Lethal Legacy of Shame
An Environmental Article from All-Creatures.org


Ed Duvin, The Greanville Post
September 2016

Why is nature itself, the sustainer of all life, accorded no civilizational respect or legal consideration?

If human rights are amorphous, who anointed us with entitlement to exploit Nature and her beings with impunity?

decapitated mountains
Decapitated mountains—the global signature of an arrogant breed on a collision course with nature.

Ed. Note: If the boundary of rights is drawn exclusively rather than inclusively, then there is also no issue of “wrongs.” In Western Christian tradition, animals have almost definitely been on the outside of the boundary. More recently, that exclusion has been questioned, and to some extent revised. However, when it comes to non-animals the idea of including the land and sea as deserving of rights is still largely seen as preposterous. One of the up hill battles in all of this is the commodification of all life forms, and the propertyizing of all space – conversion of all “space” to property. [In the United States, there was an assumption of land ownership by the Tribes, but this was conflicted by the fact that the people were not considered “people” and therefore had no “rights” to the land. So in order to construct a legal fiction within the framework of existing law, they created what was called “the doctrine of discovery.” Essentially this meant that the federal government held right to all lands not already converted to private property. The government would then, at its discretion and necessitating the removal of the indigenous occupants, cession “federal” land permanently into “private” property. This process was one of the primary legal maneuvers of “manifest destiny.”] Ed Duvin explores the parameters and ramifications of the issue of “rights” in the following essay. —Rowan Wolf


In social justice and other realms of discourse, the lexicon is often freely bandied about absent a firm foundation. The word “rights” serves as a quintessential illustration, as it is subject to a myriad of interpretations. Despite the efforts of great thinkers from Hobbes to Kant, an explicit definition of this crucial word remains elusive, and yet it is central to the attainment of social justice.

There are many challenges to the very concept of rights being applied as a moral barometer, and I’ll note just a mere fraction of complexities involved. Moral relativists believe rights aren’t fixed, but contingent on historical, societal, and multiple other factors. A “right” in a given culture might not be applicable/just in another setting.

Indeed, moral relativists posit the argument that there are no universal rights as we know them, citing the pronounced variances between nations with different political systems. Are higher education, medical care, housing, and adequate nutrition rights? Not in the land of the free and home of the brave, but we do have the sacred right to bear arms.

Another related challenge is predicated on epistemological grounds, as the inherently subjective nature of rights thereby distinguishes human from moral rights. Laws can legitimize everything from capital punishment to war to Walmart heirs possessing the wealth of the bottom 40% of the populace, but that right doesn’t speak to morality. Kant tried to address these thorny issues in his “categorical imperative,” but to the satisfaction of relatively few.

This preface raises a salient question: If human rights are amorphous, who anointed us with entitlement to exploit Nature and her beings with impunity? Moreover, given the abhorrent manifestations of American exceptionalism, why is it widely practiced by progressives vis--vis ecosystems and our nonhuman family? If Homo sapiens arbitrarily assume dominion over other species and the Earth itself, is that not another egregious form of exceptionalism? Of course it is, but woefully few progressives have connected the dots, as ideology does not immunize one from myopia.

What is this “superiority” based on that gives us license to use the natural world for our self-serving purposes? Is it our sterling egalitarian record since the earliest human beginning in the Paleolithic era? Those who make their way through Will and Ariel Durant’s 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization, a masterful work, essentially see a portrait of a progressively flawed species wreaking havoc along their evolutionary path. The historical record of Homo sapiens transcends the obvious limitations of mortals struggling to find their way, as more often than not it reflects the excesses of a damaged species.

deepwater horizon explosion
The infamous Deepwater Horizon explosion, an inferno in the Gulf, which could have been avoided. Why was this enormous, complex, and unique network of life accorded no rights whatsoever?

That damage is often buffered with euphemisms, and thus we refer to the most indefensible aberrations as forms of prejudice. In fact, these “prejudices” emanate from a disease of the spirit that has plagued humankind virtually from its inception—resulting in an ocean of blood flowing from countless innocents. Yet, despite the surreal carnage, our species presumes to have evolved to a position of ascendancy over the natural world, when in fact we have devolved into an imminent threat to the sustainability of life.

pelican covered in oil
Corporate criminality in industrial accidents damaging the environment and causing the death of untold numbers of non-human animals is never prosecuted.

In our blind ignorance and arrogance, we’ve raped the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components that constitute healthy ecosystems, while pouring trillions into Big Pharma, the medical behemoth, and all the human-made “cures” for our largely self-inflicted wounds. Biodiversity is under attack with an increasing loss of species, while few decry this irreplaceable loss of balance and beauty. Animals, several of whom share virtually the same DNA as Homo sapiens, are mere “property” to be used for entertainment, sport, food, clothing, and the like. Old-growth forests are clear-cut with mindless abandon. Deforestation continues unabated, even in the vital tropical rainforests. Global warming has drawn attention, but not urgency. In brief, we’re rushing to matricide with pathological disregard.

We have not only made a mockery of our own plastic constructs, but in turning narcissism and hubris into an art form, we’ve likely inflicted irreversible injury to the very support systems that give us life. It is true that Homo sapiens have to traverse uncharted territory, lacking ideal pathways to guide us through a tortured and confused world, but we have transformed that challenge into a travesty. We have not only trampled on each other and ourselves, but the unsurpassed wisdom contained in Nature.

After all these millenniums, our nonhuman family—absent any legal or moral standing—is still chattel to be used and abused, and the natural world is dying as I pen this lament. Yet, it remains business as usual, with humankind—completing the circle from which this article began—still believing it has the moral right to destroy Nature and other life forms at will. Spinoza spoke of the natural world and his “god” as one and the same, profoundly humbled by Nature’s “magic show” where even single-cell organisms are integral to its interwoven tapestry. The sine qua non is that we are unraveling that tapestry of life, seemingly unconcerned that we are drowning at the hands of self-absorbed folly.

Could we and our ancestors not see the nourishment provided by the sagacious rhythms of Nature’s dance, a dance that elevates us to a richer perspective from which to calibrate our moral compass. Everything we know, and infinitely more, is contained within the dynamic interactions that reveal her balance, interdependence, and splendor. She gave birth to us and sustains that life, but even those of us who profess to honor her are guilty of benign neglect. We have become a species of ecological outlaws, and yet we ponder why we have a world gone mad that brutally ravages our own Mother.

oceans rivers polluted
While multiplying like mindless bacteria, we have made our oceans and rivers a dumping ground for our offal.

As progressives who knew or should have known better, perhaps we bear the greatest culpability for allowing the cancer to metastasize. Some of us tried to sound the alarm, but our efforts were insufficient to penetrate the apathy. Stated succinctly, we failed. Now the clock is ticking louder, but more progressives are debating the sorrowful spectacle of the greater evil between a political hack to whom integrity is a foreign word and a coarse bigot—a cartoon character whose very stability is in question. We give lip service to Jill Stein, but infinitely more ink to Trump and Clinton. Shame on us all.

A lifelong social justice activist, Ed Duvin serves as Editor-at-Large for The Greanville Post and also as a member of the editorial board. His writings—often controversial—on politics, philosophy, and questions relating to the morality of human interactions with animals and nature have inspired generations of activists in the US and abroad. His characteristically low-key contributions to the humane movement, in particular, have been significant. In 1989, he wrote a landmark article that ignited the “no-kill” movement among humane societies. Until then, most shelters just gave animals a brief reprieve for adoption prior to being euthanized. Today, most shelters—not just in the US and developed nations—have banned euthanasia from their normal practices. Many call him the “movement’s conscience.” Eddie may be reached at [email protected].

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