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At the United Nations, Francis Appears to Teeter Toward "Nature Rights"

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Pope Francis's strong environmental emphasis is teetering toward a dangerous cliff. Today at the United Nations, he seemingly implied that nature has rights.

The left-wing Guardian celebrates:

The Pope demanded justice for the weak and affirmed the rights of the environment on Friday in a forceful speech to the United Nations that warned against "a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity".

A day after making history by becoming the first pope to address Congress, Francis for the first time asserted that nature -- as well as humanity -- had rights.

"It must be stated that a true 'right of the environment' does exist," Francis said.

An attack on the environment was an assault on the rights and living conditions of the most vulnerable, he said, warning that at its most extreme, environmental degradation threatened humanity's survival.

I don't think it is as clear as The Guardian's reporter states, given that Pope Francis focused on the purported harm to human beings he sees being caused by poor environmental practices. (Although, I must say that when the Pope asserted that environmental degradation was a cause of human trafficking and genocidal atrocities, I almost swallowed my Adam's apple.)

A "right of the environment" is sufficiently vague as to potentially mean that humans have a right to a clean environment, not that the environment (or nature) has "rights."

That's an important distinction. "Nature rights" elevates the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, to a level of human value, or perhaps better stated, reduces us to just another animal in the forest. Indeed, the purported rights of nature amount to a quasi-right to life for flora and fauna:

Nature, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution

I trust Francis doesn't mean that, but I do wish he would be more precise in his language!

By the way, "nature rights" isn't as fringe as I would like. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has explicitly endorsed the concept, and it is the law of two countries and more than thirty U.S. municipalities.

Image credit: Patrick Gruban, cropped and downsampled by Pine (originally posted to Flickr as UN General Assembly) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at The Corner.