Thinking about our first or “primary” human right is actually a new way of thinking about how to protect the environment and how to visualize what our planet ought to look like.
When we think about the idea of being free, we usually think about the freedom to act or the right to do what we want without others interfering. But freedom also means the right not to be acted upon and to be free from other people, in other words, to be let alone.
Unless we have some special obligation, like being the parent of a child, we are generally free to get away from other people and the influence they would otherwise have over us. When it comes to particular countries and governments, which are really just collections of individual people, unless we have committed a crime or done something unusual, we also have a right to leave and be free of them.
For example, we are free to leave the United States, and forcing people in the former Soviet Union to live behind the Iron Curtain violated their human rights. We should not be forced to submit to any other person’s influence or collection of persons’ influence against our will.
Because we have the right to leave any person and any country, it follows that we have the right to leave every person and every country. One implies the other. If you were to leave every country on earth until you got to the last country, you should be able to leave that one as well.
How do we do that? First, we have to see the earth as actually made up of two worlds — the human and the “nonhuman,” or those species other than humans. Countries are political entities — they are based on the organization of human power and influence. Leaving every country on Earth does not mean having to fly to the moon; it means leaving, as best one can, human power and influence and entering the nonhuman world — what we generally call wilderness. The nonhuman world is, by definition, composed of those places in the world occupied by species other than humans living in their natural habitats.
Keep in mind that nonhumans don’t live in countries or organize into systems of rights the way we do. So the Earth divided into human and nonhuman worlds would look something like the Earth did for most of human civilization — limited human societies surrounded by a sea of relatively complete biodiversity and wilderness. It would be other species, living and flourishing in their habitats, all around us in an interconnected system. This view of Earth is no fantasy — if biodiversity can be protected, our birth rates continue to decline, and we continue to urbanize, this planet will look very much like that: city-states awash in a sea of nature.
But this is the point: For us to be free, for it to remain possible to be free of every person and country on Earth, the nonhuman world must be protected and allowed to flourish. Without it we would remain locked in that last country on Earth, permanently subjected to others’ influence, or as one senator said in passing the Wilderness Act of 1964, “without wilderness this country will become a cage.” Because we have a right to leave all others and their influence, or the “cages” we create for each other, the nonhuman world must remain and flourish. It is a necessary condition for freedom to actually mean something.
Why call this right to be free from others the “primary right?” Rights are about other people, and your relationships with them. Given that, the primary right, or the first thing that is decided in any systems of rights, is whether you relate to or are influenced by other people at all. The first thing about any system of rights that is decided is whether you are even part of it. People in the Soviet Union would not have had to worry about the lack of human rights in that system if they could have simply gotten away.
How does thinking about the environment in terms of the primary right change things? First, it gives us a theoretical baseline, a way of seeing what our planet ought to look like. This is something most environmentalists have not been able to agree on. Second, it changes the basic thinking in environmentalism: The focus should be on freedom, not well-being. Third, protecting the nonhuman world because it ensures the very possibility of human freedom is different than protecting nature for its own sake. Those most responsible for harming the nonhuman world have gone unpunished because humans are less apt to act until we know we have something to lose. Thinking about our primary right shows us that we are losing something right now, that those most responsible for destroying the nonhuman world are violating our right to be free.
If we value freedom, we value nature, or the nonhuman world, because it makes the act of consenting to others’ influence possible. Protecting the environment is not about making a world dominated by humans safe, healthy, and sustainable, a pleasant place for humans to live. It is about restoring the nonhuman world around us as best we can so that freedom actually means something.
Carter Dillard is director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He is a graduate of Boston College and the Emory University school of law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.