Earth Jurisprudence - Earth Law

Photograph by Will BaxterEarth Jurisprudence or Earth Law recognises that Earth is the source of laws which govern life. This requires our human community to comply with these laws, for the well-being of the whole Earth Community and future generations. This is how indigenous peoples from across our planet have lived for millennia.

Earth Jurisprudence or Earth law recognises Earth as the primary source of law which sets human law in a context which is wider than humanity. This is to say that human law should be derived from the laws which govern life - it is secondary to Earth law. Earth Law acknowledges that the good of the whole takes precedence over the good of the individual elements. Thus the way we govern ourselves needs to embody an ethical code of practice which requires us to live according to Nature's laws, for the well-being of the whole Earth Community and future generations of all species.

Origin of Earth Jurisprudence

Thomas Berry

Earth Jurisprudence is the term first proposed by cultural historian Thomas Berry to name this philosophy of governance and law which recognises that Earth, not human interest, is primary. It acknowledges that humans are born into an ordered and lawful Universe, to whose laws we need to comply if we are to be a benign presence on Earth.

Thomas Berry called for a transformation of human behaviour from a destructive to a mutually enhancing presence on Earth, and a re-alignment from human-centred to Earth-centred governance. Thomas reminded us of our humble place on Earth.

Earth Community is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. Thomas Berry, The Great Work 1999

Our planet Earth in its present mode of florescence is being devastated. This devastation is being fostered and protected by legal, political and economic establishments that exalt the human community while offering no protection to the non-human modes of being. There is an urgent need for a Jurisprudence (system of governance) which recognizes that the well-being of the integral world community is primary, and that human well-being is derivative - an Earth Jurisprudence. Thomas Berry

The many interrelated crises, which we are living through now - from mass species extinction to climate change and social and economic inequity - are the result of an alarming breach in human principles of governance over the last few centuries, where law has been used to legitimise social and ecological destruction. Short-term human interests, fuelled by an insatiable drive to accumulate money and power, have been enshrined in law in total disregard for the well-being of the larger Earth Community. This is reflected by the fact that in 1886 corporations were granted the same rights as individuals, without reciprocal responsibilities. However, the rights of other Living Beings have not been recognised.

Earth Jurisprudence provides the foundation for restoring a mutually enhancing relationship between humanity and Nature. It calls on humans to fulfill their responsibilities to the wider Earth Community - to maintain the health of the Earth as a whole and all the different species living on Earth. As Thomas Berry pointed out, Nature herself and indigenous peoples who live according to their traditional systems of ecological governance, are sources of inspiration. Earth Jurisprudence gives a name to the philosophy which is embodied in indigenous customs and norms around the world which has been universally practised over centuries as a way of life. This includes the ancestral traditions of Europe, such as the Greeks and the Celts.

However, the challenge we face now is how we deal with the globally dominant industrial belief in endless economic growth, with all its lethal consequences for the social and ecological integrity of the Earth.

Within this context, Thomas Berry drafted 'Ten Principles of Earth Jurisprudence', expressed in terms of rights, which he believed should be recognised in national constitutions and courts of law. The need to recognise rights emerges when there is a violation. Human Rights is a response to the violation of people, and children's rights to the violation of children. Now the scale of human violation of Nature is such that a movement is rapidly emerging to defend the Rights of Nature and all her species - to be, to habitat and to continue to participate in the evolutionary process.

In 2009, Gaia and Schumacher College held an Earth Jurisprudence Retreat for practitioners working with communities to revive Earth Jurisprudence, to distil shared principles and practices and co-evolve strategies for the future. After much debate, participants agreed to use 'Earth Law' as well as Earth Jurisprudence to increase accessibility to the approach, and reflect that Earth is the primary source of law.

Earth Law requires a shift in human consciousness

~ Earth is the primary source of law

We humans in industrialised societies have forgotton that we are born into an ordered and lawful Universe. Our Earth is a Living Being with an amazing capacity to self-regulate and maintain the conditions for life consistently over time. Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old, while we humans are a mere flicker in the evolution of Earth, only appearing 1 million years ago. This means that we depend on all the evolutionary processes that have come before us.

From the lawfullness of our Earth we understand that all life is sacred, meaning that the Earth has an intrinsic right to be and to exist. Every element of Earth has a role to play in contributing to the health and integrity of the whole Earth Community. No one species has the right to decide to exterminate other species if they are not 'useful' to them.

Earth Law recognises that human governance systems must be derived from and comply with the laws of Earth. It recognises that we have a moral responsibility towards our Earth and all forms of life on Earth. Our correct relationship with Earth is essential for the integrity of the web of life - including our own lives.

The Earth's laws are non-negotiable. Breaching Earth's laws to self-regulate and enhance diversity will lead to devastating consequences, as we see from the multiple crises we now face globally - climate change, sixth mass extinction of species, ecosystem collapse, human inequity and more.

If you violate the Earth's laws you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and hangman.Luther Burbank, botanist

~ Humans are part of a wider Earth Community

We humans are part of the web of life - the wider Earth Community of trees, rivers, animals, rocks and all beings including those not yet born. Earth is the source of life for all beings. Humans are dependent on Earth for our survival, culture, food, wellbeing, livelihoods and governance systems, as are all other living creatures with whom we share our planet. Our role is to participate in a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth and her communities.

However, those of us in the modern industrial world have become increasingly disconnected from this reality, as Einstein laments:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. We now experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in her beauty.Albert Einstein

As Einstein indicates, once we are able to reconnect to this reality - the web of life of which we are an inextricable part - we will feel the consequences of our actions should we violate any aspect of life.

Indigenous societies have evolved complex cultural practices to keep connected to this reality. Rites of passage throughout life, seasonal rituals, customs and norms all reinforce the need to comply with the laws of the Earth, and to be alert to the consequences of destablising our source of life.

~ Earth Law is a way of life

Earth Jurisprudence is a living culture and puts life into otherwise dry concepts.Thiong'o Ng'ang'a, Earth Law advocate, Kenya

Earth Jurisprudence or Earth Law is not written law but it is fundamentally a way of life.

By 'widening our circle of compassion' to embrace the complex web of life - which gives us life - our perspective changes. We understand that any act which violates life, violates ourselves. This gives us the incentive to learn the laws which govern life, to become 'eco-literate'.

Indigenous peoples demonstrate how it is possible to live Earth Law. As they say, the 'laws of life are written in the heart' when, from a young age, we live and learn how we are part of a bigger whole. This is how we learn to feel that the violation of Earth, "our Mother'', or any of her children, is a violation of ourselves too.

The sacred territory of the Sierra Nevada since time immemorial has been the foundation of our culture. It contains the laws and the symbols that determine our way of thinking and our identity. We should all comply with these norms and laws to safeguard the Universe.

The idea of ancestral custodians of the territory is based on knowledge about everything that lives in the territory. In other words, Nature teaches us how to live in harmony. Nature is an open book where we learn about her stories and past, and this is what our children and future generations will learn.

That same knowledge allows us to remember the role of our ancestors. The real meaning of each individual's life and their mission as a human responsible for caring for the planet is threatened when the sense of responsibility is abandoned.

Mama Jacinto, Kogi Indian of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

As the Kogi indigenous people say - once we lose or abandon the sense of responsibility for ourselves and the larger Earth Community of which we are a part, the integrity of life becomes threatened. Indigenous communities around the planet have developed lores and customs which embody the laws of the Earth. This has enabled them to live in the same territory for thousands of years, enhancing rather than undermining their ecosystems. Those who have not followed this pattern have disappeared. The impact of the industrial world on our life support system has literally unravelled the web of life in just 200 years. We are learning that the laws of life are in fact non-negotiable.

This is why Thomas Berry stressed that the most urgent work for the industrial world is to learn from indigenous peoples and Nature herself, as sources of inspiration for transforming the way we conduct our lives and understand law.

Evolution of Earth Jurisprudence

Inspired by Thomas Berry, Gaia Foundation and our partners, the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), Navdanya in India and the COAMA Programme in Colombia, have been working with indigenous peoples to revive and practice their governance systems which are rooted in Earth Law. This process has become known as Community Ecological Governance (CEG). Now we are exploring ways to secure recognition of customary governance systems in written law, in order to protect the integrity and resilience of diverse cultures and their territories.

Thomas Berry's call for an Earth Jurisprudence also inspired Cormac Cullinan, a South African lawyer, to propose the idea of Wild Law to introduce Earth Jurisprudence principles into the legal system. Cormac wrote a book Wild Law, with the support of the Gaia Foundation, which was published in 2002 in time for the Peoples Earth Summit. See Earth Law Precedents for legal instruments, cases and strategies which recognise Earth Law principles.

Find out more about the History of Earth Law.


Our Work

Gaia has been encouraging the development of Earth Jurisprudence or Earth Law since Thomas Berry first proposed the idea in 1999. At the time he distinguished between the Great Jurisprudence of the Universe and Earth Jurisprudence for Earth. Over the last decade we have been nurturing a global interdisciplinary and intercultural network of communities, organizations, individuals and policy makers in Africa, Latin America, India, the United States and Europe to explore and develop these ideas.

Our main focus has been in Africa, the Amazon, and India where Earth Law underpins traditional systems of governance. Together with these communities we have been working to revive their customary governance systems rooted in Earth Law, and find ways to open space in industrialised legal systems for their recognition. We are also working with partners in Sweden and the UK to explore ways of evoking traditions that have been forgotten for a long period of time. This journey has affirmed that Earth Law is rooted in personal ethics and nurtured through social customs. More recently, there are initiatives to translate the practice of Earth Law into written law in order to recognise the essential laws of life as legally binding and non-negotiable. There is now a global movement of advocates practising and promoting Earth Law in many different ways.

Some of our initiatives:

- We accompany partners working with indigenous communities to revive their indigenous knowledge and customary governance systems rooted in Earth Law, and advocate for their recognition in written law. Together we work to recognise networks of sacred sites and territories, and thereby strengthen resilience of ecosystems and communities, locally and globally, for present and future generations.

For example, we are accompanying the Mupo Foundation to protect their sacred sites network in Venda, South Africa, by developing local constitutions and documenting their Law of Origin which lays down the principles to protect sacred sites networks; applying for court interdicts to stop inappropriate and illegal development; and applying for legal registration of networks of sacred sites.

- We work to establish Earth Law precedents, which translate principles of Earth Jurisprudence into written law. These precedents recognise the essential laws of life as legally binding and non-negotiable. They also recognise the rights of Nature and future generations, and our responsibilities to maintain the health and integrity of the Earth Community. Gaia provides legal and advocacy support to partners in developing local precedents, which can be drawn on and contribute to the development of a body of Earth Laws regionally and internationally.

Visit Earth Law Precedents for examples, including the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, proposed crime of Ecocide, and proposed Declaration of Planetary Boundaries.

- We provide experiential learning opportunities and related materials. We promote Earth Law by facilitating intercultural learning exchanges, developing a range of publications and training materials, co-organising workshops, giving presentations to universities and schools, and hosting Earth Jurisprudence study and practice groups. Many of these learning materials are accessible through our Earth Law Library. Our aim is to nurture a generation of Earth lawyers and activists.

- We support alliances advocating for the wider Earth Community. We promote common campaigns and strengthening of alliances and collaboration in order to build a critical mass for change. Gaia participates in many alliances, including the African Biodiversity Network, CEG-Global Alliance, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, Wild Law UK and Alliance for Future Generations (UK). We are also connected with allies and initiatives in the U.S. and Australia. Visit the Map of the Earth Law Network for more information.