Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

‘Ocean Rights’ Earth Religion Advances in the UN

Originally published at The Epoch Times

The “international world order” is increasingly radical in its environmental engagement and anti-human in the policies it promotes. In the great cause of “saving the planet,” scientific precepts and empirical analyses are being cast aside in favor of a neo-earth religious mysticism.

Latest case in point. Environmentalist ideologues were invited to promote a plan to grant “rights” to “the Ocean” (singular, with a capital O) at the recently concluded 2023 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York.

“Ocean rights,” Wesley? Are they kidding? I wish. “Ocean rights” is a subset of the “nature rights” movement that elevates “Nature” (with a capital N) above human thriving and pursues a quasi-earth religion approach to managing the natural world.

The “rights of nature” movement borders on the pagan. Thus, the constitution of Ecuador states: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

Pachamama was the Incan Earth Goddess, and the deployment of the term isn’t accidental. Indeed, the Pachamama movement (if you will) has recently been gaining traction, sometimes in surprising places. For example, Pachamama idols have—to great controversy—been included in high-visibility international Catholic Masses.

Ocean rights is permeated with the same mystical emotionalism, as indicated in a document titled, “We are the Ocean and the Ocean is Us,” presented at UNGA. The document encourages what it calls an “ecocentric worldview,” and is intended to serve as the basis for a future “Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights,” to be enacted at the UN by 2030.

“The Ocean is a living entity, not a resource … with inherent rights,” it declares. More, “The Ocean is our ancestor and kin, is alive with history, ever-evolving, and a place of cultural and spiritual value, with authority, life force, identity, and intrinsic value.”

This is profoundly unempirical. To be sure, oceans are crucial to maintaining life on Earth. But they aren’t living entities. They certainly provide an environment for organisms great and small, just as the atmosphere does. (What next, “Air rights?”) But oceans don’t have an “identity.” They have no “authority” because they lack consciousness. They aren’t “our kin.” Oceans are vast geological features but aren’t animated in any proper sense of the term.

Not only that, but the definition of “The Ocean” in the UNGA presentation is beyond expansive:

“We acknowledge the Ocean as one dynamic, fluid, and interconnected natural, biological and physical system” that includes “all seas, internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, the High Seas, continental shelves, and the seabed and subsoil, with constant exchange between land-based and atmospheric systems.”

This definition is so broad it could include rivers that drain into oceans (“internal waters”) and areas of land that have any impact on oceans (“exchange between land-based and atmospheric systems.”) Hey, come to think of it, “atmospheric systems” may open the door to “Air rights,” after all.

How would the Ocean’s “rights” be enforced? Let us count the ways: “All peoples have the right and responsibility to ensure the Ocean’s interests and needs are represented in decisions and disputes affecting Ocean health.” Moreover, the Ocean would have the “right to representation and to have a voice within a multinational international governance system.”

In other words, ocean-rights ideologues would have great sway over passing laws and promulgating regulations that promote Ocean rights, and radical environmental attorneys would surely represent “the Ocean” in international and domestic courts.

Ocean rights would explicitly subsume human thriving by applying what’s known as the precautionary principle to the question of what constitutes acceptable uses of ocean resources.

“In case of uncertain or contrasting impact assessment for any anthropogenic [human activity] activity concerning the Ocean,” the document reads, “the principle … ‘when in doubt err on the side of the Ocean’ shall be applied.”

There’s always doubt. In other words, most ocean resources would be permanently off limits to human exploitation or require such a costly and time-consuming permissions process—controlled by Ocean rights ideologues—that few enterprises would even bother to make the attempt.

All of this begs the question, why is granting “rights” to oceans becoming a thing? It isn’t as if protecting the seas hasn’t already received a high priority at the UN. Sixty-seven nations just signed onto a proposed international treaty—known as “30-30”—which, if implemented, would make 30 percent of the ocean off limits to most human activities by 2030.

But there are never enough restrictions for environmental radicals. “Ocean rights” reflects the deep misanthropy that has infected the environmental movement writ large, a belief that we’re merely “one species within nature,” and that human enemies of the planet must be thwarted from exploiting the Earth’s bounties.

Now, let’s focus for a moment on the economy-shattering consequences caused by an “Ocean rights” regime. All deep-sea mining and energy extraction would, at minimum, be prohibited. The shipping industry would face stifling regulations. Fishing fleets would be mothballed. Ports would be prevented from being built or expanded. Even land activities that could be construed as indirectly impacting the Ocean adversely could be stifled. The harm to human thriving caused by Ocean rights would be beyond quantifying.

We should enact laws that oblige us to treat ocean environments with proper regard. The plastic pollution of the oceans, for example, is utterly unacceptable and must be remedied. But that can be accomplished without undermining human uniqueness or granting ideologues close to carte blanche control over practices that impact the seas.

Alas, such common-sense environmentalism is no longer in style. The Ocean and Nature rights movements are symptoms of a viral anti-humanism that would sacrifice human thriving on the altar of the earth goddess, Pachamama.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.