Can Nature Hold Rights ? It’s not as Easy as You Think

Visa A.J. Kurki (University of Helsinki)
Practical information
16 March 2023

On zoom


visaThe Rights of Nature movement has recently achieved significant successes in using legal personhood as a tool for environmental protection. Perhaps most famously, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was accorded legal personhood in 2017. These kinds of developments have attracted plenty of scholarly interest, but not from the point of view of analytic legal philosophy. In this talk, I will attempt to remedy that gap. I will present my theory of legal personhood and apply it to environmental personhood. In particular, I will focus on an underlying question : can natural areas, such as rivers, or other non-sentient natural entities actually be legal persons ?

Based on my theory and the work of Kauffmann and Martin, I will distinguish between giving rights and legal personhood to nature. As regards the latter, I will distinguish between direct and indirect legal personhood. The case of the Whanganui River is an example of the direct legal personhood model : it purports to grant legal rights to the river directly. Some other jurisdictions have set up legal persons to administer rivers, without declaring the rivers themselves to be legal persons : the indirect legal personhood model. I will offer some arguments for why legal personhood cannot be attributed to rivers directly.

The talk is largely based on my article “Can Nature Hold Rights ? It’s Not as Easy as You Think”. Transnational Environmental Law, 11(3), 525–552.

The matter of rights of nature has already been widely discussed across the globe. The ambition of this seminar is to focus on European developments and lines of thought in order to analyse how nature is conceptualised and translated into law. The recent recognition of the Mar Menor in Spain could be a first step, but it should be assessed critically.

The composition of the organising committee is inter- and multidisciplinary, gathering philosophers, lawyers and economists. We therefore particularly appreciate interdisciplinary approaches.

The main aim of the seminar is therefore to critically reflect on the ambiguities of rights of nature. Despite an increasingly noticeable presence in academic, activist and media spaces, it seems to us that the expression of rights of nature groups together approaches that are sometimes very different. Are we talking about rights in the purely legal sense of the term, or rather about moral rights ? Is it really the same thing to make nature a subject of law or a legal person ? Is it only a question of standing, inspired by "legal persons", or is it a question of radically transforming the dominant paradigm(s) in environmental law ? After all, haven’t the rights of nature already been enshrined in a series of existing provisions, even though implicitly ? These questions cannot be avoided, especially when positions on the issue are very often more a matter of principle than of well-informed scientific analysis.

This seminar is co-organised by the CEDRE at the Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles, the CREDand CERSA laboratories of université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, the Prospero research center and the ECN team (Environment : Concepts and Norms) of the Institut Jean Nicod at École normale supérieure.

Location : On zoom

frame nature