Saving the planet by giving nature rights — it is a proposal that is being put forward more and more often, but philosopher Patrik Baard is hesitant about the idea.

“There are many challenges with a river or forest having rights; it can be seen that a certain nature area can be important for a group of citizens for various reasons, and that this is a reason to strengthen nature conservation, but then it's easier to work with group rights and not the rights of nature,” says Patrik Baard, a philosopher at Malmö University who participates in the book ‘Rights of Nature: A Re-examination’, in which he looks at ethical aspects of the arguments.

Everything is not lost because you cannot lift nature's rights. It is false to equal the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘no rights’ with ‘moral standing’ and ‘no moral standing.

Patrik Baard

He believes that the question of the rights of nature raises interesting questions about how flexible the concept of rights is. That animals have rights, for example, is obvious to some, but not all.
“A cost in accepting that nature has rights is to dilute the concept of rights. The concept is one of the most successful and well-known moral philosophical and legal concepts. It means something very direct and specific when you say that someone has a right,” says Baard.

One of the largest rivers in New Zealand, Whanganui, was granted legal personality in 2017. A representative was appointed to safeguard its interests. Another example is the Bolivian parliament, which in 2010 adopted a law on the rights of ‘mother earth’.

As early as the 1970s, legal researcher Christopher Stone advocated that rivers and trees should have legal rights. Baard believes, however, that many of the reasons put forward for nature's rights do not hold up. Does nature have its own interests, are rivers and trees goal-oriented and, if so, is that enough to give them rights? If nature has rights, is it okay to cut down a tree?

“When an interaction affects an ecosystem, you should make a description of this, Stone wrote, but we already do environmental impact statements in many contexts. It is of course possible to set stricter requirements for such, but that is another matter beyond rights,” says Baard.

Baard's interests go beyond the theoretical and he believes the matter should be addressed with some urgency.

“We live in a world where one million species are threatened with extinction and the Amazon is being devastated. Under these conditions, we should be happy for all ideas, but the ideas must be so strong in principle that even those who do not intuitively agree with them can see that there are grounds that justify the positions,” he says.

He believes that it is possible to go far with the rights we already have as human beings, that we humans as conventional rights holders, for example, have the right to a good environment. There are also examples of nature areas that are protected as part of group rights for indigenous peoples.

However, protecting nature for humans can be considered provocative for many environmental philosophers who believe that nature has an intrinsic value — a value in itself, not derivative of humanity interest.

Baard believes that it is better to strengthen the ethical arguments that already exist for environmental protection than to squeeze in nature and thereby risk diluting the concept of rights.

“Everything is not lost because you cannot lift nature's rights. It is false to equal the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘no rights’ with ‘moral standing’ and ‘no moral standing,’’ he says.

Text: Ellen Albertsdottir & Adrian Grist