As part of our first ever Earth Jurisprudence week, we share the four key things you need to know about Earth Jurisprudence- what it is, where the idea comes from and why it is so important for solving the interconnected crises we face today. Enjoy!

What is Earth Jurisprudence?

Jurisprudence refers to the principles by which we live: the norms and rules that govern our lives.

Earth Jurisprudence calls on us to recognise that Nature is, and should be, the source of human laws, ethics and how we govern ourselves.

Earth Jurisprudence calls for us to transform dominant, anthropocentric (human-centred) ways of seeing to Earth-centred understandings of our place on Earth and how we should conduct our lives.

Where does Earth Jurisprudence come from?

Father Thomas Berry. Photo: NCRonline

“The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects.” Thomas Berry

The term Earth Jurisprudence was proposed by cultural historian, poet and geologian, Thomas Berry, who is known as the ‘father of Earth Jurisprudence’.

Thomas believed that the ‘Great Work’ of this century was to transition from a relationship of exploitation of the planet, to a respectful human-Earth relationship in which the inherent value and rights of each member of the Earth community are experienced, recognised and respected.

To experience ourselves as part of the communion of subjects Thomas spoke about requires, for most of us, a conscious and radical transformation of our relationship with our living planet and the web of life. It requires us to liberate our hearts and minds from the dominant, industrial mode of thinking and behaviour.

It also requires a radical shift from feeling threatened by diversity – be it ‘other’ human communities or ‘other’ species – to embracing and acting in solidarity with them.

Thomas argued that this is not a new way of thinking, but rather a remembering of who we are as human beings. He reminded us that for most of human history, human societies across our planet have seen life from an Earth-centred, rather than a human-centred, perspective.

This is evident among Indigenous and traditional communities who continue to derive their ethics, customary laws and governance systems from the laws of Mother Earth.

Reverence for and intimacy with the natural world is a living reality for many Indigenous and traditional Peoples worldwide, alive in ceremonies, practices, traditions, stories and laws. Their worldview, customs and practices are derived from an intimate relationship with, and thereby understanding of, the ecosystems in which they are embedded.

This sophisticated knowledge has maintained the resilience of the land and its peoples over generations. And the norms, rules and taboos that govern their lives (their customary laws) are based on generations of acute observation of Nature in all her forms.


How does Earth Jurisprudence relate to law and the Rights of Nature?

The Whanganui, a rights-bearing river in New Zealand. Photo: Wikimedia

Earth Jurisprudence interrogates the source and orientation of state law and legal practice, inviting us to decolonise our thinking about where law comes from. It affirms that human laws should be aligned with the laws of Mother Earth if we are to live in harmony on our home planet.

The idea of the Rights of Nature was first explored by legal scholar Christopher Stone in 1972. Recognition of the Rights of Nature within western legal systems is an important stepping stone towards an ecocentric orientation. It is one legal tool, among others, through which a paradigm shift can be realised.

Earth Jurisprudence includes recognition of the Rights of Nature, but challenges us to recognise these as inherent rights of each element of life, and not an extension of human rights.

The full potential of recognising Rights of Nature is realised when we acknowledge that these rights arise from the laws that govern life – a different source of law than western Jurisprudence. Such Earth-centred law takes different forms in different contexts, from the customary laws of Africa to the rights of Pachamama in Ecuador.

When we experience the fullness of life on our living Earth, it is obvious that each member of this Earth community, whether a living being or any element of an ecosystem, has a vital role and an inherent right to exist, to thrive and to evolve – whether we understand their role or not.


Why is Earth Jurisprudence so important now?

A restored trout stream in the Jukajoki River system. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them in the first place.” Albert Einstein

At this moment in human history, we urgently need to re-imagine our place on Earth; to live in harmony with- and as an integral part of- Mother Earth.

The assumption that humans are superior and can extract endlessly from our beautiful planet is both flawed and dangerous. The consequences of this inflated belief and the destructive industrial growth model it has produced is the reason for the rampant ecological and social crises, zoonotic pandemics and changing climate we are experiencing. The relentless drive of the industrial growth economy is pushing us beyond ‘planetary boundaries’ and unravelling the order of our living Earth.

The roots of the converging crises we face lie, ultimately, in our broken relationship with Mother Earth – of seeing ourselves as separate and superior to the living systems that sustain us. Climate and biodiversity collapse, social injustices and global pandemics are symptomatic of the breakdown of our relationship with Mother Earth and systemic violation of her laws.

Earth Jurisprudence is about seeing and relating to the living world, out of which we have evolved, with due respect and humility. It offers the context and guiding vision to orient and galvanise the systemic change required of us. It calls for a radical re-envisioning of the dominant, anthropocentric legal system and its source of law.

Earth Jurisprudence reminds us that we are embedded in a living, lawful Universe that sustains life on our planet. It inspires us to restore our relationship with our Earth, and thereby learn the laws that govern life so that we can participate in healing the wounds of the past centuries and leaving a flourishing legacy to future generations of all species.

Where can I learn more?

Explore our interactive story, Demystifying Earth Jurisprudence.

Learn more about the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective in our film Gaarú: The Growing African Movement For Earth Jurisprudence.

Sign up for Gaia’s monthly round-up of the latest Earth-centred news and inspiration from across the world.