FOREWORD BY THE EMBASSY OF THE NORTH SEA
We, in the name of the Embassy of the North Sea, have commissioned this compendium to learn more about the rights-of-nature movement and its underlying principles. Founded
on the principle that the sea owns itself, the Embassy of the North Sea listens to the voices of plants, animals, microbes, and people in order to involve them in decision making in and around the North Sea. Within this context, the Embassy is investigating whether the North Sea should become its own legal entity.
Despite covering 60 percent of Dutch territory and being the largest public space in the Netherlands, the North Sea occupies little of the Dutch and European social and political consciousness. Yet the North Sea is under increasing pressure – not only due to ongoing fossil fuel extraction, transport, and fishing, but also be- cause of future projects such as wind turbines and energy islands, all of which claim their share of the North Sea without the sea having any say in the matter.
Right now, plants, animals, microbes, and non-living entities such as water have no effective political represen- tation in the Netherlands and Europe. Without a recognized seat at the political table there is a serious risk of exploitation, as is reflected in the facts and figures: since 1970 – thus over the course of one human generation – just under 70 percent of vertebrate life on Earth has become extinct. In our current age, the Anthropocene, humans
have become a force of geological proportions with an existential impact. At the same time, the influence of other creatures and objects within the European context has never been more visible. Melting polar caps show us how icebergs shape our coastlines, declining insect populations point to how insects co-produce our agricultural output, and recent scientific research gives insight into how microbes influence our mood.
In our time, the characteristically European division between nature and culture has come to an end. The challenges we now face – such as loss of life, social injustices, and the climate crisis – transcend international boundaries and are deeply intertwined with each other. It is time for a new politics that responds to this complex and urgent reality. It is time for a politics that listens to all voices, including the often-unheard voices of plants, animals, microbes, and things in our society. Such a politics demands a new democratic toolkit. The Embassy of the North Sea works with artists, scientists, and policy- makers to help develop these new political insights and resources.
Inspired by the rights-of-nature movement, the Embassy has set the goal of the North Sea becoming an autonomous political participant by 2030, possibly as a legal person. We were particularly encouraged by a 2017 New Zealand court decision, whereby the Whanganui River, after years of struggle by the Māori community, was granted its own rights and is now represented by human guardians. This example shows that there is an alternative to the European concept of stewardship, where nature exists to serve human interests, and how guardian-ship allows for political representation based on mutual care rather than ownership.
At the same time, this legal framework also raises all kinds of questions. Isn’t a ‘legal person’ an overly human framework: does it suit an entity like the North Sea? How do you ensure that a standardized (Western) legal framework does not violate local, indigenous beliefs and worldviews? And why is the term ‘rights of nature’ used in situations that mainly seem to be about social injustice and the interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans in a certain place?
Despite these questions, doubts, and uncertainties, we believe that the rights- of-nature movement is leading to new frameworks that go beyond current thinking, which aims to protect and cordon off nature. At its core, the rights-of-nature movement is about reshaping our relationships with nature. This compendium is made up of a diverse array of inspiring voices, practices, and examples that are shaping the new relationships between humans and nature. They can teach us a lot about the art of living together and can help us to understand what it would mean to make the North Sea an independent legal entity.
We are therefore thrilled with this overview of the rights of nature that climate-law expert Laura Burgers and independent consultant and speaker on the rights of nature Jessica den Outer have made for the Embassy of the North Sea. It has been a pleasure to work with them. Here in the Netherlands, we are also colla- borating with other initiatives such as the Wadden Sea Nature Board and the Zoöp, a new organizational model in which plants, animals, and microbes also receive legal representation. In the coming years, we hope that more editions of the compendium will follow with many new cases and initiatives. We hope you are as inspired by these cases as we are.
Anne van Leeuwen
Harpo ’t Hart
On behalf of the Embassy of the North Sea