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Saving Nature for Nature’s Sake
I lie on my back in the middle of a snow covered road staring up at the steel grey sky. The snowy silence has a tangible weight to it. The three feet of snow muffles any possible sound aside from the sudden rush of snow falling from branches around me. I have spent the day cross country skiing around Mt Rainier National Park with my family and am at the end of the trail. I live in Seattle, surrounded by the constant noise and movement of any urban area. While I love the city with its museums and restaurants, I also love the mountains and the outdoors.
As an environmental policy graduate student one of the questions that came up continuously is whether we can protect ‘nature for nature’s sake.’ This idea, that nature has intrinsic value and rights that have nothing to do with human rights or needs, can be controversial. Many people believe that the planet is here for our taking. We remove the tops of mountains to get at the coal inside, dump toxic waste into our waterways and have ever expanding development with large box stores and homes rolling over what was once pristine wilderness.
We have been careless in our treatment of the planet, but is it valid to make the argument that we can protect nature without any benefits to people? In 2011 Bolivia, an impoverished country high in the Andes amended their constitution to say that nature does, in fact, have equal rights to humans. They have established 11 rights including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.
How this legislation will impact the use of Bolivia’s many natural resources, such as the large lithium deposits in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats is unknown and many fear that the economic possibilities of mining this limited and needed resource would overshadow the environmental costs of mining it. Lithium is needed for the production of many things, even the environmentally friendly electric car. It is, however, a step in the right direction and asks the question ‘does nature have its own set of rights; and if it does, what can we do to ensure that those rights are upheld?’
Here in the US we have not taken steps like Bolivia, but we do have programs such as Wild and Scenic river designation and our National Park systems, which promotes the restoration and preservation of our natural areas. Outside of these protected areas, though, nature is approached in an entirely different way.
For those of us who love getting outside and enjoying all that the outdoors has to offer, it may seem like an obvious answer. Yes, nature should be preserved for the sake of nature. For me, it is impossible to walk through an old growth forest or listen to the whistling of a marmot and not know that nature does have value and should be protected.
We want to hear from you, does nature have rights and should it be preserved ‘for nature’s sake’ or should conservation also serve a human purpose (such as providing economic incentives like salmon in fisheries)?
To discover more about the area and find ways that nature can inspire you check out the Be Out There campaign with the National Wildlife Federation!