Nature landscape

The role of Wild Law in responding to ecological crises

20 April 2023
How can the legal system protect our environment? We hear from SEI Honours Fellow Libby Newton about her research exploring the potential for the rights of nature and ecocide laws to impose accountability for human-caused ecological harms.

By Libby Newton, Sydney Law School and Emma Holland, Sydney Environment Institute

Emma Holland: What are you researching for Honours?

Libby Newton: I’m looking into rights of nature (RoN) and ecocide laws and initiatives in terms of their potential to bring us closer to what existing environmental law has largely failed to achieve: the imposition of accountability for – and prevention of – human-authored ecological harms. I intend to explore how these alternative legal tools have been theorised and operationalised in various jurisdictions and to what effect. My project essentially takes stock of the RoN and ecocide movements and their development in reaction to more bread-and-butter concepts in climate change and environmental law and governance – think market-based mechanisms, offset schemes, environmental impact assessment, emissions reduction targets, licensing regimes, and so on.

A key focus of my research is the complementarity of the RoN and ecocide campaigns. It’s increasingly clear that legal recognition of the rights of ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish, and the criminalisation of acts causing severe, widespread ecological damage on the other, are necessary counterparts, notwithstanding they have grown up in the scholarship and in praxis as discrete concepts. In particular, recognising rivers and forests as rights holders and/or legal persons can only achieve so much in the absence of supportive architecture designed to ensure that the worst (institutional) offenders – those criminologist Rob White and others refer to as ‘carbon criminals’ ­– cannot continue to violate nature’s rights with impunity.

What is your academic background and what was the inspiration behind your Honours research? 

During my Arts degree, I completed a double major in English and Government/International Relations. It was here that I studied environmental politics and was first introduced to Wild Law. I was drawn to theories about how legal systems can be reconfigured in line with justice frameworks that take as their subjects not only humankind but members of the more-than-human world (i.e. multispecies justice). In the latter half of my Law degree, studying Environmental Law and International Law electives enabled me to come to grips with domestic and international environmental law in its present capacity to respond to the exigencies of the climate and biodiversity crises. The culmination of this learning is my Honours research project, which attends to the disconformity between the law as it is and the law as it should be, positioning RoN and ecocide as a necessary bridge between the two.

What do you hope this research will contribute to society and its future?

The RoN and ecocide movements are gaining traction globally. The take-up of RoN laws and ordinances by both nation-states and smaller political units like local councils speaks not only to their conceptual appeal, but to a revolution taking place at the level of our collective consciousness. We know that climate change necessitates systems change, and that the law will play a crucial role in facilitating and governing these monumental shifts (for example, the transition to a low-carbon economy). But the law itself is a system in need of change.

At present, the law largely conceives of nature as the passive backdrop against which human activities play out, as a source of resources and wealth creation, or as an object to which property rights may attach. So long as it retains this anthropocentric, individualist, economic-rationalist orientation, the law will remain (in both normative and practical terms) unequal to the challenge of halting and reversing the imbricated climate and ecological crises. My research will join a growing corpus of literature in the environmental humanities that centres alternative ways of thinking about nature and maps in-roads into institutionalising multispecies justice.

Why were you interested in applying for an Honours Fellowship with the Sydney Environment Institute? 

I had been aware of the Sydney Environmental Institute and its activities for some time, and I knew that SEI’s work and research themes aligned with my own research interests. Several members of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, where I interned in 2022, are themselves members of SEI and encouraged me to apply for the fellowship.

I welcomed the opportunity to join SEI as an Honours Fellow, not least because it promised (and has delivered) the chance to build an interdisciplinary community of practice. Expertise-sharing across traditional disciplinary boundaries is essential in developing solutions to the super wicked problem that is the climate crisis. Through SEI, I’ve got that expertise and inspiration on tap. 

Aside from research, what are your interests and passions? 

I’m an avid reader (of literary fiction) and sometimes writer (of silly experimental poetry). I’m passionate about social justice issues and currently work as a paralegal at a community legal centre providing advice and assistance to victims of sexual violence. When I have the time (and when my injury-prone body cooperates), I enjoy distance running and playing soccer. My guilty pleasure is watching terrible shark films. 

Libby Newton is a 2023 Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. She is currently in her final year of a combined Arts/Law degree. Her research interests include green criminology, Wild Law, international environmental law, and legal responses to gender-based violence.

Header image: BC, Canada by Sarah Lockwood via Unsplash.