Man-made climate change is as good as a fact, but the consequences are uncertain in any specific location. Indeed, the island of Ireland could actually be more hospitable to human habitation under certain scenarios: drier and hotter summers are predicted, albeit with an increased likelihood of storm events; higher atmospheric CO2-levels could also increase crop yields.[i] Our rising emissions could have greater impacts elsewhere.
Mitigation strategies may also have adverse side effects. Witness the expansion of sitka spruce plantations across Ireland, which acidify soils and strangle biodiversity,[ii] in pursuit of an improved carbon balance sheet permitting increases in dairy production. There are also question marks around the impacts of wind farms, especially those sited on blanket peat[iii], requiring hundreds of tonnes of concrete in construction, and disrupting the flightpaths of birds. If this energy is devoted to a new generation of electrified autonomous vehicles, rather than communal transport, it will be in vain.
Climate change opportunism includes the distortion of supermarket shelves being stacked with organic products wrapped in plastic and flown halfway around the world. It is most obvious in the greenwashing of the agricultural sector,[iv] which consistently argues that Irish livestock’s lower emissions profile justifies expansion – as beef and dairy would only be produced elsewhere with higher emissions. Thankfully, the ‘our coal smokes less than their coal’ argument is more easily dismissed as data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), analysed by An Taisce, shows that Ireland is, in actual fact, the most carbon-intensive beef producer in Europe, and ranks third on emissions from its dairy sector.[v] Most importantly, however, narrowing the environmental agenda to climate change alone obscures the equally pressing consideration of the Sixth Extinction, the unarguable reality of which is apparent in Ireland.
With this in mind, Is it possible that interested parties could assert rights, already implied by the Irish Constitution, to protect Irish nature itself? Could spiralling emissions then be reduced alongside meaningful biodiversity-gains? Such an argument would build on a foundation of Natural Law, a school of thought embedded in the language and historic interpretation of the Irish Constitution. It can be traced to Classical antiquity, as Sophocles’s Antigone puts it: ‘the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven’, beyond the temporary, and occasionally illegitimate, laws of any state.
During the Middle Ages, especially through Thomas Aquinas, ‘pagan’ Classical arguments were adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. In more recent times these became associated with a toxic and myopic focus on human sexuality, especially women’s bodies. Natural Law still transmits, however, compelling arguments for a universal justice beyond, and above, positive law, informed by dialectic, rather than Christian Revelation as is widely assumed.
The jurist and former President of the High Court, Declan Costello wrote: ‘It has more than once been judicially observed that it can clearly be inferred that the [Irish] Constitution rejects legal positivism as a basis for the protection of fundamental rights and suggests instead a theory of natural law from which those rights can be derived.’[vi] Thus, from the 1960s, Natural Law interpretations ascribed a host of ‘Unenumerated Rights’[vii] to all citizens, including rights to bodily integrity, work, marry, privacy in marital relations, and free movement within the State. These rights are not explicitly identified in the Irish Constitution but are considered intrinsic to the human condition, flowing in particular from a generalised protection of personal rights under Article 40.3. With the Sixth Extinction now upon us, there is an urgent need for Natural Law to be extended to imply an Unenumerated Rights of other species to exist, along with ourselves.
For this to occur, however, the Court must overcome a contemporary moral relativism, and aversion to decisive ethical responses. No doubt truth is a shifting target, and any single account is insufficient, but faith in our capacity to settle ethical arguments at a given point in time needs to be restored. As Aristotle – whose influence on Aquinas’s Natural Law theory was immense – pointed out:
The theorizing of truth is in one sense difficult, in another easy. This is shown by the fact that whereas no one person can obtain an adequate grasp of it, we cannot all fail in the attempt; each thinker makes some statement about the natural world and as an individual contributes little or nothing to the inquiry; but a combination of all conjectures results in something considerable.[viii]
Post-modernists will argue otherwise, but an outlook of ambient confusion is an admission of failure. Holes can be picked in any argument, but the argument as a whole – “a combination of all conjectures” – may stand. One cannot propose anything meaningful without the conviction of arriving at “something considerable” – an elusive truth. A capacity to determine justice requires we overcome a ponderous Post-Truth incoherence.
A contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre sees in the dialectic process, ‘the movement from thesis to thesis as a movement towards a kind of logos which will disclose how things are, not relative to some point of view, but as such’. Contemporary environmental challenges require new logical departures, disclosing “how things are”, “as such.” Natural Law theory should encompass an Earth Jurisprudence. Then our laws may confront the reality of an oversized human population radically out of balance with its environment, with Ireland presenting a difficult case.
Currently, however, environmental laws are generally seen as a body of rules foisted on the populace, often in exchange for a subsidy, rather than practices adopted for the commonweal. Accordingly, Coyle and Morrow claim such regulations are seen ‘as a technical instrument of social goals and policies, rather than a body of principles aiming at the articulation of a concept of justice and the good life.’[ix] This can partly be attributed to the prior failure of Natural Law theorists to identify inherent rights in other species.
In contrast, the sanctity of human property rights have been vigorously upheld. Early modern theorists, drawing more on Christian revelation than reason, assumed rights of virtually unrestrained possession, along with dominion over all wild creatures therein. The seventeenth century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius described this as ‘a grant which was renewed on the restoration of the world after the deluge’. To deprive any owner of this would, he said, be ‘an act of injustice.’[x] Importantly, however, up to that point there had been little necessity to assert the rights of wild animals, even in Europe, as humans were living in relative harmony with nature, or at least allowing other species to survive. According to Tim Flannery: ‘after the last muskox died in what is now Sweden about 9,000 years ago, the European mainland did not lose another species until the seventeenth century.’[xi]
Since then the picture has changed dramatically across the world with sixty percent of wild animals wiped out since 1970 alone.[xii] Coyle and Morrow affirm: ‘The very agricultural practices which were held out as a moral necessity by the natural rights theorists can, it seems, create untold environmental damage.’ Given the scale of ecological damage that has ensued – associated with European colonisation of the globe – they argue that ‘the ethical assumptions of the seventeenth century conception of property cannot survive in such circumstances.’[xiii] The accumulating impacts on our planet of over seven billion human beings, living longer than ever, enjoins alternative approaches to land ownership. As Coyle and Morrow put it: ‘If human agriculture was ever in harmony with nature it certainly is not any longer and the sanctity of individual ownership must be restrained. Duties must join rights.’[xiv]
Natural Law is an ongoing, truth-seeking dialectical process with the aim of disclosing, “how things are, not relative to some point of view, but as such.” If Natural Law is to have continued relevance it must adapt to current conditions. A re-imagining of Natural Law is evident in the field of Earth Jurisprudence, or Wild Law, a term coined by Cormac Cullinan to refer to human laws that are consistent with Earth Jurisprudence.[xv] According to one of its inspirators, Thomas Berry: ‘The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects and every member of the Earth Community has three inherent rights: the right to be, to habitat, and to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.’[xvi] These rights ought, logically and morally, to be incorporated into Irish law.
But how can these aspirations be given tangible legal form? In a seminal 1972 article ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’[xvii] Christopher D. Stone explores how Wild Law might apply. He argues that natural objects could have legal standing by analogy with companies, states, infants, incompetents, municipalities or even universities. Thus, a court appoints a trustee when a corporation displays incompetence. He writes:
On a parity of reasoning, we should have a system in which, when a friend of a natural object perceives it to be endangered, he can apply to a court for the creation of a guardianship … The guardian would urge before the court injuries not presently cognizable – the death of eagles and inedible crabs, the suffering of sea lions, the loss from the face of the earth of species of commercially valueless birds, the disappearance of wilderness areas.
He also draws an analogy with the law of patents and copyright:
I am proposing that we do the same with eagles and wilderness areas as we do with copyrighted works, patented inventions and privacy: make the violation of rights in them to be a cost by declaring the piracy of them to be the invasion of a property interest.
Furthermore, he suggests this could lead to modifications in our representative democracies:
I am suggesting that there is nothing unthinkable about, and there might on balance even be a prevailing case to be made for an electoral appointment that made some systematic effort to allow for the representative “rights” of non-human life.
Stone envisages changes in our legal culture informing wider social norms, as, ‘a society that spoke of the “legal rights of the environment” would be inclined to legislate more environment-protecting rules by formal enactment.’
Intriguingly, he also speculates, ‘What is needed is a myth that can fit our growing body of knowledge of geophysics, biology and the cosmos’, proposing ‘that we may come to regard the Earth, as some have suggested, as one organism of which mankind is a functional part’. Similarly, Coyle and Morrow argue: ‘The problem is that meaningful change responding to environmental and social imperatives will require a true paradigm shift in how we regard our relationship with the world of which we form a part.’
A transformation in our legal relationship with the natural world requires the participation of other fields. It was Percy Bysshe Shelley who famously described the poets as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ The philosopher Timothy Morton makes the provocative claim that putting ‘something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy did for the figure of women.’[xviii] Perhaps W.B. Yeats’s identification of Irish nature with a ‘glimmering girl’, ‘with apple blossoms in her hair’ distracts from an ongoing exploitative relationship, linked to our colonial inheritance. Indeed, rather than celebrating a patriarch ‘Digging’ for turf, as in Seamus Heaney’s poem by that name did, new accounts might draw inspiration from an often-overlooked visionary poet of the early twentieth-century Irish Revival, Eva Gore-Booth. She gave up the wealth and privilege of her aristocratic background to devote herself to the poor. Gore-Booth also recognises the right of all creatures to exist on the land, notwithstanding human ownership in her 1906 poem ‘The Landlord’
O the bracken waves and the foxgloves flame,
And none of them ever has heard your name –
Near and dear is the curlew’s cry,
You are merely a stranger passing by.[xix]
Hearteningly, all around the world, from Ecuador to New Zealand, conceptions of Earth Jurisprudence, Wild Law or Pachamama are actually taking route. For example, Germany’s constitution makes protection of ‘the foundations of nature and animals’ a national imperative, applicable to government agencies, the legislature and the judiciary. The provision has been cited in over seven hundred cases. Moreover, echoing Christopher D. Stone, Oliver A. Houck points out this ‘does not include the more numerous acts of compliance that drew no litigation at all.’[xx]
Meanwhile in Ireland species loss continues apace. Liam Lysaght recently records: ‘of the 3,000 species that have undergone a red list conservation assessment, one in every four species is threatened with extinction here.’[xxi] Of particular concern is the continued exploitation of peat bogs for fossil fuel extraction – where considerations of nature conservation align precisely with keeping fossil fuels, and embedded methane, in the ground – as well as the impacts of grazing ruminants.
Unfortunately, existing environmental legislation, including the EU’s Habitats Directive, is failing to protect endangered species adequately, including the iconic curlew, which is now on the red list. This can partly be attributed to a lack of enforcement, but also, as we observed, such laws are currently considered an encumbrance on property owners, and not a scheme of protection for a common inheritance. So how do we spare what remains of Irish nature from the ravages of human exploitation?
A constitutional amendment enshrining nature rights, similar to that operating in Germany, should be the long-term goal. But this will take time to bring to fruition, especially as mainstream media only falteringly highlights extinction threats, and none of the main political parties prioritise protection of biodiversity.
I propose the alternative of a test case, applying Thomas Berry’s tripartite rights to a particular native species; proposing, for example, the curlew has a right to be, to habitat and to reproduce, alongside humans, based on a Natural Law interpretation of the Irish Constitution – as a previously Unenumerated Right. It seems crucial that such rights are ‘discovered’ sooner rather than later before further, irreversible, losses occur.
The Court could certain injunct activities to protect species under threat, or prohibit certain classes of herbicides or insecticides outright, or even declare particular lands under private ownership as protected habitats. This will require expert witness from recognised authorities to distinguish competing rights of native, invasive and naturalized species. Property owners should be compensated for any loss, but under the Irish Constitution all rights, including that to property, are subject to the common good, which is served by preventing extinctions.
The allocation of reserves and prohibition on the use of certain chemicals would be a proportionate appropriation by the Judiciary of the powers of the Legislature and Executive branches, in circumstances where there has been a serious dereliction of duty. The Sixth Extinction is an emergency happening before our eyes with recognisable victims, unlike the unpredictable devastation that climate change is wreaking.
Cattle and sheep farmers can find new roles as landscape guardians. Re-wilding may begin with marginal lands, where farming is already uneconomic, while better land currently under pasture can be converted to tillage in order to accelerate what a recent article in The Lancet has referred to as the ‘Great Food Transformation.’[xxii]
Eventually, beyond legal prescriptions, habitat reclamation can endear the population to the landscape, and reform destructive behaviours. In developing our appreciation of the soft sounds and sweet aromas in nature we may consider reducing dependence on noisy, polluting motor cars. Greater biodiversity also offers scope for judicious harvesting of foodstuffs, building materials and fuel. The tragedy of the loss of other species is almost impossible to convey.
Many of us wish to see our laws go further: putting an end to the perverse subsidy regime that only benefits the Beef Barons; or dignifying all animals with a decent life, in the wild. For the moment, however, our best legal argument is to assert the rights of all resident Irish species, living in ecological balance, simply to exist. Reduced emissions will be a happy by-product of biodiversity-gain, raising environmental awareness to a point where destructive behaviours are recognised, and changed. In beginning to liberate the natural world from human dominion let us recall the small victories won in the battle against human slavery along the road to the great milestones. Wild Law can emerge incrementally in Ireland through our existing constitutional framework.
[i] Stephen Flood, ‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’, October, 2013, Stop Climate Chaos, https://www.stopclimatechaos.ie/download/pdf/projected_economic_impacts_of_climate_change_on_irish_agriculture_oct_2013.pdf, accessed 19/2/19.
[ii] Mary Colwell, ‘A forestry boom is turning Ireland into an ecological dead zone’, October 10th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/10/trees-ireland-biodiversity-sitka-birds-extinction, accessed 19/2/19.
[iii] Richard Lindsay and Olivia Bragg ‘WIND FARMS AND BLANKET PEAT. The Bog Slide of 16th October 2003 at Derrybrien, Co. Galway, Ireland’, November, 2005, School of Health & Biosciences University of East London. https://web.archive.org/web/20131218090914/http://www.uel.ac.uk/erg/documents/Derrybrien.pdf, accessed 28/2/19.
[iv] Kevin O’Sullivan, ‘Environmental group calls Origin Green a ‘sham’’, October 4th, 2017, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/environmental-group-calls-origin-green-a-sham-1.3244507, accessed 28/2/19.
[v] Press Release ‘Bombshell for Irish Peace’, 12th of February, 2019, An Taisce, http://www.antaisce.org/articles/bombshell-for-irish-beef?fbclid=IwAR0uPTUu1TEoZToCGugOCIoS-nmsigAQNU0g_U3XrIZHNU3PKbF2_zO0YIU, accessed 19/2/19.
[vi] Declan Costello, ‘Natural Law, the Constitution, and the Courts’, from Lynch and Meenan (eds.) Essays in Memory of Alexis FitzGerald, Dublin, The Incorporated Law Society of Ireland, 1987, p.109
[vii] The original ‘Unenumerated Right’ to ‘Bodily Integrity’ was approved by the Supreme Court in Ryan v. A.G.  IESC 1;  IR 294 (3rd July, 1965)
[viii] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 2, Part 1.
[ix] Coyle and Morrow, The Philosophical Foundations of Environmental Law. Property, Rights and Nature, Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2004, p.211
[x] Coyle and Morrow, p.15
[xi] Flannery, 2018, p.251
[xii] Damian Carrington, ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds’, 30th of October, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds, accessed 20/2/19.
[xiii] Coyle and Morrow, p.206
[xiv] Ibid, p.209
[xv] ‘Discovering the meaning of Earth jurisprudence’, Legalbrief, August 27, 2002
[xvi] Quoted in Mike Bell, ‘Thomas Berry and an Earth Jurisprudence’, http://rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/earth%20jurisprudence/Earth%20Justice.htm, accessed 20/2/19.
[xvii] Christopher D. Stone, ‘Should Trees Have Standing–Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects’, Southern California Law Review. 45 (1972): 450–87.
[xviii] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007, p.5.
[xix] [xix] Eva Gore-Booth ‘The Land to a Landlord’, from Sonja Tierney (ed), Eva Gore-Booth: Collected Poems, Dublin, Arlen House, 2018, p.166
[xx] Houck, Noah’s Second Voyage: The Rights of Nature as Law, 31 Tul. Envtl. L.J. 1, 2017
[xxi] Liam Lysaght, ‘The six steps needed to save Irish Biodiversity’, February 19th, 2019, Irish Times
[xxii] Prof Walter Willett, MD et al, Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, January, 2019. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext?utm_campaign=tleat19&utm_source=HPfeature’, accessed 26/1/19.