RETURN ETHICS: Do Forests Have Rights?

      We modern and post-modern humans seem to have lost our moral compass on both the right and left. The ethics of Western Civilization, including the ethical guidance of Aristotle and many wisdom traditions, are limited to humans. Current ethical systems fail us because we are in terrain unknown or ignored by most  previous maps, save the indigenous  mind.

      Why do these guidelines fail? Mainline ethical maps fall into the fallacy of putting humans at the center of all  questions. Even the much revered Dalai Lama points us in a flawed direction when he pleads for “…for humanity to drive economic decisions.”(Austin Am. Stateman,2-26-14) Let’s explore  why a human-centered map does not work ethically by asking a simple question:

        Do forests have rights? Legal rights? Rights of “happiness?”  Rights beyond serving humans?

     The response to that question across the planet in mainline culture has been not only a resounding,”No,” but also an arching of the eyebrow as if the question has no standing in courts,in academia, in religious discussions, or elsewhere. How could it be that we humans have been so arrogant that we think all issues of right and wrong rotate around us? To address that issue I paraphrase a comment made by A.N. Whitehead about Plato, I would say the world’s present mainline ethical systems are all footnotes on Aristotle. The current world’s attitude toward forests(and all non-human nature) is summarized in Aristotle’s statement:

“…nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” (Politics, Bk. 1 Ch. 8)

      While I have the deepest respect for Aristotle, he and most current ethicists, would say forests and all other natural resources are here to be used by humans as humans best see fit. Forests have value inso far as they are useful to humans and their pursuit of happiness.  They dance around this dark and stark position, but it there nonetheless, as we shall see in a moment.

       On the other hand in Return Ethics, I say,”Yes!” Forests do have rights. Let’s see how, as a first step in building an ethic for a Return-oriented civilization.

The Strange Case of Corporations Viewed as Persons

      The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized corporations as having the same rights as natural persons to contract and to enforce contracts. As a matter of interpretation of the word “person” stated in the14th Amendment, U.S. courts have extended constitutional protections to corporations. The basis for allowing corporations to assert protection under the U.S. Constitution is that they are organizations of people, and the people should not be deprived of their constitutional rights when they act collectively. Treating corporations as “persons” is a convenient interpretation with ethical implications which allows corporations to sue and to be sued in the highest courts of the land.

        And that is not all.

      Corporations are also allowed to elect our political leaders in that they can and do make prodigious political contributions, pay vulgarly to lobbyists, and create gridlock in the legislative system. In case you think the current situation is an invention of far right politics in our day, consider that in 1819 the U.S. Supreme Court early on took this position of the rights of corporations. Our broken moral compass is not the result of far right politics, as some would argue. It goes much deeper than that; the break occurs at the very foundations of our ethical guidelines for society.  Yet, at the same time the seeds of a new ethic seem to be thrusting through the crust.

Forests, Oceans, and British Petroleum

      As we have seen since the B.P. oil spill in April of 2010, the courts are beginning to struggle with an emergent new ethic, albeit unconsciously. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Justice settled charges of 11 counts of manslaughter and lying to Congress. B.P. agreed to fines of $4.25 billion, plus $42.2 billion in legal fees and a trust fund to assist in recovery. Thus far  trials have proceeded with reference to human damage only, but the Clean Water Act and the Natural Resources Damages Assessment trial set to proceed in 2014 moves beyond human rights and faintly hints at rights of the Gulf of Mexico. Emphasize faintly hints.

      Now, rubber band back to my previous point about the U.S. Supreme Court’s granting rights to corporations, including the very influential B.P. Let’s assume that we could move toward a new ethic that includes the rights of forests and oceans. Which do you imagine would be more foundational to the health of the whole planet: the rights of British Petroleum or the Gulf of Mexico?

Humans As Aspects of Eco-fields

      As indicated earlier, in 1819 the U.S. Supreme court started us on a tack of holding that persons in their collective states cannot be denied their rights, according to the14th Amendment. It might be argued that B.P. consists of collective persons but forests and the Gulf of Mexico do not. I have proposed in Eco-field physics that Earth consists of a vast system of eco-fields and that humans are aspects or waves within the fields.Nothing more, nothing less. Forests and the Gulf, then, are systems of eco-fields within which humans are a very small but influential part.(see The Mother Tongue: Intimacy In The Eco-field)

      You see my point here?

      Forests and oceans have rights and value if for no other reason that they all consist of a set of relational eco-fields including collective persons. Even as corporations are collections of people, so eco-fields consist of collections of people. But, it might be questioned, aren’t forests and oceans much more than collections of people? To be sure, forests have understories, canopies, and other so-called inanimate objects. But so do corporations in the form of buildings, desks, and computers, and these other aspects of corporations are protected ethically and by law, as well as the people in the corporations.  

      So why do we value the people collected in corporations more than people collected in forests and oceans?

A Current Ethical Choice

      As I write, an Earthtribe member, Lisa Dvorak, returns from a sweat lodge gathering and sends out information concerning the rights of a Live Oak Forest located near the tiny town of Snook, Texas, population, 500. The Texas Department of Transportation plans a highway through the middle of the forest that will take out five of the largest oaks, assessed at 600 years old by a certified arborist. The little town is in a remote area, and the highway would need to be moved only 40 feet to respect the forest.  Yet, the collective humans of Texas State government claim they have ethical rights that supersede the rights of collective humans in the forest.

      The grandmother oak has a trunk with a circumference of 25 feet and a canopy of 100 feet. Let’s take stock for a moment. The town of Snook originated with a Cezch settlement in 1895. The Texas Department of Transportation(Texas Highway Department when I was growing up) was founded in 1917. The local live oak forest became part of the eco-field at least 500 years before humans came on the scene. Can we imagine an eco-field ethic that respects both the humans who live in that forest and the trees in the forest itself? Is there such a thing as intrinsic value? And if forests don’t have these values, who does? The legal brief might read:  Ancient Forest(and human inhabitants) vs. TexDot(and human administrators). 

Here is the grand tree in Snook.

snook oak      Note: in the Return Hypothesis, the humans seen in the photo are not climbing on the tree.  They are part of the tree, as the tree is part of the forest, the forest is part of the specific eco-field, and the local eco-field is part of a vast system of eco-fields we call the living Earth.  The claim here is that the beautiful tree and its people have intrinsic value and the right of being.

Toward An Eco-field Ethic

      Beginning in the 1970’s a vigorous discussion of environmental ethics began, at least in the post-modern domain.  While this dialogue has been rich and useful, I hold that an integration of  Earth Wisdom and Primordial Mind with the newer sciences presents us with a fresh opportunity for co-creating an ethical map that addresses both humans and more-than-humans within the system of eco-fields, or the sacred web.  The next few blog posts will address this possibility.

8 thoughts on “RETURN ETHICS: Do Forests Have Rights?”

  1. Wow! What a great, thought provoking discussion on this essential ethical question on the rights of forests. Where do we begin to make the shift necessary to make the changes needed? As we reach deep within our relationship to all that surrounds us, understanding that “all are our relations,” only then can we begin to take the necessary “barefoot” steps toward making explicit the rights of Nature. Some of us are already on this path, many are not. I find these kinds of conversations and questions an important part of the process of awakening to the possibility and need of a shift in priorities.

    Your outline, Will, of how we got where we are is a foundational part of the puzzle. Your questions stir the pot, providing the possibility of awakening to a fundamental shift in our thinking. Lisa’s individual action stirs us into awareness, creating the opportunity for community action. Rmaya’s conversation with self stirs and feeds my own internal conversation, reaching into places not yet explored. Lillie’s thoughtful reflections on reversing cultural thinking and the spiritual connection speak to my recent blog post addressing the importance of our relationship to trees. It was spurred by the plight of the ancient oaks in Snook, TX and a quote by Carl Jung:

    “At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing…with which I am not linked.”

    In order to move forward, I believe we must return to a deepening in our relationship to Nature.

    1. I love the quote by Carl Jung. It reminds me of how I felt on vision quests. Don’t know if others relate the same way? It also moved me to think of “barefoot” steps. How I loved the connection to the environment as a child as I ran barefoot down the dirt road of the farm (cockle-burrs and all). The deep connection with all of creation was still intact. Where did I lose it? How difficult it is to reclaim that initial birthright. How incomplete am in my spirit without that connection.

  2. There is deep gratitude that due to petitions and conversations like this one, TxDot is revisiting cutting the trees. We will celebrate on Sunday March 16th this very good news. May we all continue to send good energy for the preservation of our forests and care of our planet

  3. I am struck by two issues: The first: Who would be the Voice of the Forest when so many have lost their ears? The second: Would the government be willing to GRANT RIGHTS TO GANGS? I feel as if the corporations are like “gangs” of shortsighted youth trying desperately to belong but going about it in a hugely destructive way. I realize I have no idea whether any of us has figured out a way to interact in a healthy way with gangs. The rights of gangs and corporations cause harm and death to others. Can we develop the skills and complex thinking required to see past our youthful shortsightedness. Perhaps we shouldn’t have devalued our Elders! Our survival depends on our government being our wise, long-sited Counsel of Elders.

    1. Okay. I find myself wanting to have a conversation with myself on a blog. My mind is so curious. Back to the issue of a forest having rights and I want to say yes! of course, everything has the right to be. Only someone who has removed themselves from the connectedness and lost their aware ego would think to decide for another. I am challenging myself to remember my connectedness every moment. Easier done when I walk in a connected eco field like nature as I drift in and out of conscious awareness. Oh wait, it’s all connected…where it the muscle I need to work, that part of my brain that helps me let go of this false perception….letting go of what I know…..

  4. I am grateful for those who navigate court systems protecting habitat and endangered species. These diligent human outliers stimulate tension in norms. The operative terms here are “protecting habitat” and “endangered species”. Notice and success is more likely when numbers are low. In the matter of the Snook live oak forest, the discernible undertone in the move to bulldoze these majestic trees is “They are just live oaks. There are plenty more.”

    You answered the troubling question of why humans have moved so far from intertwining with Nature. The ethical evolution of “…nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” This embedded value further supported in modern religious points of view. And, there it is – separation; festering at the root of our suffering.

    Recently, I spent some time in the Snook forest with the property owner. The word she used is ecosystem yet what she described is an eco-field in which there is intrinsic value and right of being of the trees. For 150 years, her family relations have co-created the field with the live oaks, landscape and critters. The plight of these 300 – 600 year old live oaks challenges me to rethink my thinking and engage in meaningful and purposeful action. The Return Ethics dialogue stretches my boundaries to a wider view. I imagine the possibility of Nature as a plaintiff in the case of the wild versus the corporation.

  5. Reflecting on your blog some more overnight. It intrigues me. Small children learn to reverse think at about 6 years old (ex: subtraction). Reversing cultural thinking that other parts of creation such as trees, mountains have a legal voice, or even a voice, like corporations or individuals is a true wake-up call. It reverses all manner of ways by which humans interrelate with the eco-field. Exciting! Astounding!

  6. Aho, Will, I addressed this issue somewhat in my book, Christianity and Nature-based Spirituality. The crises on the planet in my mind are not only an environmental issue. They are a serious spiritual issue. Your blog and Lisa’s “heads up,” regarding the ancient tree brings ethical and legal issues I had not contemplated; however, not to this extent. I give thanks that these issues of moral ethics and legalities for living beings of the eco-field are coming to the forefront of community awareness, not just isolated pockets of cultural creatives. I also include the legal rights of what we consider the inanimate, for instance mountains defaced and destroyed by strip mining, in this profound conversation.

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