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Happy Mother Earth Day, Citizen!

Tags The EnvironmentFree MarketsInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

04/22/2011Ben O'Neill
Earth Day stamp
"The notion that 'Mother Earth' would ever have cause to complain of its treatment at the hands of humans is pure mysticism."

I'll bet you forgot to buy a card and gift, didn't you? Boy, is your face red!

Did you even know it's International Mother Earth Day today, citizen? Socialist despot Evo Morales and his buddies at the United Nations sure do. You see, in April 2009, they passed a unanimous resolution to celebrate this important event every year.[1] In the accompanying speech, Morales explained to his colleagues that "Mother Earth was now having her rights recognized" and expressed his hope that the present century will be known as the "century of the rights of Mother Earth." He explained to the UN that its member states "now had the opportunity to begin laying out a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth."[2]

And don't worry — you'll be pleased to know that they're making great progress toward this goal. This month, Morales and the Bolivian government will table a draft UN treaty recognizing and enunciating the rights of the Earth — ahem, excuse me, the rights of Mother Earth.[3] The issue will also be considered in an upcoming UN debate entitled "Nature Has Rights," where environmentalists from various activist groups will lend their support to the treaty and tell us why it's time we all recognize that Mother Earth has rights.

The proposed UN treaty will recognize the Earth as a living entity that humans have sought to "dominate and exploit." To prevent this exploitation, the draft treaty will "[grant] the Earth a series of specific rights that include rights to life, water and clear air; the right to repair livelihoods affected by human activities, and the right to be free from pollution."[4] In case it is not clear, let me stress that the treaty will recognize that the Earth has these rights — not you or me, citizen, but that big ball of minerals we are standing on.

The treaty will establish a "Ministry of Mother Earth" to hear the Earth's complaints against those who continue to dominate and exploit it — um, excuse me, dominate and exploit her. But don't worry; the building for the Ministry won't need to be quite as big as you might think. If you're concerned that the Earth will have trouble fitting into the complainant's chair, or the witness box, it's alright. You see, complaints will be voiced, not by the Earth itself, but by its human "representatives," consisting of environmental-activist groups and governments.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves in celebration just yet citizen. Before we break out the Mother Earth Day hooch, party poppers, and giant foam-rubber hands, let me just take a moment to explain a few things about this Earth-rights doctrine that has been steadily working its way through the UN. Let's take a moment to consider the relationship between life and rights, the purpose of the present doctrine, and the role of government as "representative" of Mother Earth.

1. Living Entities and the Alleged Rights of "Mother Earth"

To understand rights, we need to know not only what their content is but also the kinds of entities to which they accrue. To know this, we need to know what the concept of rights is for, and how it is derived. Philosopher Ayn Rand explains that the concept of rights is a part of moral philosophy, its purpose being to provide moral guidance on how to treat others.[5] According to Rand, the notion of "rights" is a moral concept:

the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual's actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between ethics and politics.[6]

The purpose of ethics is to provide us with guidance on how to survive and prosper in our lives. Politics is that subset of ethics that deals with the use of force, and that studies the institutions of society with respect to the moral principles pertaining to the use of force. Rights, therefore, are the moral principles that tell us when the use of force is and is not morally right — they are the particular subset of objective moral principles that tell us who may use physical violence against whom, and when.

Since rights are a moral concept, it follows that they can only pertain to things that have some interests and will of their own. In particular, it is clear that moral obligations can only accrue to beings in need of moral guidance and are capable of sufficiently high levels of abstraction to understand and apply moral principles. Such beings must be conscious and must also be capable of sufficiently high levels of abstraction to understand moral principles and obey them — in short, they must be rational, conscious beings. If they are not, then they lack the means to understand and apply moral principles, and it is senseless to ascribe such principles to them.

Though this reasoning applies most clearly to moral obligations, rather than rights, we can actually say more than this. In fact, moral obligations are merely the obverse of rights: if A has a right to do X, and this right is enforceable against B, then it follows that B has a corresponding obligation not to forcibly interfere with A doing X. There can be no rights without corresponding moral obligations, and there can be no such thing as an entity having rights without corresponding moral obligations.[7] Since it is senseless to ascribe moral principles to beings that lack consciousness, it is therefore senseless to ascribe rights to these entities.

Since life is a necessary condition for consciousness, it is also a necessary condition for rights. But it is not a sufficient condition — there are plenty of living things that are either nonconscious, or are conscious but incapable of sufficiently abstract thought to accrue rights and their corresponding moral obligations.

"To suppose that such a thing as a big ball of minerals hurtling through space can be capable of holding rights is to completely misconstrue the nature and purpose of rights."

Since nonconscious living entities like trees and other plants have no awareness of their own existence or anything else around them, they have no need for, or capacity to understand, moral principles. Though a tree is a living thing, it is not conscious.[8] It has no mind, and therefore has no awareness of its own existence — it has no thoughts, no desires, no fears, no feelings, no pain or pleasure. It acts automatically to preserve its own life and flourish, but it has no awareness of this, and no opinion on any matter associated with it.[9] It imposes itself on other entities automatically, with no awareness of either itself or others. When other entities impose themselves on it, it remains unaware of this fact, and has no opinion about their actions. A tree does not need moral guidance to help it grow, nor would it be aware of any moral instruction it was given. It has no use for rights, and as a nonconscious thing, it has no rights or obligations. If a tree is cut up for timber, or poisoned, or torn out of the ground, it has no awareness of this ever happening. It had no awareness of ever being alive, and no awareness of being killed. Nor can a tree ever be said to have violated the rights of others. If the roots of a tree invade my property, or strangle another tree to death, the tree is not violating rights; it is just being a tree.

By the same token, we can see that the Earth also has no rights. The Earth has no mind or awareness of its own existence. It has no awareness of the state it is in and no opinion on this state. It feels no pleasure or pain. It has no views, no desires, and no fears. The notion that "Mother Earth" would ever have cause to complain of its treatment at the hands of humans is pure mysticism — the ascription of feelings and desires to a nonconscious entity. (In fact, it is highly dubious even to classify the Earth as a living thing. It is an entity composed mostly of nonliving material, and covered, relatively sparsely, with living plant and animal life.[10] )

To suppose that such a thing as a big ball of minerals hurtling through space can be capable of holding rights is to completely misconstrue the nature and purpose of rights. Rights are moral prerogatives for conscious beings that are capable of sufficiently abstract thought to require, and comply with, abstract moral principles. Rights cannot be divorced from their corresponding obligations, and hence rights can only apply to beings that are capable of understanding and applying moral principles. Rights allow conscious rational beings to interact with one another in a way that is compatible with their own survival.

(The present essay is focused on the alleged rights of nonconscious entities, which is a simple case. Things get a bit trickier once we look at arguments for animal rights. Animals have minds, feel pleasure and pain, have desires and fears, and are capable of a very small amount of simple abstraction. They are incapable of sufficiently abstract thought to grasp moral principles, and hence they are incapable of complying with moral obligations. Their use of force against other living beings is neither moral nor immoral, and cannot be considered a rights violation.[11])

2. The Purpose of the Earth-Rights Doctrine

The Earth-rights doctrine has no basis in reason. It is pure mysticism, resting, as it does, on the attempt to ascribe interests and moral prerogatives to a nonconscious entity. Nor is the actual purpose of this doctrine the protection of the environment. Its real purpose is the acquisition of power, not for nature, but for people — or rather, for certain people.

In fact, the Earth-rights doctrine is primarily a doctrine aiming at the total control of man, and the extinguishment of human rights. Its power to accomplish this consists in two simple facts:

  1. that the Earth encompasses all resources that humans deal with, and these resources form a part of the "body" of the Earth; and

  2. that the Earth is incapable of expressing any desires pertaining to its own alleged rights (since it doesn't actually have any desires), and hence it requires some human "representatives" to speak "on its behalf."

Though the Earth-rights doctrine alleges that "Mother Earth" has rights that are the same as, or analogous to, the rights of humans, this cannot actually be the case. Since the Earth is an entity that encompasses all available physical resources as part of its own body this means that humans are always, by necessity, encroaching upon the physical body of the Earth. They encroach upon the body of the Earth merely by being located on some piece of land, and they encroach further in all their actions dealing with things that form part of the body of the Earth. Indeed, every aspect of human survival requires some appropriation of physical resources that are a part of the body of "Mother Earth," and hence the entire process of human survival is an encroachment upon this body.

" A tree does not need moral guidance to help it grow, nor would it be aware of any moral instruction it was given."

It is a standard and well-established part of the theory of rights that the right to exclude others from one's own body precedes the right to acquire a proprietary interest in outside resources, and that it is therefore impossible to acquire a proprietary interest in the body of another. A person's own body is their first and primary piece of property, with any further appropriation of outside material resting on this fundamental right of self-ownership. But since all physical resources available to humans form a part of the body of the Earth, it follows that any attempt by humans to use resources (or even exist on Earth) must necessarily impinge on the right of Earth to exclude others from interference with its own physical body. If the Earth has a right of self-ownership, as does man, then we are dancing all over it, figuratively and sometimes literally. Under this doctrine we are quite literally raping the Earth — i.e., intruding into parts of its physical body without its consent.

If the Earth really is a rights-holding entity, on par with a human being, then this implies that humans may not interfere with the body of the Earth without its permission, just as a person cannot interfere with the body of another person without their permission. Since all physical resources required for human survival come from the Earth, and are a part of this "living system," this implies that humans cannot do anything — they cannot even exist on Earth — without the permission of the Earth. And if governments are the representatives of the Earth in exercising its rights, then this logically implies that people cannot do anything without the permission of their government. This is the real purpose of the doctrine. It logically eradicates any possible human rights.

If you are a bit imaginative, you might wonder whether we could escape this tyranny by one day fleeing to another planet, and leaving the Earth alone and unmolested. But this misses the point. If the Earth-rights doctrine is correct, then there is no reason that this doctrine could not be extended to any entity that is composed of living things — a domestic garden, a football field, an ocean, the Earth, our solar system, our galaxy, the universe! All are macroscopic entities composed of living things and are "living systems" in the exact same respect as the Earth. Hence, the entire universe could just as easily be regarded as a rights-holding entity, with governments and environmental groups as its proper representatives. Stop raping the universe, citizen! Don't you know it has rights?

(Incidentally, it is no answer to this objection to say that the present draft treaty does not give the Earth such far-reaching rights against humans as I have stated here, and does not totally eradicate human rights. No evil philosophy can ever be implemented consistently without the complete destruction of its subjects, and this is no exception. Moreover, political power is acquired precisely by the piecemeal application of ideas whose logical consequence is total power and domination — by implementing oppressive principles, while hiding their true meaning and logical implications. The present draft treaty puts forward only a small number of actual "rights" for the Earth, and this is done primarily for political expedience. The fact remains that the principle of Earth rights leads logically to the conclusion that these rights must expand, and expand, to the point that they eradicate human rights.)

3. The State-Representation Doctrine

It is the notion of representation that is the most obvious clue to the real purpose of the Earth-rights doctrine and the nature of the environmentalist view of rights. Governments seek power to dominate those they rule, and to do so, they seek to "represent" all — to hold out the fiction that acts of government and its officials represent the "will" of the public, the environment, the oceans, the Earth, the universe. The purpose of the Earth-rights doctrine, and the accompanying notion that government may represent the Earth in issues pertaining to its rights, is to acquire power that the government itself denies having of its own accord.

Service Above Self
"Every aspect of human survival requires some appropriation of physical resources that are a part of the body of 'Mother Earth,' and hence the entire process of human survival is an encroachment upon this body."

The Earth-rights doctrine propagating through the UN circumvents the liberal idea that rights vest in individual people, and restores the effects of the absolutist notion of the divine right of kings. In mediaeval times, when religion was a more powerful emotive force in politics than it is now, monarchical rulers would claim that they were God's representatives on Earth, and that all property was vested in the Crown as the proper representative of God. Now that "Gaia" has supplanted God among modern mystics, the environmentalists alter the form of the absolutist doctrine to achieve the same effect: government is the representative of Mother Earth, and therefore ownership of all physical property, i.e., all parts of Mother Earth, is vested in government as the representative of the entity from which it came. It is a doctrine of de facto absolutism, analogous in form, and equivalent in consequence to the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Just as easily, the Earth-rights doctrine could be extended to the universe as a whole, with government as its representative. Hence, the logical consequence of recognizing rights claims of this kind is universal socialism — literally universal, i.e., extending to the entire universe — with the government having de facto property ownership of all physical resources in the universe. This much is tangentially admitted by its advocates when they state that their goal is to end capitalism — i.e., end the prerogative for people to hold private property.[12]

Some would probably argue that the state-representation doctrine is just a practical means of allowing for the Earth to exercise its rights. Since "Mother Earth" is not a conscious being, and cannot express its will (i.e., the will it does not actually have, since it is not a conscious being), as a practical matter, someone needs to speak for it. And what better entity to take on this job than our own "representative," the state? Well, what the hell? This is probably as "practical" a way as any to try to represent the nonexistent will of a giant nonconscious ball of minerals. Once we are through the looking glass, I suppose it is just as "practical" to say that Morales is the representative for talking walruses as to say that I am. Nevertheless, the point remains that any such representation is a fantasy — it is the attempt to represent the interests of an entity that has no interests. And the state-representation doctrine is therefore only "practical" as a means of ensuring that it is our government masters who take on the alleged prerogatives of the Earth, and not someone else.

Though it is gratuitous to point out the compounding absurdities of this kind of doctrine, let me just quickly note one more. Observe that the assertion of state representation of "Mother Earth" runs counter to the normal social-contract argument for government power. This theory (which is itself hopelessly flawed) holds that the state is the representative of "the people" by virtue of their ability to vote in its elections, and from their choice not to leave its jurisdiction. Clearly both of these are impossible for the Earth, and for the plants that live upon it. In the present case, governments are held to represent not only the people, i.e., the exploiters and destroyers of the Earth, but also the entity that is being destroyed! They are the representatives of the plaintiff and the defendants all at the same time! Government is the judge, the jury, and both sets of legal counsel — it is the representative of all.

4. Mysticism as the Basis for the Earth-Rights Doctrine

If this all sounds a bit mystical, that it because the philosophy of environmentalism is pure mysticism. The essence of the philosophy is that nature has inherent value — not value to any particular conscious beings, but value in and of itself — value divorced from any valuer. It rests on the fantasy that there can exist value without a valuer, will without a mind, desires and interests without consciousness, and representation without consent.

In his inaugural Mother Earth Day speech to the UN, President Morales noted that environmental destruction is "offensive to the many faiths, wisdom traditions and indigenous cultures for whom Mother Earth is sacred." In doing so he explicitly appealed to faith, not reason, as the standard of moral judgment. Those in the UN did not object to this invocation of mysticism as a basis for their resolutions. Rather, they passed his resolution for Mother Earth Day unanimously, setting the stage for the present UN draft treaty.

It is difficult to make satire of something like this, because the supporters of this proposition have already done the job for us. Those who dream up UN treaties to establish a "Ministry for Mother Earth" are the kinds of people who mistakenly thought that Orwell was writing an instruction manual, not a work of dystopian fiction.[13] The notion that governments should "represent" the will and interests of a giant ball of minerals with no mind or desires is the outcome of environmentalist philosophy in action. It is as absurd as a ficus tree running for Congress, or a barrister attempting to take instructions from a blade of grass.

Happy Mother Earth Day, citizen! Now bow down to the almighty state in celebration!


[1] United Nations, "General Assembly proclaims 22 April 'International Mother Earth Day,'" April 22, 2009. See the UN homepage for Mother Earth Day.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steven Edwards, "UN Resolution Looks to Give 'Mother Earth' Same Rights as Humans," National Post, April 11, 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), pp. 320–28.

[6] Ibid, p. 320.

[7] For discussion on this issue, as applied to the question of animal rights, see Tibor R. Machan, "Why Animal Rights Don't Exist" (Strike the Root, 2004). For a contrary position, discussing the argument from marginal cases, see David Graham, "A Libertarian Replies to Tibor Machan's 'Why Animal Rights Don't Exist'" (Strike the Root, 2004). For a rejoinder to this and other arguments, see Shawn E. Klein, "The Problem of Animal Rights" (The Atlas Society, 2004).The issue of moral obligations to conscious nonrational beings (e.g., animals) and rights accruing to those beings is beyond the scope of the present paper and is more involved than we have space for here. What is relevant here is that nonconscious beings cannot accrue rights or moral obligations.

[8] We know this because we know that consciousness is generated by the brain, and we know that trees do not have brains.

[9] The concept of "flourishing" does not require consciousness, and so this does not constitute a stolen concept. The concept of flourishing merely requires objective recognition of the fact that there is a natural continuum of states of a living organism that determine whether it is close to or far away from being dead (ignoring external circumstances). A healthy plant is, in this sense, more alive (i.e., further from death) than a wilting plant, and hence we can correctly say that the former is "flourishing."

[10] It is certainly true that the Earth is composed of things, some of which are living. A thing is "living" if it is engaged in a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action, and this is true of a great many things existing on Earth. Trees grow and develop through their own action, using nutrients that they collect themselves from the soil and rain, as does other plant life. Since the Earth is composed, in part, of living plant life, as well as a great deal of nonliving matter, it can, in some sense, be thought of as a "living system," so long as it is understood that this refers merely to an entity composed, in part, of living things that interact with one another. Though the Earth orbits around the sun and its parts change, with many powerful chemical reactions occurring inside its core, it is not accurate to say that the planet itself is engaged in self-generated, self-sustaining action. Rather, its parts act, and the Earth as a whole is acted upon. Living things on the planet are engaged in self-generated action, but the planet itself it essentially a big ball of nonliving materials (covered relatively sparsely with living things) being hurled around the solar system by the gravitational pull of the Sun. To say that the Earth itself is a living thing is either false, or it is just an imprecise shorthand way of saying that the Earth is an entity composed, in part, of smaller living things.

[11] Whether or not animals have rights rests, in large part, on something called the "argument from marginal cases." This argument grounds animal rights in their alleged analogy to damaged humans (e.g., a severely mentally disabled person who cannot understand abstract ideas). It argues that consistency requires either the acceptance of animal rights or the rejection of rights for certain kinds of "marginal" humans. However, there are good nonarbitrary reasons to distinguish between the two cases. Animals are beings that, even in the normal course of their development, cannot abstract sufficiently to understand moral principles. Disabled humans are beings that, in the normal course of their development would be able to do this, but unfortunately cannot, because they have been damaged in some way. They nonetheless belong to the class of beings that, if they develop normally, can understand moral principles. For discussion see Machan (2004), Graham (2004), and Klein (2004).

[12] At a UN summit in 2008, prior to Evo Morales's successful enactment of Mother Earth Day at the UN, representatives of Morales and the Bolivian government distributed a pamphlet stating their "ten commandments" and setting out the government's plan to save the planet, "beginning with the need 'to end with capitalism.'" See Edwards (2011).

[13] See George Orwell, 1984 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949). In this book, the collectivist totalitarian society of Oceania operates through bodies such as the Ministry of Truth (responsible for the propagation of lies), the Ministry of Plenty (responsible for rationing goods), the Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), and the Ministry of Love (responsible for brainwashing and torture).


Contact Ben O'Neill

Dr. Ben O’Neill is a statistician and economist.