Natural Rights

Does nature have rights? Do human beings have rights to nature’s elemental offerings, such as air, water and food, and do we have a responsibility to protect nature? These questions are central

sdc-160407Silver Donald Cameron’s 18th book, and its accompanying film, applaud the lawyers who fight for Mother Earth

On the eve of Silver Donald Cameron’s 80th birthday, he is embarking on an ambitious tour — of his own making — across Canada to promote warrior-lawyershis 18th book, Warrior Lawyers From Manila to Manhattan, Attorneys for the Earth. In fact, the book is part of a multi-media project: he’s also screening his 90-minute documentary, called Green Rights, the Human Right to a Healthy World, in 11 venues, and is a guest lecturer at 11 universities.

Does nature have rights? Do human beings have rights to nature’s elemental offerings, such as air, water and food, and do we have a responsibility to protect nature? These questions are central to his cross-country blitz.

“Environmental rights represent an incredibly powerful tool that can apply to a huge range of issues,” Cameron says. “The human right to a healthy environment, and Mother Earth’s right to respect and security, are concepts so powerful that they can reshape almost every individual environmental issue: pollution of the air and water, climate change, biodiversity, loss of soil, security of food and energy, and so forth.”

Although environmental rights are embedded in the legal systems of 180 member countries of the United Nations — with examples of successful prosecution accordingly cited in Warrior Lawyers — 13 countries, including Canada and the US, do not recognize these rights. A growing movement in both countries seeks to change that.

“We want to support that struggle by bringing inspiring stories from other countries to Canadian audiences,” says Cameron. “There are innovative legal battles going on around the world in nations such as the Philippines, Argentina, the Netherlands, Ecuador … There are dramas in the courts and on the land, where citizens and lawyers are taking on national governments and global corporations — and winning.”

While storytelling is a key tool for Cameron as an author, it’s also one for environmental activists, leading to education and societal change. John Borrows, a Canadian Anishinaabe legal scholar featured in Warrior Lawyers, points out that Canada’s legal traditions “rest on stories. What are known as ‘cases’ and ‘precedents’ are fundamentally stories, and it is through the process of bringing stories together and negotiating meaning and priority between them that law emerges … the purpose of legal action is not only to seek a favourable decision, but also to tell the story.”

Similarly, Tony Oposa, in the Philippines, regards himself not as a lawyer but rather as a storyteller, using the law to tell stories that the community needs to hear. “If he held a press conference to tell his story,” Cameron writes, “nobody would come — and if they did come, they wouldn’t really pay attention, and the story would soon be forgotten.

“But if he tells the story of the forests and the unborn generations in the form of a lawsuit, influential people will have to listen; the truth of the story will be established by the evidence; there will be an accurate record; and ultimately there will be a decision. And if the suit fails, he can appeal — and the story will be told all over again. A lawsuit undertaken in this spirit cannot really be lost.”

Warrior Lawyers presents interviews with 15 trailblazing lawyers from nine countries, including Canada, as well as an introductory essay by Cameron. Atlantic Books Today sat down with Silver Donald Cameron to learn more about the film, the book, and the man behind them both.

Atlantic Books Today: You say you’re doing this for the future; that you believe the implementation of environmental rights in Canada would make a huge difference to the country’s environmental performance, as it has in many other countries. Can you provide an example of an area here that would improve environmentally?

Silver Donald Cagreen-rightsmeron: In a way, the whole question is one of power: who has the power to decide what kind of water you’ll drink, what kind of air you’ll breathe, what kind of food you’ll eat. Most of us would say, that should be us, we should have the power to make that decision, but we don’t. Take Pictou County, NS, for example, where the water and air have been fouled for 50 years by Northern Pulp. No one can take action on its emissions control except the government. But if you were in say, Argentina, you could sue the government for failing to protect your right to a healthy environment, and you could win. People have been doing that all over the world.

ABT: What specifically started you on this environmental call to arms?

SDC: I’ve been writing about environmental issues since at least 1970 when I was the editor of a little magazine called Mysterious East. Over the years as the news has gotten worse I’ve become more and more concerned about it but also more and more interested in what people are doing about it, which is really what the book and film are about: telling good-news stories, and in this case, saying, well here’s an instrument that Canadians could have, and then we could all be taking care of the environment on our own initiative rather than having to be supplicant to the government to take action on our behalf.

the-living-beachWhen I was researching The Living Beach [Cameron’s 1998 book, which won the Richardson nonfiction prize] I discovered an essay by Southern California law professor Christopher Stone, “Should trees have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” He wrote, say there’s a case of a river that’s polluted and a company upstream is doing the polluting and a town downstream is suffering from it. The town has legal rights and the company has legal rights, but neither one is a real tangible object. The river and all the life forms in and around the river do not have those rights, yet those are real. There’s something deeply absurd about this.

Of course our First Nations have had a reverence and a respect for Mother Nature as part of their philosophy and legal system forever.

ABT: John Borrows says: “If you see the Creator, or the trees, or the waters, or the animals, or people’s own living interactions as being the source of authority — the criteria, the precedent — then you would obviously have another view of where you should look to find law.” Can you reflect on your own sense of spiritualism?

SDC: My father was an atheist, my mother was quite a devout Christian, but over the years I’ve come to see these as being too simple a reading of reality. If you believe that the Earth belongs to the Crown, and the Crown confers ownership to you through a chain of transactions, then the land is property. Whereas if you believe it’s a gift of the Creator, then it’s intrinsically sacred, the whole world is a sacred space, and you have obligations towards it rather than rights over it. That’s a spiritual evolution I’ve gone through, though it takes me back to where the First Nations were in the first place.

ABT: Your conversation with David Boyd indicates that Canadians see themselves as being progressive … more than 90 percent of Canadians think that government should recognize the right to a healthy environment; more than 50 percent of Canadians think it’s already in the Charter. Yet in truth, Canada ranks poorly in international comparisons of environmental performance. What might that tell us?

SDC: I think it tells us that we live in a world with a lot of wishful thinking. People believe they live in a world they don’t actually live in; they believe they have rights that they don’t actually have. There’s a sense that Canadians (and others too) haven’t caught up with the reality that human beings can, on a large scale and permanently, change the course and character of the world around them. Even when I was growing up this is not a concept we would have had in our minds at all. We thought the forest was more or less infinite: you can chop away at it and never wear it out, for example. Now, we know that’s not true.

ABT: You say in Warrior Lawyers that your mother thought you would make a good lawyer; instead you became an author, who has spent a good chunk of time recently interviewing lawyers. Do you feel she would be pleased?

SDC: When she recognized I was a writer she said, “How was I to know you were a writer. I wouldn’t have taken the view of you that I did in some ways if I had known you were an inventor of stories and a teller of tales.” I think the idea of me being someone who interviews and writes about lawyers would amuse her. She was right in thinking that this kind of inquiry and area of intellectual life suited me, though it came to me in a different way. I also think that If I had known then what I know now about what a lawyer can be, I might very well have made a different decision about it.

ABT: How else has publishing this book, along with doing the interviews and producing the documentary, changed you?

SDC: It’s made me a little more ruthless in my thinking about some of these things; I don’t shrink so much from some of the implications. I think very often one starts on a certain path and after a bit you say, “Oh, wait a minute. If I continue to say that, and the implications are x y z, and I’m going to have to change my mind, my outlook and probably my actions.” That’s not often a comfortable place or process, but I think it’s a necessary one, and one I’ve set upon with all this.

ABT: From research through writing, to printing and selling, Warrior Lawyers has been published in-house, by Green Interview Books, an imprint of your company Paper Tiger Enterprises. You note that “there wasn’t time to spend dealing with a publisher.” Can you comment on the urgency?

SDC: We knew the film was going to be finished and released in 2016, and I thought the book should come out at the same time, to be part of the tour—each tells the same stories but in different formats; plus Warrior Lawyers goes into much greater depth into the stories of the individual lawyers. The commercial publishing process is just very slow. Having said that, there are advantages to going that route. Each phase of this project has been so demanding that you couldn’t really think much about the next phase because you are so absorbed in the one you are in. So when I was writing the book I couldn’t think too much about the tour, and so on.

ABT: What books have you read that have left a lasting impression?

SDC: A lot go back to childhood, not that you can’t change later, but the really profound experiences seem to happen earlier. Books like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, which I absolutely loved — all set out in the natural world. And of course sailing stories; I spent a lot of my adult life sailing. One of the things I love about being out at sea is the close encounters with the natural world like whales, or dolphins frolicking in the wake. You see birds out there that you never see on the shore. You and your little boat are immersed in the sea and the sky and the birds and animals that live there. It gives you some sense of proportion.

Farley Mowat’s Sea of Slaughter certainly had a powerful effect on me, as did Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — once again, we had no idea about things. This wonderful pesticide DDT that was doing so many useful things was actually a lethal poison that would start killing birds in the Arctic. Her book dramatically brought that concept into public consciousness — it’s often called the founding book of the environmental movement, which I think is apt.

ABT: Do writers ever retire?

SDC: Well I’m a good one to ask about that I guess! Margaret Laurence thought they should. She had read quite a lot of writers, and felt the work they published after a normal retirement age generally was inferior to what they published before, often devaluing it. So she resolved to stop at about 60, and did. But I kept saying, wait until you see the deterioration. I think she was just getting richer, and deeper, and more subtle, but she didn’t feel that way, and that was her choice.

So some writers do retire, but there are others for whom the experience of the world isn’t complete unless they try to understand it, and the best possible way to understand it is to try to explain it to somebody else, or to tell stories that will reveal it. I think it’s the impulse to reflect on experience, and to share that.

I’ve often said that I became a writer not to make money but to make magic. That was the impulse, to write books that would make people happy, would allow people to see things, would make people laugh, would enrich their lives. Making magic is an addiction. If I thought I was no longer capable of making magic I guess I would quit. But if I’m still enriching people’s lives at 85, I’ll still be doing it at 85.

To find out about Silver Donald Cameron’s publicity tour and speaking engagements across the country, October-November 2016, please go to

Written By

Heather White is a writer and editor based in Halifax, NS.

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