Rights of Nature and the MOTH Project

Recognizing and protecting the rights of non-humans is an idea whose time has come. Recent developments in the natural sciences, moral philosophy, and politics have fundamentally questioned the categorical distinction between humans and non-humans that is at the core of modern law and human rights thought and practice. From biologists’ new findings about the profound similarities and interconnections between humans and other species to moral philosophers’ recent work on justice for non-humans to the increasing influence of ecocentric social movements, the heretofore rigid conceptual boundaries between humans and non-humans have become increasingly blurry. The context of a global pandemic has stressed the painful effects of neglecting the interconnections between the human and the non-human world, including zoonotic diseases associated with the destruction of ecosystems.


However, legal thought and practice, including human rights, remain firmly anthropocentric. Although the rights of animals and other non-human entities have been recognized in several pioneering norms and lawsuits, mainstream legal approaches continue to view the rights of nature with indifference at best and with suspicion at worst. Just as human rights actors were slow to recognize climate change as a rights issue, leading thinkers and organizations in the field have yet to take seriously the wealth of ideas, initiatives, and emerging practices on rights of nature that scholars, practitioners, Indigenous peoples, and social movements are advancing around the world.


In response, ERA launched the More Than Human Rights (MOTH) Collective to document, discuss, disseminate, and advance ideas and practices that offer creative and rigorous answers to some of the most pressing questions in this field. Among the questions guiding the project are: What theoretical and legal approaches can solidify the foundations for the rights of nature? How do findings from the natural sciences, Indigenous knowledge, and other fields shed new light on the idea of the rights of nature? What types of non-human entities should be protected? What types of rights should they be recognized as holding? What are the lessons from existing legislation, constitutional provisions, and lawsuits that embrace this notion? How are social movements, policymakers, judges, and other actors disrupting human rights’ anthropocentric framework and institutional architecture? More broadly, how could all of the above help us conceive of “human rights without human supremacism”?[1]


The MOTH Collective launched with a conference convening leading thinkers and doers from diverse fields, from environmental and human rights law to philosophy to biological sciences to Indigenous advocacy to storytelling and communications. As a truly interdisciplinary convening, the conference broke through the traditional silos that limit the exchange of ideas and perspectives, promoted new and creative ways of thinking, and facilitated the development of the substantive details that will put the rights of nature approach on firmer ground. A collected volume comprised of individual chapters written by conference participants will be published in the near future.


As part of this line of work, ERA – along with NYU clinical students – engage in legal accompaniment, advocacy, research, and field and capacity building to advance more than human rights. This includes ERA’s longstanding collaboration with prominent scientific partners on the Fauna, Flora, Funga Initiative, which aims to write fungi – crucial to the health of ecosystems, yet typically neglected by decisionmakers – into conservation and agricultural policy frameworks, protect it under international and domestic law, and unlock crucial funding for mycological research, surveys, and educational programs.


[1] Will Kymlicka, “Human Rights Without Human Supremacism,” 48 Canadian Journal of Philosophy 763-792 (2018).


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