Today, if that healthy man was in Switzerland, some Swiss would think it was an attack on the grass itself. In Ecuador, it may soon get him sued by someone representing the grass. And in Spain, he couldn't wield that stick against an ape because it could bring him to court.
These are all examples of a worldwide trend toward granting animals, plants and even things like streams juridical "rights." Some of the strongest impetus has come from animal-rights activists. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is notorious for advertisements equating eating meat with the Holocaust, the captivity of animals with the slavery of blacks and now asking ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's to use human breast milk rather than cow milk.
But PETA's revision of nature's moral standing is beginning to spread to the law.
Spain will soon grant rights to life and freedom to all 350 apes there, making it a penal violation to keep apes for experimentation, circuses, television commercials and filming, among other things. This effort was initiated through a project started in 1993 by Princeton University professor Peter Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri, who have said the higher primates should be given human rights. Singer is notorious for his statement that parents should have up to three months after the birth of their child to decide whether or not the child should live. Critics have asked instead why bullfighting was not targeted, but supporters said this action is the "tip of the spear" and that other species would soon follow.
The European Court of Human Rights has agreed to hear a case from Austria in which activists want a chimpanzee declared a person. The 26-year-old chimp was a resident in a zoo that went bankrupt. Donors offered to provide for it, but Austrian law only allows persons to receive gifts. Austrian courts rejected the activists' claim and so it was appealed to the ECHR. Analysts believe the court is likely to rule in their favor.
Switzerland has gone further; its constitution now requires that people take account "of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms." Asked to clarify, the country's Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology issued a report calling it morally impermissible to cause arbitrary harm to plant life. It gave this example: If a farmer mows his field, that's OK. However, if in walking back home he used his scythe to lop off some flowers "without rational reason," that wasn't OK. But the committee was split on whether it was wrong because of the farmer's attitude or because he brought harm to the flowers.
Mother Earth's rights
Still, in the annals of environmental law, the constitution that Ecuadorians overwhelmingly approved on Sept. 28 is unprecedented. Never before has a country enshrined fundamental rights for nature as part of its foundational law. The new document reads: "Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments. Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law."
The group most responsible for this language is a little-known public interest law firm in Chambersburg, Pa., called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. It was consulted because it has already helped get similar language into ordinances in several small towns in the United States. An organization spokesman was not available for comment. But a recent press release from the group touts that "Ecuador is now the first country in the world to codify a new system of environmental protection based on rights."
And the release adds that the group "has assisted communities in the U.S. ... to draft and adopt first-in-the-nation laws that change the status of ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities."
In legal terms, these laws are making nature into a juridic person. According to Garrick Small, a professor of property economics at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, giving this personhood to nature "personifies an inanimate thing, or at least a subhuman thing. That resonates with raising the earth, or nature to the stature of at least a human, but more likely to that of a god."
Oddly enough, Ecuador's constitution gives nature the name of Pachamama, which is the name of an Andean goddess that roughly translated means "Mother Earth." Pachamama has "the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." And, according to lawyer and bioethicist Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that researches science and culture, anyone in the world now has the right to bring a lawsuit on behalf of Ecuador's Pachamama or any part of it, like rocks, piranhas or pond scum.
Small, a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, added, "If there was not a creator, then there is probably little ultimate meaning to 'person' as we understand it, and then frogs can be persons." And that, he said "is very close to pantheism."
Catholic teaching is clear that the created order is made by God for our use, but that humans have a responsibility for caring for it. "Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2415).
But efforts to raise nature to a godlike status is dehumanizing.
According to Smith, there is a concerted effort to lose what he calls "human exceptionalism," the idea that humans are unique in all of creation. Human exceptionalism, he said, expresses "the idea that human beings have unique moral value and moral worth. We are the only moral species and the only species that has a concept of rights."
If we are made equal to nature, he said, "then universal human rights go out the window."
"The logical consequences of this law are impossible to comprehend. If nature is a person, then viruses and bacteria are persons as well, since they are part of nature. So what happens then?" Smith said.
Adam and Eve were vegetarians?
A new document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Bible and Morality," points out something surprising from the Book of Genesis: God told Adam and Eve to be strict vegetarians. It was only after the Great Flood that God told Noah, and all humanity, that people could eat meat and fish.
Here are the texts: In Genesis 1:29, God tells Adam and Eve, "I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food." That's it. And then he says that all the earth's animals are supposed to eat only plants, too.
Then in Genesis 9:3, God tells Noah and his sons, "Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants." And he says that "dread fear" of humans will come upon -- apparently for the first time -- all the earth's animals.
The commission's scholars cite the expansion of God's covenant as part of their argument that respect for life in biblical morality "may well go beyond the interests of humanity alone to the point of warranting a new reflection on the preservation of animal and plant species."
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Minnesota.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book "Orthodoxy": "If any human acts may be loosely called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick....The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think the lopping of grass was an attack on private property."