Sacred Democracy-Rites of Nature

by: Posted on: August 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Now that legal rights of nature exist, what will this mean as they scale up? Damon contributes to the conversation.


More and more attention is being accorded these days to “the rights of nature”—a still novel phrase despite being introduced in 1989 as the title of Roderick Nash’s classic environmental history that made the early case for the ethical treatment of nature. In 2011 the phrase appeared as a title again, this time of an inspired anthology/handbook out of Canada, subtitled “The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth,” which features short essays by internationally known figures echoing Nash’s argument for the rights of all beings. Recently the case has been made nationally as well, including innovative constitutional enactments in Ecuador and Bolivia, and at the municipal level all over the U.S., as a core component of scores of precedent-setting community rights ordinances prohibiting corporate activities destructive to local natural environments.

The idea of natural rights is not only novel but is also controversial in a big way. The merest notion that nature might merit anything remotely comparable to the legal standing of humans is a bitter pill for many to swallow, as the principle of ownership is engrained indelibly in the American psyche. What is nature, after all, if not somebody’s property? It could even be argued that municipal push-backs exemplify to a degree the traditional territorial imperative, as in who owns our nature anyway, us or you?

Nevertheless, since the landmark Earth Day initiative of 1970, there is an ever- growing awareness that the abuse of nature at the hands of humanity rivals in extent that evil known to all as man’s inhumanity to man (ironically gender-specific as the phrase obviously is). Thus, regardless of how suspect anyone’s motives may be in their desire to protect what remains of our natural environment, mustn’t those be preferable to the soul-less profiteering of industrial development? If everything natural is property according to the laws, and if corporations are simply home-owning persons yet with larger yards to do with as they damn well please, might personal ownership also lead us to a protective new ethic beyond simply rounding-up dandelions and crabgrass? Could it presage an attitude of stewardship not unlike the reverent attitudes and actions of the world’s aboriginal peoples toward the nature they felt existentially responsible to sustain? Think of The Nature Conversancy, but on a broader, more grassroots scale: ownership policing itself.

I wonder, in fact, if attitudes such as this aren’t further signs of the evolution of the sacred, as it unfolds—however haltingly and fitfully—within us. Such unfoldings do in truth continually beg of us the moral question: where does our spirit of democracy (our sphere of fairness, our range of inner kinship, our capacity to recognize that we’re all in this together) leave off? Fittingly, there is an age-old expression in the perennial wisdom to describe each of our individually progressive leaving-off points: the “ring-pass-not.”

In spiritual parlance, the ring-pass-not describes our concentric barriers to higher consciousness, yet in a mundane context it recalls each of our childhoods, and the process of widening areas of permissible spatial exploration, from yard to block and then into the forest. Beyond ensuing rings we show we’re ready to venture, yet while our boundaries expand as we age in years, we’re more likely to prove the ancient adage: that it’s one thing to take the child out of the neighborhood, but it’s another to take the neighborhood out of the child. Each of us has to come to terms with (as we test) our personal limits.

I’ve discussed in earlier columns what I’m positing as the democratic ideal of a kinship with all life. And perhaps in theory at least some of us are wrapping our minds around the lofty goal of an unconditional, brotherly love for all human beings—including even people outside our “clans.” Seekers on the spiritual path learn to open their hearts toward everyone, even those they don’t personally like. Could this practice be anything but healthy then for those on the democratic path? What more virtuous commitment can there be for any of us who consider ourselves to be apprentices in democratic citizenship?

Even so, what would make such a virtue germane to a concept like the rights of nature? It sounds like a huge leap from honoring the rights of fellow humans to those of the flora and fauna—not to mention the apparently inanimate elements sustaining them and us: the earth, water and air. If we’re only beginning to acknowledge the sentience of (other) animals, and are still a far cry from buying into “the secret life of plants,” how could we ever accede to anything like civil liberties for the fields, streams and breezes they inhabit? We inhabit our houses, after all. Should that mean they have rights too?

Well, let’s think of it this way. Anything that exists in our material surroundings falls under one of two, and only two, classifications: either it is natural or it is artificial. This is an assertion very easily verified, whether by observation or mere common sense, and the criteria for difference are also readily construed. What is artificial has been humanly crafted—is, in other words, an artifact­­—while what is natural has not. It is a fact of nature. Whether also a fact of a higher force or purpose beyond itself is, well, immaterial to this distinction. The fact of the matter is that nature was not man-made, to use yet another gender-specific coinage. What is natural, in other words, simply is. What is artificial, on the other hand, isn’t that at all. Its force or purpose is far from immaterial.

I’ll save for future discussion the philosophical question of responsibility—of purpose—that should accompany the fabrication of artificial objects into the world. It is clear, though, that they are fabricated from nature, just as evidence of irresponsibility is rampant everywhere one looks. It can be downright depressing, especially since there’s no democratic control over how much of it continues to be produced. Clearly, then, there is in our culture—alive and unwell—a contrary impulse to the Earth Day ethic, which fetishizes the artificial over almost all things natural. As we look about and reflect upon which is dominant over the other, it’s a wonder how different the proportions were just a few centuries ago. What can the implications be for us of changes so hugely exponential?

We are, after all, natural creatures (at least still mostly so), and as such share the elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—as constituent components of our natural selves. Moreover, as the elements in their forms and functions become more toxic in an ever more unnatural world, and as they are vital aspects of our physical natures, mustn’t we ourselves become equally “intoxicated?” And as practitioners of a living democracy, learning to cherish the well-being not only of our immediate relations but of all fellow citizens as brothers and sisters, ought there to be any less sense of kinship in our hearts for our natural family, living and breathing out there, just beyond the next ring-pass-not?

In any case, as we affirm through our practice of a living democracy the sacred dimension inherent in all creation, how can the question of natural rights not be a self-answering one? And as we honor that sacred essence binding us all together, how can our thoughts, feelings and behaviors be anything but resonant with those same aboriginal first nations, whose reverent attitudes and actions could only be thought of as rites of nature?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Articles On Ideas

Ideas: Lessons learned, perspectives, advice and more by and for organizers working toward a more democratic society.