The problem with giving “Mother Nature” rights and duties

Recently, the Madras high court passed a curiously worded order in which Justice S. Srimathy extended the Uttarakhand high court’s 2017 order, granting the rights due to citizens to the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers, to “Mother Nature” in toto.

It’s hard to say what this means (I haven’t read the order, only some excerpts), especially since “Mother Nature” is hard to define. For example, homosexuality is not proscribed in nature, so do homosexual tendencies qualify as a manifestation of “Mother Nature”? Or is the definition restricted to our natural resources?

Then there is the question of nature’s gender: it has been routinely cast as a motherly figure to invoke the image of an entity that gives, typically by birthing new life, but its use by a high court needs to be more careful and completely well-defined. That isn’t the case here.

This confusion is exacerbated by one portion in particular (emphasis added) of the court’s pronouncement:

It is right time to declare/confer juristic status to the “Mother Nature”. Therefore this Court by invoking “parens patriae jurisdiction” is hereby declaring the “Mother Nature” as a “Living Being” having legal entity/legal person/juristic person/juridical person/moral person/artificial person having the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person, in order to preserve and conserve them.

Apparently, “Mother Nature” has duties. Does it – sorry, ‘she’ – have all 11?

Consider #6, for example: “To value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”. Last year, the Government of Rajasthan denotified a part of Band Baretha Wildlife Sanctuary to allow builders to mine pink sandstone for use in the Ram temple under construction in Uttar Pradesh. The latter state government, like the one at India’s helm, is led by the BJP, according to which Hinduism is a superposition of religion, culture and economic policy, depending on what’s most convenient at any given moment. But the equation also effectively whitewashes the rituals of Hinduism as a matter of the country’s culture, evading the inconvenient demands of secularism.

Might these governments and/or that of Rajasthan now be able to argue in court that it was the duty of the trees and animals of Band Baretha to let themselves be cut down and killed in order to “preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”?

Similarly, must the mountainsides flanking the Char Dham highway under construction let themselves be blasted off in order to “uphold and protect the sovereignty of India”? Will we be able to sue an avalanching mass of ice, mud, wood and stone for destroying a hydroelectric power project because the belligerent aggregate failed “to safeguard public property and to abjure violence”?

The possibilities are endless – probably because the high court’s pronouncement personifies what was never intended to be personified. The duty that seemed the oddest to this author vis-à-vis “Mother Nature” was “to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavor and achievement”. ‘To strive’ implies intent, and here a part of a 2019 essay by philosopher Akeel Bilgrami may provide a useful perspective. Bilgrami writes:

The idea that nature makes demands on us is a metaphor. Nature contains values but their normative demands are not intentionally made. The reason is straightforward. It is a mark of what we mean by intentionality that subjects who possess intentionality are potentially appropriate targets of a certain form of criticism. I can criticize you for doing something wrong or for having destructive thoughts, as you can me. … I can criticize you for making certain normative demands of me—unreasonable ones, by my lights. But we don’t criticize elements in nature or artifice in the same sense. We may say “a hurricane was destructive” but that is a “criticism” only by courtesy, not the sort of criticism that you and I make of each other’s doings and thoughts and demands.

Bilgrami, currently a professor at Columbia University, New York, goes on to write that “elements in nature and things do not possess or carry out any such deliberative structure or process, so there is no similar ground for attributing intentionality to them, nor, as a consequence, intelligibly criticizing or punishing such elements”. He also writes that ascribing intent to nature is “unnecessary” because the intentionality can only be captured by a metaphor – that “nature names demands on us” – and that it is not dispensable, or real, as a result.

Instead, we may be better served by considering the rights of plants and birds and animals in a way, fundamentally, that acknowledges the differences between these domains of life and humans themselves. For example, Indians have rights to life and to free speech with reasonable restrictions. Plants instead might be accorded a right to evolve, to not be cut if they are older than 50 years, and to be planted only in places where they were native until the 20th century. Such rights would be much better than to say polluting rivers is wrong because rivers also have rights. Polluting rivers was wrong even before such pronouncements, so they only kicked the can down the road.

Giving either individual rivers or the natural universe as a whole the rights given to Indians is at best protection against destruction. But even then, the government has only needed reconstituted responsibilities, verbal gymnastics, suppressed data and research and an absolute majority in Parliament, finally garnished with some fantasies, to claim that the environment ministry is really protecting the environment by nuking environmental safeguards.