by what I would consider much shallower left wing thinkers – often because they are identified as conservatives or traditionalists.

    It didn’t help of course that the anarchist tradition in left wing thought was crushed by orthodox leftism (at least in the west – it is still a feature of Latin American radicalism). Its not entirely dead of course – even Jeremy Corbin was clearly influenced by a particular strain of English radical thought that includes Ruskin – and going back even further to the Diggers. I’ve often thought that one thing that makes the US unusual in political terms is that this strain of anti-capitalism morphed into localist libertarianism and then got hijacked by the right (or perhaps more accurately, abandoned by the urban left).

    This line of anti-capitalism localism always seems most active and ‘alive’ in smaller countries, especially in post-colonialist situations. The Zapatistas of Mexico along with many other such groups – including perhaps the Naxilites of India keep it to some degree, although it has a disturbing tendency to turn towards an extreme Maoism (as with the Shining Path of Peru or the Khymer Rouge). Not that Rushkin or his followers would ever have taken to the hills with AK-47s, but there are clear parallels in their analysis. In China, there were many theorists who advocated a softer, more local socialism up to the 1990’s, but were pretty much steamrolled by the desire for ‘development’ at all costs. In Europe, you can see the influence of older forms of socialism in Sinn Fein in Ireland or other regionalist movements in Flanders or parts of Spain and Italy. But it seems to me that the urge to conform to a pro-growth industrialism is as powerful within left wing movements as with liberalism or the right.

    1. NoFreeWill

      Marx clearly outlined the link between capitalism and ecological destruction in Capital through the metabolic rift concept, although that has conveniently been forgotten. It has been revived by red-green thinkers like Jason Moore and John Bellamy Foster, who use a robust materialism to connect environmental and human exploitation… industrial/productivist socialism clearly aligned with maximum output as the goal of a planned economy envirnoment be damned, but it is hard to consider soviet/chinese policy entirely unjustified in light of the threat of nazi armies etc. and the need for industrial output to compete with the US during the cold war.

      eco-anarchocommunism is much cooler though, and there are many parallels between Ruskin’s thoughts as outlined here and Kropotkin’s book on cooperation in nature.

      death, and the dead things:: ex. rocks, sticks, and fallen leaves, are as compelling as those that are alive, and i don’t appreciate a kind of vitalocentrism as replacement for anthropocentrism. Of course we are prejudiced towards that which moves quickly like us, but the slow movement of geology, though hard to see, can be easily appreciated by visual and tactile study through play.

  2. Ignacio

    I feel somehow sorry to recourse to one of my favourite themes the fishing industry as one a landmark of the struggle between capitalism and nature conservation. As it was apparent by the 60s, industrialization, capitalism and modernization was going to kill the fishing industry by means of excessive fishing capacity. First in the waters of the most industrialized regions but next all around the world. The UN nations did not give person status to fish populations in it’s Law Of Sea Convention (UNCLOS 82) but it underlined the need of international conservation and the protection of certain species that were “collateral damage”. It also ruled that international cooperation was required for the conservation of highly migratory species and transzonal fish populations whose management cannot be the sole responsibility of single coastal states. Later in 1995 the Convention was expanded to include ecosystem protections in the sea.
    The most industrialized regions were precisely the first to notice the urgent need for conservation measures. Their first measures timid, short to comply conservation objectives, behind the curve. But necessity made them improve and take every year more comprehensive measures and limitations. The fishing industry in these regions contracted sharply from the beginning of 21st century. Now their objectives are to exploit sea resources at “maximum sustainable yields” which is yet quite a slippery objective.

    In any case, fisheries are a prime example showing that permanent growth is just unsustainable. There are many others of course but this is probably the one that was realised the fastest.

  3. David

    It’s an interesting essay and a reminder of strand of socialist thinking in nineteenth-century Britain that often gets overlooked. But it falls into the modern trap of assigning “rights” to inanimate things, which is just another way of acquiring control over them, since they cannot express their desires themselves. What this is all about is not abstract rights, but human duties. The difference is critical, because rights are aspirations which we look for somebody else to enforce, whereas duties apply to each one of us, in our daily conduct. How many of us discharged our duty to the Earth today, or even this week?

    The essay hints at, but never really discusses, the fact that the fundamental connection with Nature which produces the sense of duty to it, can never be just philosophical or political; it has to be religious, or at least spiritual. Authors like Charles Taylor, and before him CS Lewis and EMW Tillyard, have traced the way in which our ancestors believed they inhabited a magical world, where everything had been created as we had, where there was significance in every sign and movement of nature, because we were part of the same continuum. This started to fall apart with the argument, conventionally attributed to Francis Bacon, but not unique to him, that God had in fact given Man dominion over Nature, and that Nature was there to serve human ends. The rest, as they say, follows. It’s interesting that the revival of the sense that we have a duty to Nature comes from traditional, spiritual, communitarian values, whilst the idea of “rights” of nature is a typical decadent neoliberal creation, presumably with fat fees for the lawyers involved.

    1. Carolinian

      I agree that the decline of religion has something to do with our modern oh so anarchic secularism but not because I’m religious but because we’ve merely substituted another supernatural belief (in money for example) for one that did at least promote the goal of social harmony.

      As for nature, some of us love it as much as Ruskin did but is it “moral” or is it “red in tooth and claw” with little to do with human ideas of morality? Ruskin’s high flown moralism has been taking it on the chin at the movies both in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and the feminist themed Effie Gray about his failed and unconsummated marriage to a teenager. And in our modern times nature is being victimized, not just by greedy capitalists, but by all of us doing the very natural thing of reproducing and spreading across the planet. Ruskin said one reason for the unconsummated marriage was that his wife’s body was not as he imagined it would be. Idealism has its place. Realism too.

    2. Eclair

      Thank you, David. I was having trouble with the essay, an undefined sense of unease with its entitlement, its assumption that we humans have the right to assign rights. But, I am a bit testy these days, so figured I was overreacting to some stuffy Victorian aesthete who babbled on about how the poor should get out and enjoy Nature more and this would make their lives better.

      I have spent some time with the Lakota around Pine Ridge, SD and Standing Rock, ND, listening to and trying to absorb their attitudes towards the world and towards what they refer to as ‘our relatives,’ be they winged, crawling, four-footed, or stationary. Or even towards ‘those who have gone before us.’ But who are still with us. They have simply stepped behind a veil.

      And, you are correct, the paramount feeling is one of ‘duty.’ To protect, to revere, to enhance, to embrace. And, in the case of those who have gone before us, to continue to walk in the path they have defined, to act only in a good way.

      I did not feel there were the boundaries that we in the Western tradition have erected; the boundaries between ‘human’ and ‘animal,’ between ‘sentient’ and ‘non-sentient,’ between ‘intelligent life,’ and …. what …. some othering category of ‘non-intelligent non-life?’

      Or even an insurmountable wall between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’ Those who have gone before do not end up in some paradise ruled over by an omniscient deiity, they hover right at hand, their guidance, their warnings, their teachings remembered and adhered to every day.

      You write: ” …. the fact that the fundamental connection with Nature which produces the sense of duty to it, can never be just philosophical or political; it has to be religious, or at least spiritual.” The big question is, can we experience this spiritual awakening in time to save ourselves and all our ‘relatives?’

      1. Anthony G Stegman

        Christian religions teach that man was given dominion over the world and all of its creatures by God. This is drilled in to believers from day one, and it forms the basis for much of Western “civilization”.

        1. David

          Indeed (Genesis, I think) but there’s a difference between “creatures and “nature.” The idea of nature as an endless source of materials, to be domesticated and mastered, is a relatively recent development.

    3. hk

      Even more irksome is the linkage between “rights” and power. Assigning “rights” to nature seems suspiciously like declaring lord’s forests off limits to peasants and cutting hands off of the violators–another way for the powerful to shove shove the face of the weak under the boot, all in the name of “righteousness.”

      1. Bruno

        In this solar system, human beings have monstrously wronged the rest of the natural world, and, ipse facto, themselves. But “wrong” and “right” are correlative terms. A morally neutered body (the world) cannot have “rights” and therefore cannot be “wronged.” Humans–respect the rights of the Earth, or continue your ecocide! Those are your only alternatives.

        1. hk

          Or, in the name of “respecting the rights of nature,” exterminate the “wrong kinds of people.”. Variants of this sort of idea have existed before: some Nazi ecologists, like the Heck Brothers, justified their work on Nazi racial theory grounds. (But, having said that, the elder Heck brother, Heinz, would eventually be imprisoned for political crimes….)

    4. PlutoniumKun

      Its a long time since I’ve read my Ruskin or any of the writers of that period – and I’ve always been more interested in his take on aesthetics and design – but I think he did avoid the notion of the ‘value’ or ‘rights’ of nature. While I abhor the notion of placing a monetary value on beauty or wilderness, the problem is that without it, you risk disappearing down misty lanes when you try to justify protection over development. I recall that it was John Betjeman who tried to appeal to the governments better nature over Stanstead Airport in the 1970’s. He wrote about the inadequacy of cost-benefit analysis in the face of the charm of the twist of a country lane or a distant sight of a church spire. He failed of course.

    5. NoFreeWill

      the very idea of nature as a separate place is the problem… if you accept that we are part of a universe, the very concept implies unity of all things, so in fact the bedrock of science provides us with more connection than we could ever possibly need. as for animism, it’s great and cool and good, but again, one can be an atheist and appreciate/connect/etc. with the world around us. this argument is simply a subset of the standard religious one against atheism that “you can’t have ethics/morality at all without religion!”

  4. Wukchumni

    I’m in the City of Angels for the first time in about 6 months and I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but the place has gotten much more trashier than in the past if one were to only glimpse it vis a vis the freeways, whole hillsides adjacent to the car arteries are resplendent with refuse, the nature of the surroundings having lost its rights to not be trashed.

    What a contrast to my surroundings in Mineral King (Sierra Club vs Morton) where nature rules and has rights in that hikers dare not desecrate paradise. I’ve walked around 175 miles this summer in the high country and have not needed to pick up any trash on the trails, as people are respectful in the wilderness-but not our cities.

    Typically when I do run into trash (usually off-trail) its one of those metallic looking helium balloons gone flat after being launched from a birthday party down in Godzone and is always a bit of a shock seeing something that doesn’t belong there.

    If Mineral King looked like LA does, there would be much consternation and a sense that we’ve failed it, but that isn’t the case with the latter.

    1. LAS

      In NYC, city funds for sanitation were reduced to pay for covid pandemic management and there was a surge in garbage and rats. Complaints among residents have followed, but city funds still seem tight; if the city is not squeezing the sanitation dept. then it is squeezing the schools. I expect the same happened in other cities, too. Only in LA, the visual effect might have been delayed — until freeway traffic came back to normal.

      It’s not exactly apples to apples when you compare high population areas with low population ones, IMO, but I share your concerns.

    2. anon in so cal

      Speaking of Los Angeles and wildlife and hillsides, a pending hearing and vote on the Wildlife Ordinance, which aims to preserve biodiversity, wildlife corridors, and habitat, in Los Angeles, will take place via the City Planning Commission (CPC) in Fall 2022. Public comments can be submitted through Aug 22. There have been several online public sessions and it was disheartening to see proxies for real estate developers raise objections.

      Separately, the embankments along the LA freeways are typically a site of homeless encampments. There is plenty of consternation in LA, along with fierce battles concerning relocating the homeless and restricting or allowing access to various areas. This is against the backdrop of how to address the crisis.

      1. Wukchumni

        I’m in San Diego now, and there is a lot less trash along the freeways here than in LA, maybe a quarter as much.

        That said, you don’t see homeless along the freeway in Tijuana-adjacent as you do in LA.

    3. Anthony G Stegman

      California is famous for its trash. Nothing new. Periodically, Caltrans sends out crews of miscreants to stuff pumpkins along the state’s freeways. It’s a thankless and never ending job. Cross the state line into Arizona and there is a world of difference. The freeways are clean and tidy (most of the time). Many of the residents of California are selfish slobs. There’s no getting around that.

    4. Anthony G Stegman

      Something that helps Mineral King and other remote areas is the lack of nearby trash sources – namely fast food joints and 7-11s. If you don’t have the trash with you on the trails it’s easy not to litter. And there is the “broken windows” effect on the mind. If you see trash all around you it’s easy to rationalize tossing your own trash on the streets as well. A neighborhood hiking park near where I live is very clean despite heavy use because volunteers pick up trash and so the hikers see clean trails and are less likely to throw their trash along the trails.

  5. the bodger

    The passage of the rights of nature in their system of law in both Ecuador and Bolivia was helped into its birth by CELDF Community Environmental Legal Defense fund. They have worked across the globe to bring rights to life for nature. It is a path for people to bring major corporations that pollute to court and hold them accountable. Rights of nature are good for humans too.

  6. Lex

    I’ll be returning to this essay at least once more because it’s important. It may be worth noting that Ruskin was a significant inspiration to the original Arts & Crafts movement. English Arts & Crafts is a bit different than what we see in the US; perhaps because American A&C tended to be more of a “development” of the concepts. Greene and Greene is probably not a great representation of A&C, even though it is based on the philosophical ideals of the movement. Nancy Hiller has done excellent work on English A&C and her book on the furniture is much more than a furniture book or plans. It is an excellent examination of the movement.

    I believe the book is also available via Lost Art Press.

  7. BradN

    I find myself embarrassed that I am so unfamiliar with such a profound thinker but even more excited that I am now going to have the opportunity to acquaint myself with him.

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