Nature & AnimalsPeople & Politics

Laws for nature: the Nature and Wellbeing Act


It’s Christmas. It’s also, as is often remarked, a festival of other ‘c’ words such as consumerism and consumption. It’s what happens when capitalism meets the need, which has probably existed as long as human societies, for bit of a midwinter party, a distraction from the cold and the dark. It’s a time when the outside world retreats, and the human world takes over as we huddle together around fires, real, artificial and televisual.

As 21st century people, this midwinter forgetting of nature is part of a wider forgetting in which the natural world is increasingly being sacrificed to commercial interests. Last year’s State of Nature report gathered the grim statistics: over 60% of the species tracked over the past half century are in decline. And, as George Monbiot points out, the limited legislation that exists to conserve the natural world is now under threat from the corporate agenda.

But hope lies with a counter-movement. There’s a call for a new law which would put nature at the heart of decision-making. In the run-up to the general election, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB have joined forces to push for a Nature and Wellbeing Act in England aimed at not just protecting but recovering natural habitats and green spaces.

The case for the legislation is premised on the physical and mental benefits of nature, reminding us of our relationship with the environment that sustains us. But the policymaking context of contemporary Britain has tempted campaigners to go a step further and highlight its economic benefits; nature is now ‘capital’, an asset that should be protected.

And therein lies the rub. For, as the counter-movement of the counter-movement points out, making the argument in economic terms opens the way for seeing nature as just another resource to be exploited – precisely the approach that got us into this mess in the first place. The idea of natural capital puts campaigners on the horns of a dilemma: should they use whatever arguments they think will persuade policymakers, or should they maintain a purer position which casts them in the role of outsiders?

I saw the issue play out at last month’s New Networks for Nature conference when a panel featuring a Defra official and staff from conservation charities drew criticism from the audience for embracing the thinking of the natural capital argument rather than questioning it. For those on the side of the audience, the campaigning group 38 degrees have launched a petition calling for ‘natural capital’ to be dropped from the draft legislation.

Personally, I think I’m with Monbiot in putting this reservation aside in the interests of the more urgent priority of getting nature to figure more prominently on the political agenda. But taking that position doesn’t mean you have to forget that there are other ways of thinking about the natural world. In 2008, Ecuador changed its constitution to give nature rights. In doing so, it became the first country to recognise ecosystems as legal entities rather than merely as the property of humans.

The measure represents a paradigm shift in the thinking that has dominated the modern west. It’s not surprising that it comes from Latin America, where indigenous communities know the impact of human greed on the environment all too well. And now that shift in thinking is developing into a social movement which is rippling out from the Americas. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is a worldwide network committed to the creation and enforcement of legal systems that protect the rights of nature. This year, its citizen-jurors have tried the first violations of the rights of nature at an International Rights of Nature Tribunal in cases which deal with oil spills, fracking and mining.

So, as the year turns once more, let’s remember the claims of the living world outside our brightly-lit, gift-stuffed living rooms.