India Establishes National Environmental Tribunal - Should The US Start One Too?

court room photo
Just as the scale of the BP oil spill starts really sinking in--leaking first 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000, now maybe 20,000 barrels (that's 850,000 gallons)--comes word that India has established, after much debate in the past year or so, a National Green Tribunal, with the main bench to be located in Bhopal, site of one of the worst industrial / social / environmental disasters in the world. Which got me wondering, should the United States also have special environmental courts?

Now there well may be faults in how it's organized in India. I frankly haven't delved into the details of it, but criticisms have been leveled against its implementation. But overall the idea resonates with me, especially if combined with the idea of intrinsic planetary rights and the prosecution of ecocide. Financial Impact of Spill is Huge... But Non-Human Impact is Greater
There is certainly vast human impact because of the spill, things that can be quantified: Fishermen's income lost, potential lost tourist dollars, potential health problems down the line that wouldn't have occurred without oil exposure. You could even quantify the utility cost to humans of degraded wetland, killed birds, killed fish (the effects potentially extending across the Atlantic as some fish spawn in the Gulf and then mature elsewhere). All these things can be assigned a financial value.

But when it comes down to it, utility value to humans is but part of the story, and the more I think about it, it is the least part of it, as tragic on the personal level as it may be in the moment.

Our Sense of Self Stops With Humans
How did this accident happen? On the philosophical level it happened because in general we perceive other things (both animal and non-animal) only in terms of their utility value to us, to ourselves. And for most people, encouraged by contemporary ethics and economics, the sense of self doesn't extend very far.

Worst case it extends only to preservation of the individual, but for most is extends to the family, to a declining degree the community, and oftentimes increasingly (especially if you here talk of energy independence) to the nation. However, that is only a limited view of the boundaries of self. If it extends first to all humans (regardless of proximity) and then to all living things... It's certainly a leap when we can't even agree in practice on the first self-boundary, but increasingly I think it's the leap that has to be made.

Switzerland Already Has a Lawyer Speaking Up For Animals' Rights
But what does that have to do with the establishment of environment courts? Consider that in Switzerland there is already one state-funded lawyer defending the rights of animals in court. This is someone speaking up for animals whose rights under the already fairly strict Swiss law have been violated by humans.

Swiss voters rejected the idea of extending it nationwide back in March, but connect that idea to a national environmental court, where countries and corporations (the big offenders) can be held accountable for crimes against the planet--not only where the impact is measured in utility to humans, but where the destruction of an ecosystem itself can be adjudicate, when the wiping out of species through negligence or will is taken up.

Compassion Extends to All Forms of Existence
OK. Huge practical, logistical and philosophical hurdles to be cleared, I know. And frankly, I'd love for ingrained environmentally friendly to rule the day, not courts. But if you want to start talking about one single shift in behavior and thought that will have a huge benefit to life on this planet--human, non-human, non-animal--it's for humans to stop acting like we're the only species around. To extend our sphere of love and compassion to all of existence and within that.

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photo: Chang'r via flickr.

More on Planetary Rights:
Should Animals Have Their Own Legal Public Defenders?
Trees Have Rights Too: A Call For a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights
What is Ecocide and Should It Be Considered an International Crime Against Peace?

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