Since I am away out west, I sent intrepid reporter and number two son John Henry Briggs to the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY Graduate Center, where he witnessed the event “Nature Has Rights”, in which a panel asks questions like, “Does a river have a right to flow?” Happy Earth Day!
I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan five minutes early. I found my way to the auditorium where about 200 people were already sitting, idly chatting. In one conversation from the group in front of me, I caught the words “Republican”, “recount” and “election.”
The white-bearded David Harvey, a professor at CUNY, and this evening’s moderator begins introductions. First up, Shannon Biggs, a chipper looking lady with glasses and red-black hair. She works with an NGO called Global Exchange, their motto is “Building people-to-people ties”.
Second, a man in a garish shirt named Cormic Cullinan, a South African Environmental lawyer who just published his book “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice” which is available on the table outside for just $5.
Thirdly, Vandana Shiva, a self-described ecofeminist and environmental activist dressed in traditional Indian garb.
Next up, a very nondescript Maude Barlow, who holds the position of Chairperson to the Council of Canadians and is the Senior Advisor to the President of the 63rd UN General Assembly.
Last, but not least is Pablo Solón, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN.
Mr. Harvey puts the first question to his panelists: “What do we mean by rights of Nature? And why is it significant?” Each member ignored this and instead said what they came there to say. Biggs gets the ball started and complains that, “Nature can be owned, nature is property—like a slave.” Not missing a beat, she turns to the BP spill, complaining that only people could sue BP, but Nature could not. If Nature had rights, then Nature herself could get her cut from BP as well.
Continuing along the same vein, Cullinan stresses that, “We’ve become autistic to the natural world.” He insists in three different ways that there is an order to nature we must adhere to.
Shiva is the audience favorite. She is passionate and she ignores all questions. She begins ranting about the agriculture company Monstano and their genetic modification of plants. The audience bursts into applause when she said corporations should be punished for putting “toxic” in their plants. She then goes on to recount proudly the many things she’s protested against and ends saying that to be disconnected from nature is a psychiatric disease.
In contrast, Maude Barlow is dull, and only mentions some scary statistics that predict that demand for water is going to be 40% more than the supply in some-thirty years time. She recommends Al Gore’s idea of a “green economy”, the her idea that nature is worth $72 trillion is met with warm chuckles. She reiterates that she’s not saying bugs will should have the same rights as humans, but we can’t push them to extinction.
Ambassador Solón said that on the 28th of July there will be an event at the UN named, “From the human right to water to the rights of water.” Which we gather will be exactly what it sounds like (i.e., water has “rights”). He said that human growth should be limited “Only to satisfy our basic needs.” He signs off with a bombshell that brings down the house, “To fight for nature we have to fight against capitalism.”
The moderator then began his monologue, in which he mentions how silly the idea is of giving rights to something “fictional” like corporations similar to humans. But giving rights to Nature isn’t. He anticipates critics and said that the idea of giving rights to nature “Isn’t that weird.” He went on to mock his colleagues who consult for corporations, insinuating corporations “Willfully want to destroy the environment.” Somewhere in his rambling speech, he blamed world poverty on corporations and on capitalism.
At this point, Shiva comes to the happy realization, “There’s no debate here, everyone agrees with one another!” All smiled.
Cullinan, agreed and stated that the environmental movement is the, “Largest social movement ever.” He likened to the debate over the environment to the Galileo and Copernicus affair, repeating the myth that before these scientists humanity held the view that the universe revolves around humans. He said that, “If we don’t do something now, sometime in the future we may become extinct.” He claimed that, “Our offspring our less likely to survive” than us.
Shiva came back to the microphone and offered this conclusion: “We’ve been made to believe for humanity to succeed we need to destroy nature.” She also blamed India’s problem on capitalism and especially corporations.
As the panelists reiterated themselves for the dozenth time, they finally ended and then invited questions, which prompted the people with the strongest opinions to jump up to the mics and me to leave.