Environmental Law Is Losing the Plot. What Now?

Environmental laws codify our right to kill. They sanctify our mechanical and chemical warfare against systems that sustain life. They enable the undoing of the formation of a unique and irreplaceable living world. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution can be spoiled in the time it takes to print a pile of paper.

Enabled by laws, businesses impose cattle ranching on public lands. They stamp out savannahs and woodlands for feed crops. They’re still drilling sensitive ecosystems for oil and gas; they’re still exploding mountains for coal. They’re wrecking sacred places, even mining the ocean floor, seeking metals and minerals for electric vehicle components. Roads proliferate. Drivers come and go, spreading fumes, rubber, microplastics, and oil as they move.

The Endangered Species Act nods begrudgingly to nonprofits that scrimp and save up for their last-minute flurries of activity, usually to save a single species, and sometimes after the fact. Intermittent pauses in the human plundering project take years to apply, case by case. In contrast, billions of dollars for murderous, ecocidal wars and occupations are fast-tracked and shepherded behind the political scenes.

Meanwhile, we go forth and multiply…

And we compound our going-forth and our multiplication through the purpose-breeding of other animals.

And in our sprawling cities, towns, and animal husbandry operations, we create a standard of living that’s well beyond our due. Some scientists call this overshoot. Some politicians have noticed it, too, but they are considered outliers by the self-styled masters of the political world.

As for humanity as a whole, our exploitive treatment of nonhuman life is suffocating oceans, damaging atmospheric systems, and driving an extinction crisis. Two of every five known amphibian communities are at risk of disappearing forever. We’re trafficking bees at staggering rates in international commerce, yet neglecting indigenous bees at the brink of collapse. There’s an urgent need for political work that moves our energies and our subsidies from animal agribusiness to animal-respecting agriculture. In other words, to support systems based on growing food—not grazing, not feed.

Can nonhuman rights make environmental law more powerful? Could nonhuman rights—not based on iconic species but rather for interconnected, untamed communities—bring about a humanity that could ever hope to honestly call itself sustainable? That is the question.

To be meaningful, nonhuman rights must be culture-shifting. But legal rights operate within human-created systems—infusing nonhuman rights with an inherent contradiction.

The idea of animal liberation has deeper, broader potential, as animal liberation is a challenge to human supremacy. Liberation suggests we stop confining, tormenting, and purpose-breeding others. That we control ourselves to the point of respecting other living communities’ habitats and their collective evolution. That we interrogate our imperious attitude that other-than-human beings (and any “human animals”) are, literally, fair game.

What will it take to transcend our deadly system?

The law fails to do what people aren’t ready to do. Yet Earth’s living communities can’t wait. They urgently need us to change. Whether we, the ultimate crafters of social hierarchies, acknowledge it or not, we can never alienate ourselves from the nature we destroy. So, what are we doing to reconcile ourselves to it?

Nothing I learned as a law student pressed this point. Nor did I find environmental law confronting our self-assigned prerogative to breed other animals to suit our whims.

In contrast, the animal-liberation principle can and does ask us to stop selectively breeding animals out of nature and into a controllable state.

If we, person to person, could work with what we have and challenge every form of master class on Earth, we might have a chance at…everything. From the resurrection of the coral reefs to the safety of our own flesh and bones. Lawyers can’t do this. Maybe writers and activists can.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.