Earth Jurisprudence

We don’t organize the land, the land organizes us

by Mike Bell

Arrow Lake | Photo: ©Andy S

The term Earth Jurisprudence means Earth laws. When most of us think about laws we tend to think about human laws. But human laws generally do not recognize Earth as having its own laws. Our environmental laws for the most part are designed to determine and perhaps limit the amount of damage we can do to Earth or to the environment.

I discovered Earth Law when in 1980 our family moved to Baffin Island in the high Arctic. I was hired as superintendent of social services for the Baffin region. When I first got there I thought of land as “real estate.” But later when I flew around to the thirteen communities to discuss our services, I learned something else.

I would be in community meetings and, with the help of an Inuktitut interpreter, trying to get feedback on our services. Inevitably the elders would get up and say, “Learn from the land.” In every community they would repeat their mantra. I realized they weren’t talking about real estate. They were talking about something else, something that was living.

A few years later, I opened my consulting firm in the Northwest Territories. On one occasion I was asked to help a Dene community develop their own land claim. Southern corporations were trying to move in and access their carbon resources.

The first morning we had a discussion about how they wanted to protect and organize their land. The discussion was getting nowhere. At one point during the coffee break an elder came to me and said, “Mike, sorry about the confusion. This discussion about organizing the land was difficult for us. In our culture we don’t organize the land. The land organizes us.”

In the 1990s, in the run-up to the creation of Nunavut, the Inuit homeland in the high Arctic, there was a great deal of discussion about laws. Here is a comment from Inuit elder Mariano Aupilaarjuk:

“We are told today that Inuit never had laws or maligait (“things that have to be followed”). Why? Because they are not written on paper. When I think of paper I think you can tear it up and the laws are gone. The maligait of the Inuit are not on paper. They are inside peoples’ heads and they will not disappear or be torn to pieces. Even if a person dies, the maligait will not disappear. It is part of a person. It is what makes a person strong.”

The first time I heard the term “Earth Jurisprudence” was in 2000 at a Gaia Foundation workshop in Virginia. The conference opened with Thomas Berry outlining the basic principles of an Earth Jurisprudence. Here they are. (I’ve taken some steps to simplify the language.)

  1. The planet Earth is a single community. Earth, the human species and the other-than-human species have rights.
  2. Rights originate from where existence originates. The fact that something comes into existence gives it the right to exist.
  3. The natural world and its species get their rights from the same place humans get their rights – from the universe that brought them into existence.
  4. The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. As subjects, the members of the Earth community are capable of having rights.
  5. Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to exist, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing process of the Earth.
  6. All rights are species-specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights.
  7. Rights must be seen within the context of the laws guiding the natural world and the Earth community. Every member of the community is dependent upon every other member for what it needs for its own survival and nourishment. This mutual nourishment includes predator-prey relationships.
  8. Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other species or components of
  9. Human rights and laws flow from the rights of Earth and its laws. Humans do not give rights to Earth. Earth gives rights to us humans through the universe by bringing us into existence.
  10. In a special manner, humans have a right to have the natural world provide the wonder we need for human intelligence, the beauty we need for human imagination, and the intimacy we need for human emotions.

A sense of direction

There is an old story about a young couple out for a drive who get lost. They stop in a gas station to ask for directions. The attendant comes out, they tell him where they want to go and ask him for directions. He pauses for a moment, looks down the road and says, “You can’t get there from here.”

Getting to an Earth Jurisprudence is much like that. You can’t simply decide to take the usual route – using our current jurisprudence systems and laws that prioritize property and domi-nance, in the hope that they will lead us to an Earth Jurisprudence system. We are earthlings. We must accept this reality. It is Earth Jurisprudence that must govern the creation of our legal systems.

What I was told from an Elder at one time,
First there needs to be land.
When there is land it allows people to be there.
When there is land and people then it becomes a culture;
A culture forms out of that.
When you have land, people and culture,
You’ll need a way of governing yourself.
—Ray Warden, Ktunaxa Nation, Ktunaxa Nation: Building From Their Vision, Centre for First Nations Governance, 2012.

Scientists tell us that the Earth came into existence about four billion years ago. From that time to now, the living Earth has created us and other species. We have all depended upon Earth for our continued existence through the process of evolution. More recently with the development of neoliberal economic systems, we humans have begun to determine which species and resources will exist for our benefit, and which will not.

Today, climate change is threatening our continued existence. Many of our human laws are complicit in this situation. It is imperative that we stop what we are doing and instead introduce laws that develop and sustain a mutually enhancing relationship between ourselves and Earth.

We do need to adapt some of our current systems for the short term – but we must also introduce Earth Laws. Communities all over the world are engaged in this Earth Jurisprudence effort. It is a difficult struggle – we find ourselves existing between two worlds – but it is possible.

Mike Bell is co-ordinator of the Comox Valley Climate Change Network.

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