Giving Nature Constitutional Protection: A Less Anthropocentric Interpretation of Environmental Rights*

Article excerpt

Is it possible to use constitutional rights to protect the intrinsic value of nature? This question should seem somewhat paradoxical. Constitutional rights are, by their very nature, anthropocentric-they confer a right to people and to people only.1 This Note argues, nonetheless, that it is possible to use constitutional environmental rights to defend nature from environmental harm. Many countries (and some U.S. states) purport to grant their citizens a constitutional "right" to a healthy environment.2 These constitutional environmental rights remain largely untested in the courts;3 however, when they have been invoked, most courts have construed the right very narrowly. The courts hold that the right to a healthy environment only restricts state action that is likely to cause environmental harm that creates a signiflcant threat to human health, such as pollution.4

This current understanding and enforcement of environmental rights is flawed because it is too anthropocentric. A right to a healthy environment should actually guarantee a healthy environment, not just an environment that satisfies minimal health standards for humans. This Note argues why environmental rights should protect nature's biodiversity and how this goal can be accomplished within a workable constitutional-rights framework.

Scientists warn that human activities are threatening the survival of the world's plant and animal life.5 Moreover, mounting evidence illustrates the importance of protecting nature's biological diversity, or biodiversity.6 This evidence shows that biodiversity is critical to both overall environmental health and human well-being. Incorporating biodiversity protection into constitutional environmental rights will ensure that the rights will actually guarantee a truly healthy environment for present and future generations.7

There are two principal avenues for incorporating biodiversity considerations into environmental rights jurispmdence. First, the constitutional provision should link the concept of environmental rights with a broader definition of environmental health. Some current constitutions already accomplish this goal by not just guaranteeing a "livable" or "healthy" environment but by granting "a right to an ecologically balanced environment"8 or, stated more profoundly, a right to "a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature."9 second, and more importantly, courts should interpret and apply environmental rights more broadly. Because courts are unlikely to expand environmental rights on their own initiative, advocates of environmental rights should (1) highlight the scientific evidence that illustrates the interrelationship between biodiversity and human health and (2) emphasize the nexus between cultural values-specifically the rights of indigenous peoples-and overall environmental health.10 Ultimately, this Note aims to establish a workable constitutional framework for how citizens could rely on environmental rights to protect biodiversity.

This Note is divided into five parts. Part I emphasizes the importance of biodiversity law in environmental protection and explains the differences between anthropocentrism and biocentrism. Part II explains why a constitutional environmental right should be part of a comprehensive environmentalprotection regime. It also presents an argument for why environmental rights should be less anthropocentric. Subsequently, Parts III and IV discuss the two principal avenues for incorporating biodiversity considerations within environmental rights jurispmdence. Part III discusses how the constitutional text itself affects both the enforceability and application of environmental rights. It explains why most environmental rights provisions have not been enforced and notes that even when courts have enforced the right, they have limited its reach. Therefore, it outlines how an effective environmental right should be written to guarantee that it provides biodiversity protection while remaining individually enforceable. …