Natural Rights in the Age of Domination

By Carlos Cuellar Brown, August 3, 2017

Planet Earth

Planet Earth

How was it that we came to view planetary resources as ours to conquer and mine? Who gave us the right to exploit and consume everything that has been put before us?

The theory that individual rights were inherited and endowed by nature as an inalienable right is a big assumption. In this scheme, preferential divine rights were extracted from natural law. The argument goes that in a state of nature we are not social creatures but rather co-exist in disorder and anarchy, therefore we must identify a natural right where the right to self-defense is primary. In this state of nature, we have the right to exist in a state of war against everything, for the purpose of self-preservation and for the pursuit of selfish interest, with no duty to each other or mother earth. This assumption also suggests that humankind was not made by nature to live together, in fraternity with tolerance towards other. Individual rights without  consideration for one others break up the human family into separate interests. It also conceives survival and interest without limitation, forgetting that we cannot do as we wish without considering the bounds of nature. On the other hand, we commonly forgive the exercise of our rights so very responsibly, in this sense the responsibility to respect others is the basis of common interest and reciprocity and it depends on duty. Common interest regulates society and forms our laws.

This common interest keeps the state of nature together and produces common security. In this respect our common interest and reciprocal benefits must take priority as we broaden nature rights to become fundamental, incorporating all of life into the universal charter. The dominance of the human species over nature is an aberrant growth on our evolutionary path. We have forgotten that we are a humbling reflection of the tremendous success of nature and biological design and not masters of nature, in competition, struggling to dominate the land. The secret of life has more to do with cooperation. If on the contrary, we precluded that in a state of nature competition is the norm, where everyone is at war, competing for life as a basic right, the duty to respect other people’s rights takes a back seat. In a state of nature cooperation and beneficial relationships are woven into natural law, embedded in nested layers of interrelationships which move from simple to complex.

Avoiding respect for others as our first duty is a distorted strategy. This approach entitled humanity with a license to dominate over others and to dominate over the environment. We justify these actions on account of our primal survival instinct; this pursuit of survival without limitation is morally wrong and will lead to ecocide. Not only should we presume that in natural law we should respect each other, but also that for life-preservation we must include the rest of the natural systems as bearing intrinsic rights. We must preclude the gift of life as right and duty, broadening universal rights to include nature and other beings. Natural rights begin with this respect and consideration of other, with the reintroduction of stewardship and ecosystem management. The good news is that countries like New Zealand have given legal personhood to its third largest river, the Whanganui River. Ecuador has given nature inalienable rights, including them in their constitutions. More than 20 municipalities in the US like Banstead New Hampshire have also given wetlands, rivers, and streams fundamental rights.

This begs the question and analysis of human sovereignty over the environment. This vision of the human-nature divide is incompatible with our very own intrinsic nature. We really coexist with beings associated as communities of plants, animals and soil organisms. We must see ourselves as being part of nature and our health and wellbeing reflected back into the environment. This association between humans and “other” is a magnificent force that has maximized biological potential leading to conscious awareness. Nature is a self-organizing system that acts intelligently and is learning and evolving through our experiences and choices.

How was it that we came to view planetary resources as ours to conquer and mine? Who gave us the right to exploit and consume everything that has been put before us? Some people might say that the presumption of human sovereignty over the environment is a universal right that keeps modern civilization going. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of energy consumption as a basic need, humankind cannot exist without energy. But we all know that the current industrial energy throughput is a toxic, wasteful, inefficient system that is crashing and costing us monumental externalities that will jeopardize survival itself. This depredatory industry is contradictory and out of touch with the biophysical limits and jurisprudence of mother earth. The EIA estimated world energy consumption for 2030 is 770 quadrillion BTU’s which represents an equivalent of 4,000 new power plants worldwide. The vast majority of these energy units will come from the Fossil-Fuel Industry, with its dirty practices and mega-pollution of the environmental commons. Our sovereignty over the environment and the notion of perpetual economic growth displaces our relationship with nature and does not acknowledge its dwindling resources. The first law of thermodynamics predicts that there will not be enough biomass on earth to meet current consumption, bubble economics, and runaway population. If we don’t come to terms with an end to economic growth, we are all braced for emergency economics. Of course, this could all change beyond a technological breakthrough, some kind of accidental discovery that will tap into unknown sources of abundant energy that will allow conscientious growth coupled with judicial and beneficial management of the environment. We can only consider that the sun hits the earth with more energy power in a single hour than humanity uses in an entire year.

The presumption of rights over natural resources on the grounds of survival perpetrates dominant behavior, it turns us against each other aggressively competing for power. This behavioral pathology promotes greed and selfishness as it ignores “other.” Other, includes everything that is alive down to the single cell organisms that are having a recorded experience, and to some degree, perhaps even conscious in observation. Other also means every biotic system on earth which has the right to continue with the life cycles and closed loops so critical of the bio-plasm. We need a revised concept of natural law so it will include fundamental rights and freedoms for all beings in the context of steady-state stewardship and symbiosis on planet earth.

Our domination over nature stems from the way we exploit each other and from an anthropocentric myth that spares the environment for our personal use and benefit. The right to exploit nature is a dysfunctional assumption that holds human beings in a vacuum, separated from the whole that keeps us alive. Human rights would not be relevant if our planetary ecosystems failed. Our foremost right is the right to a healthy environment which is something all humans share and our foremost duty is to preserve a healthy environment for the generations to come. The sharing of the commons is a notion that has been barred from public discussion. In natural law the sharing is primal like the air we breathe, paramount for the success of life, where a fine balance of life ecosystems share the ubiquitous environment that engulfs us, all of us, plants, microbes, animals, and bio-systems. Yet the charter of universal human rights has mostly ignored nature and has been determined solely by a social context which excludes the ecology. The Anthropocentric optic of natural law, claims that self-preservation imposes everyone to have the right over everything else. In this barbaric natural state the shared resources we have inherited, are exploited by selfish interests. Thomas Hobbes suggested that in the state of nature we are driven by a succession of appetites and aversions. A form of competitive savagery or law of the jungle where we strive for power and everything is game. In a state of nature where the right to do anything, to invade any other man, to take anything, to “possess, use and enjoy” is a universal entitlement. This idea that in a state of nature we are free, equal and independent was later expanded by John Locke and ultimately lay the foundation for the US Constitution. However we are really only born free and equal and this does not continue because soon thereafter birth, we lose our equality and instead we become imposed by a system of cultural fate, baggage, and scaling.

Hobbes right to life is driven by natural depravity, a sort of desire to survive at all costs. But there is a problem when this primary impulse expresses itself as a constant state of terror, a permanent sense of hyper vigilance where everything is a potential threat, it closes our learning and nurturing behaviors which promote growth and healing, this premise is antagonistic to the evolutionary principle that promotes emergent phenomena. In a state of war and constant danger, the body contracts and promotes the stress response; it perpetuates reactive fight or flight situations. If survival at all costs establishes itself as the only self-evident truth, we could assume that natural law must have pushed individuals to dominate, to control others. This becomes a restless desire for power and more power, where basic motivations are a thirst to control. Voltaire would suggest that the euphoric passion to dominate was a terrible disease of the human spirit when he once said: “…the towering ambition and thirst for power of the great, precipitate them headlong into every species of crime in all periods and all places.” The pursuit of power is a behavioral phenomenon, embedded in communication, which is one of the preferred instruments of persuasion. This shows up in our most trivial conversations where one needs to impose personal criteria and belief. This impulse to dominate is present in all of our social behaviors.

This materialistic interpretation suggests we are complex mechanical bio-machines with selfish goals, avoiding death and pain, seeking pleasure, power, and vanity, moment after moment. In this picture, there is no greater good but mostly individual interest. The classic view of a virtuous humankind grounded in reason, beauty, temperance, language, and empathy is substituted by a vision of a coercive and competitive mankind only interested in selfish pursuits. This assumption establishes the need for a social contract which will promote civility. This vision forgoes humans naturally as social creatures. In his second law of natural rights, Hobbes suggests we must surrender natural rights and transfer our power to the sovereign, this way we would ensure civil peace in the framework of a social contract, where government establishes the order of the land. In sovereign law we give away our individual rights in exchange for collective rights, giving government authority for protection from other people who want control over us. Another way of saying this is that our individual freedoms found in the natural state are surrendered in favor of collective liberties found in a social contract. In neither of these two circumstances is their justice; equality only comes when there is duty and responsibility towards the other above all. The sovereign guarantees the security of life and commodious living, and it also guarantees that all life contentments can be acquired for propriety. Private property is born out of this social arrangement which seized the commons and our shared wealth. This restricted the stewardship of the commoners and brought in the enclosures as the open land was sectioned off and gated, instituted into law as private property rights, global corporations have privatized water, biodiversity, food systems and patented stem cells, genomes, and GMO’s.

The assumption that in a social contract we can all pursue life, health, and happiness independently and as a group on equal terms is only theoretical. Thomas More magnificently portrayed the prevailing social systems of the modern world in his novel Utopia, where he says that the creation of these social arrangements are really “conspiracies of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of a sovereign state.” These elites became the managers of our social organization, we gave them the right to enforce sovereign law. Voltaire once again puts it so succinctly in his quote: “The sovereign is called a tyrant who knows no laws but his caprice.” It was also in the 17th century that Hobbes “state of nature” was opposed by his contemporary Shaftesbury. Instead of a state of nature where we are always at war with each other, Shaftesbury suggested a state of nature where an ambiguous noble savage, neither good nor bad, emerged possessed with a moral compass which pointed towards sympathy and that this lay the foundation for goodness and benevolence. Ultimately we are effectively united by acts of kindness and not by contracts, by acts of love and emotions and not by words on a universal charter.

Returning to the presumption of rights over natural resources, our constitutions and social contracts are only binding between human beings; they do not include other life forms or ecosystems. They make the assumption that humankind has sovereignty over the environment and its resources. We must go beyond this argument and expand nature rights to include everything that is alive and part of a life cycle. We have excluded from natural law endowed respect and duty for other. We must also see nature as subjects, like beings, and as such, they should be granted rights. We give corporations, which are organizational abstractions, personal rights, why would we not do the same with mother nature? Why would we not consider the Amazon as vital to human life and with this the right to flourish in continued existence?

Giving nature rights, changes our view of humankind as conquerors of the land, regarding earth as a commodity. All living beings on earth are individual subjective units that observe and experience, or as Aldo Leopold would say we are all members that belong to a community of interdependent parts. These parts are more like beings of the same nature cooperating, with the common sense action of maximizing conditions for a colony of organisms.

We can flip the presumption of human sovereignty over the environment and embrace new perspectives. The Maori tribes of New Zealand who had concepts such as reciprocity and balanced exchange embedded in their culture, they thought themselves as “peoples of the land,” as one with the natural world. They saw the landscape as personified and having a soul self, they saw all living creatures as members of the same family. These tribal groups have been aware of nested relationships and the importance of cooperation and symbiosis with the natural family. They have also been rich in culture, in a state of nature where play and curiosity were everyday behaviors. Technology, art, insight, and language are all created when we are relaxed and not preoccupied with threat. It is absurd to undermine the web of life as only having one strategy of self-preservation; fight or flight survival at all costs.

The whole of nature is but one activity, where there is no separation, instead there is differentiation evolving as a universal process, where our bodies are an expression of the environment, and you become the air you breathe, and the trees your lungs and the earth your body, and your body but a few human cells in a colony of bacteria, where really, there is no such thing as the separate self. As one system, social arrangements should replicate biological design, mimicking biome management that is self-regulatory and resilient. In a fine tune momentum for a maximum where all life can thrive.

The overarching idea in this exposition is that cooperation, empathy and shared management of the biophysical Commons is everybody’s duty and a virtuous purpose of humanity found in natural law. We have the duty to share the biome, sharing our desire to control and understanding our appetite for power, acknowledging our limits, sharing the commons and sharing authority, incorporating a changing greater good as purpose and ultimate aim for our species. The greatest good can be found in natural relationships and cycles of life. The greatest good is not a static state, it dissipates energy oscillating around averages and not an equal system, however, humanity has the ability to transcend unfairness and be virtuous of mind and character. We might be the ultimate expression of the universe willfully lowering its entropy, and thus promoting love and empathy. As caretaker of earth, we must consider nature’s soul spirit as a greater good which is common to all life and may not be material. The obvious right to safe and clean habitats and the security of ecological systems is our foremost universal birthright. These rights should be protected and obligated by community management and responsible representatives of the commons, who will be accountable for their acts. The interpretation of humankind as a natural domineering society which surrenders the greater good and hands it to private management is a skewed model that has precipitated massive species extinction in all habitats of earth and is threatening our own survival. It gives up the rights of all other life forms and the commons and instead turns the biome into commodities and means of our appetite and desire. What we have dismissed is that in a state of nature partnership is quintessential for success. In the domineering society we ignore this partnership.

Earth is a fairly stable place and it tends to normalize optimal conditions for maximizing life, and for this it is critical that relationships of balance emerge as symbiotic partnerships of nature. Examples of a partnership society were in place in the Magdalenian culture some 17,000 years ago. In this age of pre-history, cave paintings, bone engravings, Venus totems and religion, exploded in a renaissance of representational symbolism. This activity began to change the cultural landscape converting it into the first spring of modern ingenuity. At this time our progenitors lived in partnership with each other and mother earth. There are many more instances of these symbiotic relationships in our pre-history and tribal legacies. Will any of this inspire and illuminate humanity to the realization that our most formidable collective right is the duty to respect common interests? I end with a slight rephrasing of Thomas Paine’s observations in his Rights of Man: “A declaration of rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also” “Whatever is the right of “me”, is also the right of “other” and it becomes my duty to guarantee “care,” as well as to “manage our commons responsibly.”


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Carlos Cuellar Brown is a New York City essayist who has written on new media, social theory and metaphysics. His essays have been posted online by Opendemocracy, The Global Dispatches, Kosmos Journal and regularly at In 2013 his essay “Intermedial Being” was published by A Journal of Performance and Art PAJ #106 MIT Press Journals. In 2015 Mr. Brown was nominated for the TWOTY awards out of the Netherlands for his essay “Blueprint for Change”. Recently Permaculture Design Magazine, May 2017 No. 104 issue, published his essay “Less is More”. you can read more about the author and his new book “In Search of Singularity”@

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