books environment

Book review: Nature is a Human Right, ed Ellen Miles

Nature is a Human Right is a collection of essays and a manifesto for a campaign to “enshrine contact with nature – real, leafy, living spaces – as a legally protected right for all.” As a book, it’s a beautiful object: weighty and strikingly designed with wood-cut illustrations from Nick Hayes. The contributors are excellent, the essays diverse and vibrant. The central argument, to my mind, remains a little more elusive. But I’ll come back to that.

First of all, there’s a lot to appreciate in this collection of perspectives around what nature means to us, why green space matters, and what comes between us and nature. It’s a great addition to the literature on nature disconnection, bringing in some under-represented voices.

The first section of the book looks at the connection between nature and human welfare. Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, has an essay on how the rainforest cured her depression. Sophia Sinopoulos-Lloyd describes how tracking animals creates empathy with non-human life, and reveals the stories in the landscape. Poppy Okotcha gleefully describes how to set up a wormery, something I would entirely endorse.

The book then turns to issues of justice, looking at how people are deprived of nature. We hear how richer communities tend to be greener and leafier. How “nature deprivation doesn’t have an equal opportunities policy”, but excludes on the basis of wealth or physical ability. People of colour have less access to nature in the city, and feel unwelcome in the countryside (something I explore in my book). And in some places, nature has been sidelined by major social movements – the book discusses Apartheid, the legacy of Soviet housing projects, and land ownership in England, where 92% of the country is off limits.

In its final third the book turns to solutions, from community garderning to national park cities, to placemaking – all things that I’m involved in myself in Luton. And there’s poetry too, I should add.

One thing the book doesn’t have, however, is any further discussion of the idea in the title. While I agree entirely with greater access to nature, the right to roam, greener cities, etc, I’m not sure that it is best approached through the lens of a right to nature. I mean of course humans have a right to nature – but what would it mean to legally formalise that? How would it be enforced?

For example, when my neighbour cut down the tree that shaded my house, did she violate my right to nature? If so, who do I call? And since it would take 50 years to put the tree back, what good would it do?

And doesn’t looking at nature through a human rights lens risk reinforcing the separation between humans and nature? Doesn’t it locate nature as a thing we need access to, rather than something we are? I don’t have answers to those questions, and the book doesn’t seem very interested in them.

That leaves me in a slightly strange place. I like and admire Nature is a Human Right. I’d recommend it. It’s full of solutions that I am actively involved in locally. And yet I’m not convinced that access to nature fits within a human rights framework, or that the book advances the idea very far. Can I just do everything it recommends and call it something else?

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