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The Noble Absurdity Of Granting Constitutional Rights To Nature

Giving nature rights, as South American nations are keen to do these days, is well-intentioned, but far too limited in scope to make sense.

The Noble Absurdity Of Granting Constitutional Rights To Nature

Can nature be considered a legal person?

Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — The Webb space telescope's extraordinary ability to "see" has allowed us to observe what was previously hidden by cosmic dust.

Thanks to cameras catching infrared light, which humans cannot see, a new universe has unfolded, thousands of millions of light years away: with unknown galaxies, stars that are born and collapse, cosmic precipices, magnificent explosions and black holes that swallow stars.

By and large, the universe is a frozen expanse with occasional spurts of hot, ionized gas and stardust at unimaginable temperatures. It makes for a fantastic, terrifying spectacle.

An unstable anomaly

Yet we needn't look far to notice nature's strange predilection for lifeless spots, or areas where life as we know it is impossible. We can see this in our own solar system, with planets that are freezing deserts or seething fireballs.

This is in contrast to our vision of nature as centered around ourselves, and earthly. We hear "nature" and we think of a bucolic landscape, with crystal-clear waters running through a green valley, filled with animals flying, grazing or frolicking amid foliage, cascades and streams — and all at a heavenly temperature of 22 degrees centigrade.

What we call nature is a near and fairly unstable anomaly, condemned to disappear in time, once the sun explodes, or with a tiny alteration of the earth's orbit. The slightest cosmic modification will suffice to turn this planet into a barren piece of ice or fire, or back into stardust.

The Colombian Constitutional court recognized the Atrato river as an entity with rights

Juan Tapias/VW Pics/ZUMA

A river as a legal person

Lately there has been considerable talk of Latin America's great contribution to philosophy through Andean neo-constitutionalism.

The contribution is more to jurisprudence than philosophy in fact. It is a legal concept wherein nature is declared a subject with rights, contradicting the West's "hegemonic modernity." Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia are the new adepts of this inclusion of nature in the legal order.

When a subject is given legal rights, it is also given duties.

Being the fussy but poor lawyers we've always been thanks to our colonial past, we think we can legislate everything away, forbidding volcanic eruptions, say, like the Spanish empire banned native tongues, nudity, human sacrifice, idol worship and promiscuity.

In ethical terms, generally, when a subject is given legal rights, it is also given duties.

In declaring nature a legal person, the first step is to stipulate that the "Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), where life and reproduction take place, shall have the right to comprehensive respect for its existence."

The Colombian Constitutional court recognized the Atrato river as an entity with rights. Very well, but it might have also reminded the river it had a duty — a legal duty — not to drown any child or adult, flood crop fields nor cast freshwater fish into the sea every time it overflows.

Good intentions are not enough

When nature is recognized as a subject with rights, I wonder if our laws will recognize the inalienable right of met to keep their natural, elliptical movement in space — even when they're heading for the earth.

There should also be a study on the right of tectonic plates to freely clash, and provoke tsunamis and earthquakes as they please. Indeed, let the Pacha Mama exercise her right to keep her ancestral gases and liquids deep inside her entrails, without humans poking to seek them out.

I know there are good intentions and considered ecological concerns behind the various declarations on the rights of nature. But their sentimentalism, I fear, can also spark contradictions and absurdities.

The universe is indifferent to life or death, to heat or cold, oxygen, hydrogen. For the natural world, everything is the same, whether there are animals, plants, water... or not.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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