Just as the scale of the BP oil spill starts really sinking in–leaking first 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000, now maybe 20,000 barrels (that’s 850,000 gallons)–comes word that India has established, after much debate in the past year or so, a National Green Tribunal, with the main bench to be located in Bhopal, site of one of the worst industrial / social / environmental disasters in the world. Which got me wondering, should the United States also have special environmental courts?
Now there well may be faults in how it’s organized in India. I frankly haven’t delved into the details of it, but criticisms have been leveled against its implementation. But overall the idea resonates with me, especially if combined with the idea of intrinsic planetary rights and the prosecution of ecocide.
Financial Impact of Spill is Huge… But Non-Human Impact is Greater
There is certainly vast human impact because of the spill, things that
can be quantified: Fishermen’s income lost, potential lost tourist
dollars, potential health problems down the line that wouldn’t have
occurred without oil exposure. You could even quantify the utility cost
to humans of degraded wetland, killed birds, killed fish (the effects
potentially extending across the Atlantic as some fish spawn in the
Gulf and then mature elsewhere). All these things can be assigned a
But when it comes down to it, utility value to humans is but part of
the story, and the more I think about it, it is the least part of it,
as tragic on the personal level as it may be in the moment.
Our Sense of Self Stops With Humans
How did this accident happen? On the philosophical level it happened
because in general we perceive other things (both animal and
non-animal) only in terms of their utility value to us, to ourselves.
And for most people, encouraged by contemporary ethics and economics,
the sense of self doesn’t extend very far.
Worst case it extends only to preservation of the individual, but
for most is extends to the family, to a declining degree the community,
and oftentimes increasingly (especially if you here talk of energy
independence) to the nation. However, that is only a limited view of
the boundaries of self. If it extends first to all humans (regardless
of proximity) and then to all living things… It’s certainly a leap
when we can’t even agree in practice on the first self-boundary, but
increasingly I think it’s the leap that has to be made.
Switzerland Already Has a Lawyer Speaking Up For Animals’ Rights
But what does that have to do with the establishment of environment courts? Consider that in Switzerland there is already one state-funded lawyer defending the rights of animals in court. This is someone speaking up for animals whose rights under the already fairly strict Swiss law have been violated by humans.
Swiss voters rejected the idea of extending it nationwide back in
March, but connect that idea to a national environmental court, where
countries and corporations (the big offenders) can be held accountable
for crimes against the planet–not only where the impact is measured in
utility to humans, but where the destruction of an ecosystem itself can
be adjudicate, when the wiping out of species through negligence or
will is taken up.
Compassion Extends to All Forms of Existence
OK. Huge practical, logistical and philosophical hurdles to be cleared,
I know. And frankly, I’d love for ingrained environmentally friendly to
rule the day, not courts. But if you want to start talking about one
single shift in behavior and thought that will have a huge benefit to
life on this planet–human, non-human, non-animal–it’s for humans to
stop acting like we’re the only species around. To extend our sphere of
love and compassion to all of existence and within that.
This post was written by Matthew McDermott for TreeHugger
More on TreeHugger‘s coverage of Planetary Rights:
Should Animals Have Their Own Legal Public Defenders?
Trees Have Rights Too: A Call For a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights
What is Ecocide and Should It Be Considered an International Crime Against Peace?