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Location: Kader Asmal Room, Law Faculty building

Reimagining the rule of law for ecological integrity in the Anthropocene

Starts: 2020/03/04 13:00
Ends: 2020/03/04 14:00

Reimagining the rule of law for ecological integrity in the Anthropocene

For centuries law has been located within an anthropocentric paradigm. Despite notable developments in international environmental law in particular, law remains complicit in the perpetuation of this paradigm, within which the ‘environment’ (nature, or the non-human world) remains an external utility and benefit to some privileged humans. Within this paradigm, the rule of law has become the nomenclature for a body of legal norms, characteristic of stability, predictability and the maintenance of the status quo.

But faced with multiple and profound socio-ecological crises – within what is increasingly being described as the Anthropocene – the limits of law (and its associated characterization of the environment) are becoming clear, and the ability and desirability of perpetuating the status quo are becoming questioned.

One response to this has been to emphasise the need to develop ‘resilience’ in human institutions and arrangements, (including resilience to the effects of climate change, resilience in urban planning, and resilience-inducing technologies). Here resilience is presented as the positive inverse to the negative of vulnerability. While this is understandable, it risks avoiding interrogating the structural causes of vulnerability, in favour of ‘armouring’ the status quo, and- temporarily- allowing the anthropocentric paradigm to remain unchanged, and hindering practice of an environmental rule of law.

Instead, this paper argues that what is needed is a paradigm shift towards genuinely eco-centric modes of law and governance, encapsulated in a ‘rule of law for ecological integrity’ if the existential challenges of the Anthropocene are to be well navigated. Central to this will be a re-imagination of the concepts of resilience and vulnerability, and reconcilement with our ‘origin stories’ and our relationship with the personality of the environment (which have recently found expression in the ground-breaking case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand). Together these concepts, stories, and expressions offer glimpses of a potentially revolutionary legal departure towards Lex Anthropocenae, as well as an opportunity to reappraise the catalytic potential of our collective vulnerability.​


Nathan Cooper is an academic lawyer, working at the interface of environmental law and human rights law, and in particular on questions around the compatibility of ‘rights claims’ with ecologically sustainable governance. He is interested in the way that formal law shapes norms and interacts with other norms, and in the role of ‘vernacular law’ and law-like emanations, in pursuing (ecosystems) solidarity, and in achieving (ecologicial) justice and (ecocentric) welfare. His current focus is on the governance of socio-economic necessities – in particular on water governance – through international human rights law, domestic constitutions, development goals, and grass-roots organisation. He is also interested in re-imagining the concept of property in the Anthropocene.

Click on the link to download ​Dr Nathan Cooper Abstract.pdf



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