Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.
The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.
At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.
I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?
And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.
It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.
To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.