Achieving ecological justice. Would anyone in the UK claim Rights of Nature?

By Matthew Hopewell

Matthew is currently studying an MSc in Environment, Politics and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). This article presents the conclusions of his undergraduate thesis (2018) at the School of International Development (DEV) from University of East Anglia.

This article shall question the possibility of UK citizens making claims for Rights of Nature. Rights of Nature is an emerging and under-researched concept in environmental law attempting to provide nature’s intrinsic values greater recognition and protection. In practise it has currently entailed bestowing legal personhood onto ecosystems. It has the potential to be a remedy for present-day ecological injustice. To answer the title question, this article uses research undertaken in Suffolk which explores the motivations of citizens resisting the development of Sizewell C (SZC) nuclear power station. The research concludes that claiming Rights of Nature offers an anti-SZC campaign group a new strategy to mould into their resistance narrative as it complements their environmental concerns for the threatened ecosystems themselves. Procedural and recognition-based injustices obstruct the potential for realising such claims, however, the uptake of Rights of Nature into this environmental conflict in the UK may transform current environmental discourse towards attaining greater ecological justice.

Theoretical Backdrop: Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism and Ecological Justice
As many of us are painfully aware there is currently a mass extinction of biodiversity taking place. Humanity’s population growth, industrialised production and consumption habits sit in the driving seat of the ongoing ecological degradation. Many argue the underlying cause of this is ontological, because industrialised ‘civilisation’ has come to understand humanity as separate and above the rest of nature. Through this anthropocentric lens, one has little moral restraint to the conquest and material displacement of the ‘other’ as market and technological fixes are believed to overcome environmental issues. Such reorganisation of the natural world into this cognitive hierarchy results in industrialised societies ignoring the ecological challenges we all face, until they threaten industry itself.

Nowadays conservation often seems more focused on maintaining a flow of ‘ecosystem services’ to achieve the contested goal of sustainable development. Consequently, conservation is prioritised based on its usefulness to the development of particular human groups. Therefore, ecosystems or species with less instrumental value are neglected by conservation projects. Such discourse begs fundamental questions: Who are we trying to conserve Nature for? How can we acknowledge the deeper intrinsic value and interconnectedness of Nature, and furthermore, how can these understandings translate into legally recognised rights?

Within this context, ecological justice has emerged as a theory to help provide answers and direct solutions. Ecological justice complements ‘ecocentrism’, which challenges the human-nature dichotomy seen in industrialised societies of the Global North. Of course, many are concerned for the environment and much land and water is protected. However, few ecosystems and non-human entities receive legally-bound rights to ‘a fair share of environmental resources which all life-forms need to survive and flourish’, for their own sake (Baxter, 2005:4). Ecological justice argues that justice can expand to include non-human species, even entire ecosystems such as rivers and mountains. Ecocentrism is underpinned by an understanding that we are all interrelated manifestations of the same self, and people can come to realise such truth. Therefore, individuals can represent the intrinsic value of Nature, making ecological justice claims if natural entities are harmed, which ultimately harms the individual. Injustices to such representatives therefore becomes injustices to the subjects represented. This notion has been championed by many different green movements and philosophies, perhaps most famously Deep Ecology, but now also in the legal arena through the notion Rights of Nature.

The Emergence of Rights of Nature
Rights of Nature are a more recent transformation towards ecological justice whereby ecosystems are bestowed legal ‘personhood’. This has been actualised in various countries, not just in the Global South. It was first formally introduced in Ecuador’s constitution after indigenous groups’ and environmental activists’ claims for Rights of Nature were recognised by the Government as a means to achieve an ecologically balanced environment needed for a ‘good life’ (Tanasescu, 2013). This emanated within a particular context of indigenous rights activism and the de-colonialization of the national political systems. More cases of Rights of Nature have recently surfaced in various countries. Perhaps most famously New Zealand granted the Whanganui River legal personhood in 2017. In many cases, though not all, Rights of Nature appears to be a legal phenomenon that stems from indigenous struggles to protect sacred natural entities.

Nevertheless, the existing momentum of Rights of Nature led me to question the feasibility of it being realised in the UK, in the heartland of industrialised society. Would anyone in the UK make such a claim to a threatened ecosystem when there are significant epistemological differences between most UK populations and indigenous groups? Does anyone hold similar levels of ‘ecocentric’ values, and if such values are present, what barriers would be faced to realise this claim? Who would have permission to represent the entity of nature and how would that be decided?

The Struggle Against Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station
I sought to enquire how Rights of Nature could transform UK conservation. This led me to Leiston on Suffolk’s heritage coastline (2017). There, local citizens have formed the group Together Against Sizewell C (TASC). TASC is campaigning against a potential third nuclear powerplant, Sizewell C (SZC), to be built on the ecologically important coastline. I focused my inquiry on studying the environmental conflict and discerning the barriers TASC face, their SZC opposition motivations and who the campaigners represent in their SZC resistance. I believed such answers would enable me to better understand if claiming Rights of Nature might benefit TASC’s claims and the likelihood of TASC adopting such claims into their resistance struggle.

SZC is owned by EDF, and partly funded by the China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN). The plant is estimated to take 10-12 years to construct and could provide enough electricity to power six million homes. SZC development has become an environmental conflict because of the potential ecological degradation it could cause. SZC would be built on a landscape rich in biodiversity and part of a rare ecosystem mosaic of reedbeds, heath, single beach, mudflats and grazing marsh. The construction of SZC would result in the direct loss of Sizewell Marshes Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), and fragmentation of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB). Moreover, SZC could have ecologically damaging knock-on effects to nearby protected areas including RSPB Minsmere. TASC is also concerned about the long-term impact of nuclear waste being stored in-situ on the eroding coastline when there are no means of disposing spent fuel.

The National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (NPS EN-6 Volume 11, Annex C) states how any potential damage to sites with European or UK-recognised conservation significance needs to be addressed before any concrete decision is made. EDF hopes to compensate for ecological damage with a nearby sixty-seven-hectare wildlife habitat, Aldhurst Farm. However, conservation groups and TASC claim EDF’s proposals do not demonstrate clear evidence for no significant ecological damage, locally and regionally, and such compensation of SSSI loss does not adhere to EN-6 which states avoidance as the first step to mitigate against ecological damage.

I interviewed key members of TASC to gather their reasons for opposing SZC. The reasons participants were opposing SZC appeared to stem from an altruistic motive, particularly of harms/injustice to future generations, such as the feared loss of tourism revenue or loss of public footpaths. However, further research determined that participants rated concerns for the environment itself as the most important factor for opposing the SZC. Subsequently, it can be said TASC represents the threatened ecosystems and non-human species, and therefore any injustices experienced by TASC would also be faced by the ecology TASC represents.

Such injustices were found to exist. TASC members felt their voice was excluded from SZC-related meetings by associated Councils and EDF. Despite multi-stakeholder meetings, which includes local council members, TASC members reported feeling their views were not being acknowledged adequately by others. The meetings were deemed informal and too infrequent. TASC members stated concern that Natural England should be the sole authority to permit damaging the SSSI at Sizewell Marshes; a centralised government body could not sufficiently understand local environmental concerns and values. Thus, their voice is excluded in decision-making over ecological compensation for SSSI loss. Furthermore, legally confronting EDF in a judicial review risked bankrupting the relatively tiny TASC group and specific members, if they lost. One participant said ‘compare £400 raised in a jumble sale to money being no object to EDF…we need to throw lawyers at them…how can there be justice if you’ve got all the government and the developer against a small local group.’ Such financial risk combined with limited publicly available factual evidence means TASC’s voice faces significant barriers to just participation in SZC decision-making.

Additionally, some participants highlighted cultural values attached to the local ecosystems. The ecology creates a sense-of-place for local people, it is identity forming and creates a sense of local and regional heritage. Focusing on potential socio-economic benefits from SZC, which EDF and the Councils’ seem to do, therefore fails to acknowledge the weight of deeper cultural values underpinning TASC’s struggle. Consequently, compensation for loss of the marshes with Aldhurst Farm cannot solve justice issues because it is the present landscape that people have developed a sense-of-place with. TASC members feel that because Natural England is partly funded by EDF there is less consideration for local values and concerns when approving Aldhurst Farm. Similarly, TASC believes such cultural values are avoided by the councils because they have a conflict of interest, hoping EDF will fund a new road and SZC will bring more employment and money into the area.

Evidence that TASC members are most concerned for intrinsic values of nature contradicts what many might expect to be a NIMBY argument to resist SZC development. Of course, TASC members have serious concerns for the level of traffic, loss of tourism revenue, the cost of the powerplant and social disruption from the some three-thousand six-hundred construction workers that would be housed locally. However, the cultural connection with the landscape may help explain why participants feel representing nature in their struggle is so important. Environmental concerns are not simply static; they relate to each other and thus reciprocate. The landscape benefits people in various ways, for example offering certain recreational activities and health benefits. It is therefore not something people passively live on. It is something to interact and identify with, to become deeply interconnected to in various individual ways. Conservation for the sake of nature’s intrinsic value therefore satisfies concerns for oneself and other people one may be concerned for. Therefore, such analysis suggests TASC may be sympathetic to the idea of using Rights of Nature, if aware of the concept.

TASC’s resistance narrative does not make it particularly clear they are primarily concerned for the threatened nature itself. Of course, they want to get across the fact SZC will have impacts on themselves, other humans and the ecological integrity of the local landscape and beyond. However, I would suggest if TASC did adopt a Rights of Nature perspective their resistance could have a clear narrative to mobilise around that would also satisfy egoistic and altruistic concerns, whilst taking a clear step towards achieving ecological justice.

Naturally, the means of actualising Rights of Nature is very complicated and who gets to represent natural entities is subject to power relations amongst the different stakeholders. Who would speak for nature’s rights when there are diverse views and relationships with the ecological subject? What is required for the ecological subject to flourish, who gets to decide? If Rights of Nature were actualised, it should be a democratic process. Those who make the Rights of Nature claims should experience fair participation in decision-making, and receive devolved powers to become legal guardians of the ecological person, with the responsibility of holding people accountable for any harms to it.

Concluding Thoughts
Overall, I feel TASC is in a position to claim Rights of Nature for the threatened local ecosystem. However, limited recognition stems from limited participation. More participatory decision-making may transpire by improving the existing platforms for discussions with local councils, and by creating new channels that allow concerned citizens the ability to speak with powerful stakeholders (EDF and Government) directly. Claiming Rights of Nature would give TASC a new way of framing their opposition narrative more explicitly to represent their concerns for nature and help achieve their desired future. Pragmatically, such claims could strengthen the case in judicial review that SZC is not a suitable ‘potential site’ for nuclear development. However, claiming Rights of Nature would go further to radically reject a large-scale centrally-planned development project that does not recognise the importance of ecocentric values held by some UK citizens, in the name of ecological justice.