This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 24th October 2023
The last male northern white rhinoceros died in a zoo in 2018, aged 45. With him vanished all hope of saving the species from extinction. In a desperate attempt to save the northern white, scientists have extracted eggs from the last surviving females that are currently being stored in liquid nitrogen awaiting a suitable proxy mother. If successful, the project might result in the world’s first “test-tube” rhinos.
So what, you might ask. We are already approaching a point where the remaining rhinos left in the world will soon be those living truncated lives in zoos, safari parks and farms. Why, amid an unfolding sixth mass extinction, does one species even matter?
Extinction, according to author Peter Marren, represents “the sharp end of a slow bleeding of biodiversity”. The decline is incremental for a long time, until the scale of loss reaches an irreversible tipping point beyond which a species cannot recover. And while the herculean effort to save the northern white rhino seems like a strange form of exceptionalism, the reality is that the threats to this animal mirror the ethical challenge we face as we progressively annihilate thousands of other species.
Legal measures can protect threatened flora and fauna, but only to a degree. Environmental law is currently based on the premise that environmental harms, or pollution, should be minimised and regulated, but not outlawed as a matter of principle. Human “needs” – for land and resources – supercede the needs and interests of other species. Designated habitats that get extra protection must first be sites of scientific interest, with “special” protections afforded to select species.
Despite a vast body of legal requirements and directives, habitat and biodiversity loss in Ireland is accelerating, and a shocking 80 per cent of habitats across the EU are in “poor status”. Addressing the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in 2022, Prof Tasman Crowe of UCD warned that the loss of biodiversity is “gradual and localised” and likened the vulnerability of ecosystems to an airplane held together by many rivets. “If you lose enough rivets or key rivets, the airplane will crash.”
In practice, we have been treating nature as a dumping ground for waste or as a resource to be extracted, not as a home we share with thousands of other species. Habitats are fragmented and polluted by chemicals, urbanisation, run-off and monocultures of sitka spruce, ryegrass and asphalt. Even designated sites in Ireland with special protections have been neglected to the point that 85 per cent of them are in an unfavourable condition.
As we now start to experience the effects of this damage ourselves in terms of deteriorating environmental quality, there are growing calls for a right to a clean environment to be introduced into the Constitution, building on the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Climate Case Ireland. According to the Irish Climate Bar Association, an explicit right would protect both people and biodiversity by giving citizens a legal right to have their biodiversity protected.
There is another way to think about our relationship with the natural world that is grounded on the principle of reciprocity and interdependence, and respect. There is a growing realisation that modernisation and colonialism have led to a catastrophic rupture in the relationship between humans and the natural world. In a remarkable interview recorded in 2021 with the New York Times, the writer Richard Powers speaks of the “scales falling off his eyes” as he started to reconnect with trees and old-growth forests, finding that his “sense of meaning was shifting from something that was entirely about me and authored by me outward into this more collaborative, reciprocal, interdependent, exterior place that involved not just me but all of these other ways of being that I could make kinship with”.
This idea of reciprocity between humans and the rest of the natural world could be the basis for recognising the rights of nature to be protected, not as a natural resource, but for its own intrinsic worth. The Magpie river in Canada, for example, was granted the right to be regarded as a legal “person” in 2021, and a number of countries have recognised the rights of nature in their constitutions. In practice, this means that citizens can take action on nature’s behalf in court. The idea is that, in a legal sense, we treat nature as a rights-bearing entity rather than as property. The idea of inserting rights to nature in the Irish Constitution was one of the things discussed recently when legal experts addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action.
It is time to move beyond the paradigm of mastery and control over nature to a recognition of our interdependence with other creatures. We are one of many, many neighbours on this fragile planet.