How do we reckon with animal and environmental rights when urgent human rights problems are everywhere?

JD muralI am simultaneously a proponent of human rights, an advocate for environmental justice, and, of late, an espouser of the rights of nature. Though these commitments are interwoven, they do not always cohabit peacefully and are often considered disparate in our world of human exceptionalism. It is their interconnectedness that presents me with a challenging ethical question: “How do we reckon with animal and environmental rights when urgent human rights problems are everywhere?”

My research and career in human rights and law proves that the short answer is that we not only should, but must, develop a commitment to recognizing the rights of other species and the environment within our legal system. The interdependencies of the ecosystems we inhabit make recognition of their rights essential to the survival of our own species. Legal recognition is important because so much of human rights are enmeshed with nature and because of what it requires of us. To confer rights demands empathy.

2020 has been a year of reckonings with COVID-19’s gradual, well-graphed crescendo and the increased national support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the midst of these recent human rights travesties, where is the space for transspecies listening? Where is the emotional and political energy to address concerns about animals, ecosystems, and the environment? That space and those energies must be found. We must not only find the political will and expand our conceptual capacities to radically reform our systems of law enforcement, healthcare provision, education access, and other human needs, we must also reimagine our relationship to the natural world. The entangled nature of human rights and animal and environmental rights make so they cannot be separated. Empathy, is the root of all of these projects.

Choosing to empathize requires a person to transcend oneself to see another in the vortex of their loves, losses, experiences and emotions. Does non-human life have loves, losses and emotions? New Zealand’s Māori people identify with the natural elements, seeing themselves as one with the Whanganui River. To resolve years of conflict between the Māori and New Zealand’s English settlers, the Māori and the settlers reached an empathic understanding whereby the settlers finally agreed to translate this Māori perspective of the River as familial and an ancestor into something comprehensible to themselves: they granted legal personhood to the river. Through this legislation, not only is legal recognition given to the needs of the river for its wholesome existence, but recognition and respect for the Māori people is also conferred, affirming the intertwining of human rights with those of the natural world. This example demonstrates a mutual obligation of humans, animals, and the environment to each other. We must engage the known human capacity to empathize in order to come to a deeper appreciation of the natural world and healthier connection with each other.

The effort to see, imagine, and understand the life and needs of another is the essence of empathy. Understanding that all issues are interwoven is imperative. By mustering the energy to empathize, the fundamental connections among the human, animal, and environmental collective experience become evident. I believe that if we seek to comprehend reality in this way, people, nature, and animals will all benefit.


Juliette Duara 
Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University


Juliette Duara’s thoughts about humans, animals, and the natural world and how they relate to one another are rooted in her childhood, most of which was spent in Montana. As a high school student in Libby, Montana, she observed not only the mountains, bears, rivers, and deer, but also the loggers, miners, foresters, and engineers. She struggled with the basic conundrum of life in Libby: the basis of economic life involved the devouring of those aspects of that landscape, that former wilderness, most loved and cherished by its human inhabitants. To Duara, it seemed that the human and environmental costs of the clear-cutting of Kootenai forests, the damming of the Kootenai River, and mining of asbestos-laced vermiculite were incalculable.

The summer of Duara’s senior year of high school she traveled from Libby, Montana to Bombay (now Mumbai), India with a foreign exchange program. That experience revealed to her that the world hosted a greater variety of human experiences than she had thought possible, drawing her to human history and the social sciences, and, ultimately, to issues of law and justice. Duara’s current investigations into 21st Century issues that imperil the relevance of human rights has led her to environmental rights advocacy. For Duara, contemplating what justice might mean for animals and ecosystems violated by human voraciousness is a homecoming. Libby’s conundrum is the paradox of modern human life: that we humans are parasitic on the planet we inhabit. Though urban life may insulate us, it does so without providing ethical absolution. She shares the belief in the need to empathize with other humans and the natural world with her students of human rights, ethics, and law, challenging them to imagine the earth anew.