The argument for recognizing the rights of nature (RoN) is hardly new—the late Christopher Stone first made the case for granting legal rights to environmental entities in 1972. Beginning with a 2006 RoN ordinance in the United States and an Ecuadoran constitutional amendment in 2008, the movement for the rights of nature has recently caught fire. This is the puzzle driving Craig Kauffman and Pamela Martin’s research in their book The Politics of the Rights of Nature. Why has the RoN movement gained so much momentum in the past two decades, and what accounts for the “salience” and unexpected diffusion of the RoN norm? To address these questions, Kauffman and Martin employ a sophisticated mixed methodological approach, including case studies and several years of fieldwork in five of the six countries they profile. Beyond interviews and surveys, they engaged in comparative historical analysis, process tracing, and social network analysis to explore the emergence and diffusion of RoN.
Kauffman and Martin contribute to the growing body of literature on RoN, as well as building on existing theories of norm diffusion and contestation. RoN norm emergence challenges leading explanations of norm diffusion, given the independent but “nearly simultaneous” development of RoN norms at multiple levels of government (from local to national). The authors draw on evolutionary biology, using convergent evolution theory, to explain the concurrent development of normatively similar but institutionally distinct RoN legislation. Akin to convergent evolution theory in evolutionary biology, they argue that “functionally similar RoN laws … emerged independently in response to common environmental pressures” (19).
Part of what makes Kauffman and Martin’s work so expansive is their thorough coverage of the major cases of RoN legislation in Ecuador, Bolivia, the United States, and New Zealand, as well as the recent emergence of environmental personhood in India and Colombia. They begin their case study analysis with a most-similar-systems comparison between Ecuador and Bolivia—both of which incorporated RoN clauses into their constitutions after electing left populist leaders who claimed to support the Indigenous communities in their respective countries. Despite similar cultures and socioeconomic structures, Ecuador’s RoN clause flourished, while Bolivia’s 2012 RoN amendment languished to the point of oblivion. In their exploration of Ecuador’s growing body of RoN case law, Kauffman and Martin show how weak RoN laws can be strengthened over time. While the first few RoN cases in Ecuador were unsuccessful—and at least one was met with violent repression—many subsequent cases have met with increasing success. Environmental lawyers have tackled smaller cases to build legal precedent from the ground up. Additionally, Indigenous activists have invoked RoN as a means of biocultural protection.
Meanwhile, Bolivia did not experience the same success. Then-president Evo Morales framed environmental protection as a tool of the colonizer, and “the Bolivian government progressively weakened the legal basis for RoN” (125) over three iterations of the law. With the watering down of RoN constitutional provisions, Indigenous activists rejected RoN as a political frame for recognizing their worldview or achieving their goals, and environmental lawyers have not developed RoN precedents in lawsuits.
By contrast, US RoN jurisprudence developed through the passage of local ordinances and tribal law. There is little political opportunity at the national level, so activists have mobilized to enact RoN at the local level. As Kauffman and Martin note, “in January 2021 there were at least eighty-seven instances in which RoN was recognized in local and tribal law” (163) in the United States. Finally, the authors provide a detailed history of the case of Te Urewera personhood in New Zealand, which mobilized RoN for the purposes of recognizing Maori Tūhoe-iwi (or Tūhoe people) ways of knowing, providing reparations, and transferring responsibility for the forest back to the Tūhoe-iwi. Soon after New Zealand recognized Whanganui River personhood, legal personhood was enacted through the courts for rivers in India, Colombia, and Bangladesh. Kauffman and Martin caution that environmental personhood provides legal standing for a specific environmental entity without the incorporation of Earth Jurisprudence, and because this legal strategy already applies to other legal subjects (like children or corporations), they fear this tool will not achieve RoN goals or environmental protection.
Kauffman and Martin consistently invoke the relationship among Indigenous epistemologies, biocultural survival, and the goals of RoN (when it draws upon Earth Jurisprudence). However, their analysis of Indigenous RoN initiatives could benefit from deeper engagement with Indigenous RoN scholars, Indigenous American political history, and a more explicit discussion of the relationship between tribal RoN initiatives and oil pipeline resistance, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock (Estes 2019; Gilio-Whitaker 2019). Additionally, despite a robust analysis of the Te Urewera personhood case in New Zealand, the Whanganui personhood case was given much less attention, and there is minimal discussion of the evolving Mount Taranaki case. Finally, while the social network analysis, discussed in chapter 2, lends more credence to the authors’ arguments about norm diffusion, it felt unnecessary to build this into an entire chapter. The book may have flowed better by moving the relevant aspects of this analysis to the chapter on political opportunity and caching the remaining tables and network analysis in an appendix.
These minor weaknesses aside, Kauffman and Martin’s ambitious and well-conceived book is a gift to the emerging scholarship on the rights of nature. It would be an excellent primer for activists, source for scholars, or textbook for upper-division undergraduate and graduate students alike—equally useful on a syllabus for teaching about norm diffusion, the international RoN movement, or the profusion of actors in global environmental politics. It is also a sophisticated example of mixed methodologies for anyone looking to engage in comparative historical analysis, social network analysis, or process tracing. Future research can build on this impressive work by engaging in a critical analysis of the theoretical underpinnings of Earth Jurisprudence, examining how US Indigenous usage of RoN has changed with the appointment of the first Indigenous American—Deb Haaland—as secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and ongoing analysis of New Zealand’s personhood cases.