Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy

Our project, Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy, is part of the effort to examine issues relevant to the UN’s global sustainable development goals identified in Agenda 2030. Our research project particularly focuses on the actions of a growing number of jurisdictions over the past decade and a half to grant rights to nature. States have adopted laws, local municipalities have adopted local ordinances, and courts in various countries have ruled in favor of nature for its own benefit. Our project explores the potential challenges, politics, and resistance to conceiving and implementing such Rights of Nature (RoN) initiatives. Despite the seeming novelty of these initiatives, we place RoN within the longer history of the expansion of rights and the creation of new legal subjects which has characterized the “rights revolution” that began in the mid-20th century. We will analyse four potential tensions that will help to define the relationship of liberalism to the practice of recognizing the rights and political agency of non-humans. The first is the tension between RoN and property rights. The second is the tension between RoN and human rights. The third is the tension between individual and collective rights that RoN highlights. The fourth is the ability of democratic institutions, which claim legitimacy due to popular sovereignty and the protection of human freedom, to accommodate non-human legal subjects. We will show how RoN may require liberal societies to directly confront these questions.

Since at least the 1870s the Maori who lived along the Whanganui (the Whanganui iwi) sought to have the Crown government legally recognize and respect their relationship and claims to the Whanganui River. Their relationship was recognized by the state in 2017. As part of the 2017 legislation, known as the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the Whanganui River was recognized as a legal entity with rights and responsibilities. It is owned by itself. A representative appointed by the Whanganui iwi and a representative appointed by the government are jointly given the responsibility of representing the river. The Whangaui River as pictured in a set of postcards titled “Our glorious empire,” published between the 1930s and 1940s. Image author: Godfrey Phillips (NZ) Ltd. See:,_Pipiriki.jpg

About the project

Duration: 2020-2024

Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy is funded by Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development.

Project Publications:

Seth Epstein, "Rights of nature, human species identity, and political thought in the anthropocene," The Anthropocene Review (May 2022): 1-19. DOI:10.1177/20530196221078929

Seth Epstein, Marianne Dahlén, Victoria Enkvist, and Elin Boyer, "Liberalism and Rights of Nature: A Comparative Legal and Historical Perspective," Law, Culture and the Humanities (June 2022): 1-23. DOI:10.1177/17438721211065735

Project Researchers and Affiliates

Project Researchers:

Marianne Dahlén, Universitetslektor i rättshistoria vid Juridiska institutionen, Professorer, lärare, forskare

Victoria Enkvist, Universitetslektor vid Juridiska institutionen, Professorer, lärare, forskare

Seth Epstein, forskare vid Centrum för mångvetenskaplig forskning om religion och samhälle (CRS)

Project Affiliates:

Elin Boyer, Doktarand vid Centrum för forskning vid Juridiska fakulteten


We held our symposium, titled "National Interest, Representation, and the State: Implications for the Recognition of Rights of Nature" on 5 June 2023 at the Humanistiska teatern at Uppsala University. We thank the speakers and attendees who contributed to the day. For a detailed summary of the symposium, please click here.

The program for the symposium can be found below:

9.00 – 09.15: Morning Refreshments

09.15- 10.00: Introductions

Welcoming Remarks: Seth Epstein, Researcher, Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society, Uppsala University

Initial Address: Claes Tängh Wrangel, Researcher and Acting Managing Director at Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CEMFOR), Uppsala University

Title: “Dreams of a decolonial language? Critical theory and the Anthropocene”

10.00 -10.45: Presentations on National Interest

           Love Rönnelid, Postdoctoral Researcher, Law Faculty, Uppsala University

Title: “Some potential implications of using rights-based argumentation in the law to protect nature”

Maria Refors Legge, Researcher, Legal Department, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI)

           Title: “Nature as a right for future generations”

10.45- 11.30 Discussion in small groups in separate rooms

11.30-11.45 General discussion in the Humanities Theatre

11.45- 13.00 LUNCH

13.15- 14.00 Presentations on Representation

Jonas Hultin Rosenberg, Researcher, Political Science Department, Uppsala University

Topic: “The democratic representation of nature and other entities that cannot represent themselves”

Christina Allard, Associate Professor of Law, Division of Social Sciences, Luleå University of Technology

Topic: “Indigenous rights and communities' relations with nature”

14.00- 14.45 Discussion in small groups in separate rooms

14.45 -15.00 General discussion in the Humanities Theatre

15.00- 15.30 Afternoon coffee and pastries

15.30 – 17.00 Reflection and discussion in the Humanities Theatre

           Pella Thiel, Knowledge Expert, United Nations Harmony with Nature Initiative

Michael Nausner, Systematic Theologian and Researcher at the Unit for Research and Analysis of the Church of Sweden

CRS Environmental and Climate Humanities Seminar

Seth Epstein, Human Species Identity in the Anthropocene: A role for rights of nature?

Moderated by Martha Middlemiss Lé Mon, CRS

When: October 13, 2022 kl. 12.00-13.00

Where: room 22-0031 (same entrance as Humanistiska teatern), see map here:


A collaboration between CEMUS, Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Uppsala University and SLU, CRS, Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society, Uppsala University, and Sofia Oreland, Department of Theology, Uppsala University.

Higher Seminar in Public Law, Faculty of Law, Uppsala University

"Empowering nature? A multi-disciplinary approach"

This seminar serves as an introduction to our project, which examines the implications for democratic participation and political institutions of contemporary efforts to recognize nature and natural features as rights-bearing legal subjects. We will do so by comparing these efforts with the historical recognition of other legal subjects, whose acknowledgment widened the circle of civic membership. For our seminar we are circulating a draft of the project’s first article, which explains our ideas in greater detail, and are looking forward to getting feedback on the draft and discussing future directions for the project.

22 April 2021, 13:15-15:00, on Zoom

Register for the seminar to amanuensis by April 16 at the latest. The article for the seminar will be distributed upon registration.

Flyer for symposium 5 June 2023
The symposium is designed to bring together scholars from different fields and members of the public for a conversation about the implications of rights of nature for democracy.
Last modified: 2023-09-25