“Natural” Rights

Is it possible that lakes and forests might have rights before robots?

Voters in Toledo have granted “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve” which, according to this story, would give it legal standing to file lawsuits to protect itself from polluters (through the mouthpiece of a human guardian).

It’s an amazingly bold statement that is rife with thorny questions.

Humans have had say over nature ever since Adam and Eve, and most political and cultural uses or abuses have been based on the shifting perspectives of their progeny. Nature is something “out there” that only gains meaning or purpose when defined by us.

This carries forward to commerce, as most economic theories assign value to nature only when it enables something (as a resource to be exploited) or impedes something (as a barrier to said exploitation). It is otherwise an externality to any financial equation.

There are efforts underway to force valuation of environmental factors into everyday business operations, otherwise known as ESG (for Environment, Social, and Governance), but those approaches still rely on people agreeing on what those measures might be (people set goals, define acceptable levels of preservation or degradation, and decide on timeframes for said measurement).

Recognizing intrinsic rights in nature would totally shake things up.

Lakes, forests, and mountains are complex ecosystems that balance the interaction of vast numbers of living things with the physics of forces and material reality. We can’t claim that a lake is conscious in any sense of the word we use to describe our own minds (and which we cannot explain), but the interaction within those systems yield incessant decisions. Every ecosystem changes, by definition.

A mountain has boundaries, just like a human body — there’s a point at which there’s no more mountain but instead some other natural feature — and, like human consciousness, we can describe how it came to be, but not why. Every ecosystem has an existence that isn’t just separate from our understanding but beyond it.

Recognizing such natural features’ implicit right to exist and change would make them co-equal negotiators of any decision that might involve or impact them.

It’s an old idea, really, as early polytheistic folk religions recognized and often personified natural phenomena, and the ancient Greek’s idea of Gaia as the entire Earth — there is nothing external to our perspective — was revived by modern day environmentalists. The premise that humans possess natural rights that don’t depend on other humans is also just as old, and John Locke gave birth to the movement to recognize animal rights way back in the 17th century.

But letting a lake or mountain represent itself in a contract or court of law?

It’s hard to imagine the forests of Europe would have allowed the belching coal required for the Industrial Revolution. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River would have never allowed itself to get so polluted that it could catch on fire, and the atmosphere above Beijing would put a stop to cars on the road starting tomorrow.

And we wouldn’t be experiencing global climate change.

Granted, the details are as many as those implications are diverse, perhaps the most thorny being that there’d always be a human being involved in providing the guardianship of, say, Mount Kilimanjaro or the Rhine. But even an imperfect realization of the approach might be more sensible and sustainable than our current practices, not the least of which being that it would be wild to explore technology innovation that saw nature as a co-creator of value and not a resource to be consumed or converted into it.

I’m rooting for the folks in Ohio to make progress on the issue, though business interests are already lining up to fight for the status quo.

Whatever the outcome, the debate has implications for how we think about robots which, like natural features can be complex, self-monitoring and changing systems, but can also possess levels of agency that at least mimic aspects of human consciousness.

So it’s only a matter of time before the first AI negotiator sits at the table to argue over work rules for itself and fellow robots?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *