Wild Law in Action: a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights

Abstract from a talk by Polly Higgins at the Gaia Foundation in October 2009. Written by Stephen Frank.

Polly Higgins is an international environmental lawyer, barrister, who advocates the integration of earth jurisprudential principles into global governance systems. In November 2008 she was invited to address the United Nations on the call for a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, the 'hard law' to provide global governance and restoration for the planet. More recently Polly has expanded the declaration into a wider, all encompassing declaration entitled the Universal Declaration of All Beings. This is a 'soft law' declaration, which has come to be more commonly referred to as The People's Declaration. It is a guidance document setting out the values, responsibilities, rights and freedoms for all. It is based on the commonality of all beings, transcending all religions and belief systems. It can be applied individually and collectively, as well as nationally and internationally. In 2008 Polly founded Women in Sustainability and the Environment (WISE), an international network set up to provide a voice for more women in the environmental field. In 2009 she was voted by The Ecologist magazine as 'One of the Top Ten Visionaries to Save the Planet'.

Polly Higgins' political connection with environmental issues began when she was asked to advise on the international legal implications of setting up solar power supergrids in North Africa and the Middle East and connecting these to Europe. She discovered that it would only require 0.3% of the world's deserts to give us all our electricity requirements, including all land-based, electrically run, transport. It seemed so possible. However, she soon realised that the big oil companies were just re-inventing themselves as clean energy companies with more-or-less the same mindset and behaviours they had as fossil fuel corporations and so she began wondering, in legal terms, how we might create a 'duty of care' for the planet. This started a train of thought that led her on the most remarkable journey, full of connections, synchronicities and - reflecting the underlying mass awareness and desire for change - the fastest ever growing Facebook campaign, Trees have rights too. All of this has resulted in a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, which is now near to entering the General Assembly of the UN for consideration. Once there, she hopes it will take, around eighteen months before it goes to the vote. This is how long it took for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be voted on. Polly Higgins is looking at 2½ - 3 years, all-in-all, for the Declaration to get voted through the UN.

Once established, The Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights will influence the laws of different countries to protect all living beings, whether tree, whale, mountain, river or bear. In particular, there are three aspects that are absolutely core for planetary rights - the right not to be polluted, the right to restorative justice and the freedom to a clean and healthy environment.

At this point in time we in the West live within a system that is still far from these ideals. Our relationship to the planet is predicated on human-to-human relationships. This reflects a value system that determines our behaviour, our actions and our business. So a lot of our laws for the planet are based on how we govern our interactions with each other, including our commerce. As we do with most things, we treat the planet as an object, property. We treat its millions of interconnected life forms as commodities, things we can use and manipulate as we need or desire. Perceiving the planet as an inert object, we see its offerings as things we can possess and buy and sell. We impose our commercial value system and put a monetary price on everything, opening up everything for trade.

Since realising that this planet is as much her home as it is for all the other species living here, Polly Higgins has begun to refer to 'the' planet as 'my' or 'our' planet. In doing this she has become aware that a lot of energy experts - climate change experts - will not talk in those terms. Instead, by continuing to refer to 'the' planet, a subtle disconnection to the planet is maintained. It continues to be objectified. This makes it easier to keep talking about carbon markets and to carry on thinking we can trade our way out of our problems. That is what the Kyoto protocol is about. But if you see the planet as a being, as an entity in its own right, then you move to an extension of the human-to-human relationship to a human-to-others relationship - other beings, other entities, the rest of the planet. Seeing our planet as a living being, you begin to see its intrinsic value. And once you start recognising our planet as having its own intrinsic value, then it becomes possible to start engaging with it on the basis of a reciprocal relationship.

We have abrogated our responsibility to the state through legislation. Taking responsibility in a relationship - in this case to our planet - implies self-governance and self-responsibility. In thinking about the need to identify the values that shape not just our rights and freedoms but also our duties and responsibilities, Polly constructed a second declaration. This is a 'soft' non-legal declaration that is far wider and more encompassing - The Universal Declaration Of All Beings. And even though it won't be presented to the UN, Polly thinks that in many ways it is equally as important, if not more so.

Photograph by Will BaxterOne of the cornerstones of this second declaration is the understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings. For instance, if as a result of the planetary bee crisis bees really did disappear from our world, 60% of our food supply would disappear through the loss of their pollination. Looking at wider rights and freedoms under this second declaration, it is through our interconnectedness that certain rights and freedoms apply to us all, whether or not it's a bumble bee, the soil, seeds, trees, the biosphere, the atmosphere. There are certain rights - for instance, the right not to be polluted - that apply equally to each of our bodies as they do to any river.

As a lawyer, Polly felt the need to find evidence of the connectedness of all beings. She discovered two models. The first was developed by Cleve Backster, one of the world's foremost lie-detector experts. In the 1960s, he connected his polygraph to a plant in his office to see whether he could get readings from watering the plant with water or doing something potentially harmful like watering it with hot coffee. Backster was astounded to get a reading when the plant was even threatened with the thought of someone intending to harm it. As he began investigating further, he claimed to find that many other human thoughts and emotions caused reactions in plants. He realised that despite their lack of a nervous system and a brain, plants reacted like sentient creatures. Further findings describe an interconnection between all living cells, pointing to the interconnected, sentient nature of our world and, most likely, the universe. His work is most famously discussed in The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

The other model that Polly found was written up by Professor Masaru Emoto's in his many books on water and the power of thought on water - how you can actually purify polluted water through thought. Working with schoolchildren in one experiment, Emoto took three jars of fermented rice and asked the children every morning as they came in to their classroom to send love to the first jar and hate to the second jar. The third jar he put away in a cupboard and told the school children to just ignore it. Three weeks later the rice in the first jar was so pure it could be eaten. The second jar was grey and stank, while the third jar in the cupboard was black and rancid. He concluded that the act of ignoring something sends a negative energy in its own right - it creates its own negative field.

One little girl who heard about this through her friends went home and did her own experiment with two sunflower seeds. She put one in one flower put, one in another. Then she used two watering cans with Thank-you written in Japanese on one and Fool on the other. The first, as we would now expect, flourished while the other withered and almost died.

Professor Emoto has since organised experienced meditators to meditate on polluted tracts of water and to literally de-pollute that water. The cell structure of damaged water, whether through pollution as it travels from its clean source or from external events like 9/11, can be returned to its healthy structure by sending positive healing thoughts and love to that water. Professor Emoto and many of his followers believe that water holds the potential to create peace on earth. By holding, thinking, speaking and acting with the intention of peace toward water, water can and will bring peace to our bodies - comprised of 70% water - and to the world.

Polly Higgins doesn't have a business plan, but she does have great belief. Through the intense world-wide response to her Trees have rights too Facebook campaign she became aware of the power of communities and virtual communities to spread thoughts and ideas. She believes, 'It's about expanding our vision, about actually visioning. It's about getting people to enter that arena and think wider, think bigger, think positive, think about the world you want, what would that look like. It's about creating the dream, not the idea.' Polly's journey has been about energy, starting off with renewable energy, then moving to planet energy and presently looking at human energy and the power of thought. She believes we can heal our planet. It's up to us.