Let us sound the battle-cry for #penguinrights. Suppose penguins took us humans to court for destroying their habitat? Suppose they won?
I am not talking only of animal rights, or even land rights, but earth rights. Penguin power is habitat corpus: the battle to protect an ecosystem – a place where life lives. And even, especially, the Space Station is no separate habitat, no isolated home. (Warriors know this.) If the world is a masjid, a place of worship as the hadith has it , then it is also one place, one system. On this (if not on nuclear) Lovelock appears to be right, supported by evolving studies, from philosopher de Chardin to microbiogist Cavvichioli: the planet is a self-regulating system.
Self-regulation is no promise of resources to keep us in our accustomed way of life. Just this year we are passing critical thresholds of temperature, ice melt, carbon in the air and species extinction on land and in the oceans. Yet still there are deniers, fossil-based lobbyists and desperate communities wrecked by extreme weather who cannot care about the theory while their lives are destroyed.
Big fights over land are going on. Outcomes sway in one direction then another. The Standing Rock Sioux (as I write) are resisting the federal court’s consent to continued work on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Iwi in Aoteoroa celebrate the legal personhood of Te Urewa and Tw Awa Tupua (the Whanganui river basin). The land does not lie still.
The arguments remain based on people: on the sanctity and ancestral importance of an area, on the value of water or burial grounds or the spiritual significance of the forest. More prosaically, perhaps, some battles rest on ancient hunting and fishing, a ‘way-of-life’ argument distorted to promote industrial whaling alongside the needed meat and fur sales of the Inuit. It’s still an anthropomorphised, human-centred debate. It’s still all about us.
Antarctica has no indigenous peoples, no human sanctity conferred over generations. For most of our history, the far south was a fantasy, an idea. It’s less than 200 years since humanity discovered the icy truth. No human lives there. Its indigenous peoples are penguins, albatross and whales, krill and bacteria. Tiny life and charismatic fauna cannot claim ancestral rights or millennial graveyards.
What would it look like if penguins could argue for their own habitat, prevent more carbon loss by winning legal protection for ice shelves? Has anyone imagined a non-anthropocentric jurisprudence? Indeed they have. Cormac Cullinan in Wild Law argues we should take guidance from the ‘great jurisprudence’ of gravity and fractals, yet the practicalities seem again to rest on humanity’s difference, our ‘specialness’. Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins is advocating in the UN for the crime of ecocide to become part of international law. Kim Stanley Robinson beautifully imagined a planet-centric constitution for Mars; he puts communal stewardship and planetary heritage equal with human liberty and the rule of law.
We live in depressing times. Residents of rich societies appear to value their pets more than drowning children. Washing a yoghurt pot before recycling is an intolerable inconvenience even while albatross chick die from eating our waste. The news from the continent isn’t good either: last year the British Antarctic Survey predicted increased sea level rises from the collapse of Larsen Ice Shelf C: the returning Antarctic sun has revealed that the crack as the shelf splits from its feeding glaciers has grown a lot over the winter.
Losing sea ice directly affects penguins. Emperor chicks drown, while Adelie penguins (pictured above on Devil's Island) don’t even get to build their nests. Their habitat is dying, and so are they. If #penguinrights are to mean anything, we need to act now, and put the planet at the centre of our law-making. Our survival, as much as theirs, depends on it.