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A Manifesto for the Rights of Things

Text: Marjanne van Helvert

Many humans are proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in 1948 and voted in by 48 of the 58 member states of the United Nations at the time, it is seen as a milestone in human civilisation.

From then on, there was a blueprint for what it meant to be human, and for the quality of life all humans should strive for, for themselves and for each other. The Declaration of Human Rights is a promise of progress. It made many humans feel that there would be no going back from it, once it had been written down and signed by so many nations. Regardless, most people in the world are still being denied some or a great many of these rights today.


Apart from making humans feel that things are going forward and getting better, the Declaration of Human Rights makes them feel human. People all over the world and all over the various institutionalised hierarchies of oppression, such as gender, race, colour, class, sexuality, religion, etc., are merged into a utopia of sameness. They have the same rights, because they are all members of the same species with the same capabilities for experiencing happiness, pain, and suffering, and therefore the same rights to well-being. The most important part of their identity is not whether they are male or female, brown or white, rich or poor, but that they are human. They are not a reptile or a machine or a piece of rock; all categories that can quite easily be dismissed when encountering a human. Thus, the Declaration of Human Rights categorises humans as separate from other entities, from animals, plants, rocks, oceans, ecosystems, gases, planets, galaxies. Also from cars, robots, cities, phones, jeans, and fountain pens. More importantly, it puts humans above all of these other entities, and the well-being of the individual human above that of all other entities. The well-being of an individual human is considered more important than the well-being of a pig or a tree (both alive), an ocean or a planet (not alive?) or a robot or a teapot (definitely not alive). There are no such declarations of universal rights for anything other than humans, except in science fiction. Non-humans are by definition excluded from human rights.


A Free Animal Is a Happy Animal

Yet, as the rights of humans are defined, other entities are defined by their exclusion. Does that mean they must be categorised and their rights considered as well? Activists have called for the invocation of animal rights for example, by which they mean animals other than humans. There is no such thing as a universal declaration of animal rights yet. It seems to be of a lesser priority to humans than human rights; they find the well-being of humans more urgent than the well-being of animals. However, there is an increasing awareness, encouraged by a growing body of scientific research and knowledge of the abilities of animals to feel happiness, pain, and suffering in ways that are not as distant from our own as we once thought them to be. In other words, humans increasingly recognise the claim that animal well-being should be considered, by humans, on the basis of their ability to experience emotions. And since most animals cannot follow the human ways of communicating these claims, some humans take it upon themselves to speak for animals and represent their possible needs and desires. A few of these claims have been made into national laws against animal abuse for example, yet anything remotely resembling a universal declaration of animal rights seems to be impossible to conjure. As difficult as it was, and remains, to recognise the sameness and therefore the equality of all human beings, the task of recognising a sameness in the category of animals would be even more daunting. This quest would take us one step up the taxonomic ladder of Linnaeus, where we find ourselves among a seemingly infinite variety of species within the animal kingdom, all expressing different characteristics, needs, and capabilities. A dolphin likely has different desires than a beetle. We would need to draw up a universal declaration of rights per animal species to meet all of their specific needs. Can humans even imagine those? Do some animals have more complex desires than others? Can they be more complex than ours? And so, the concept of universal human rights becomes a tool of categorisation and hierarchy of everything non-human. 


Trees Flourish in Family Life 

Where once the idea of a fish with feelings was ridiculous, scientists are now looking into the social lives of trees. According to recent findings, trees can, and do share intricate networks of food distribution, temperature control, and the support of offspring. Trees fare better in close-knit communities than on their own. This type of research is quite likely to be extrapolated to other types of plants, and perhaps to fungi, bacteria, and other organisms. As our understanding of life on earth in all its forms grows, so does our empathy for these other living things. Humans recognise something of themselves in other organisms. We seem to be in this together, feeling our way through a hard knock life. A universal declaration of the rights of organisms might make it a happier life.



Is It Alive? (And Does It Matter?)

Humans have long pondered this question and they have answered it with various definitions. Once a definition of life has been imagined, a category of non-life has been formed by being excluded. And so have calls for its rights. The rights of ecosystems, rivers, storms, oceans, and fossil fuels have been interpreted and obeyed by peoples from all over the world throughout time. In western civilisation they have recently been reawakened in French philosopher Bruno Latour’s conception of the “Parliament of Things”. This type of proposal to give any possible entity legal representation in human decision-making, has either been picked up or simultaneously imagined by various media, artists, activists, communities, and politicians. The 140-year negotiation of a Maori tribe to recognise the Whanganui River as a legal person, with the same rights as a human within New Zealand law, has been hailed as one of the recent successes of implementing the rights of a “thing” in modern law.


Humans Need Things

Whom are the rights of these things really meant for though? While the rights of the living may be based on their ability to “feel” in their own right, the rights of things are made up of our own need. Life needs things. Humans need things. We need the things to stay where they are. We need most of the things to remain in that particular, delicate balance that supports enduring life on earth. We need them to have the right not to be disturbed and transformed by us humans, the right to be left alone, as they once were, slowly having come to rest in relative stability after billions of years of violent formations, destructions, extinctions, and evolutions. Humans have thought of themselves as tiny little creatures in a boundless universe. They have imagined their influence on their surroundings to be negligible at most. They have at times imagined that “nature” was so impassive and impregnable that its infinite resources would be at their disposal forever. This has turned out to be a paradoxical combination of megalomania and false modesty, and it is turning on them.


Too Many Things to Consider 

Now, some humans have used too many things, extracted too many, created too many, consumed too many, thrown too many away, and perhaps did not care enough. As a massive collective of tiny creatures, they have altered environmental processes and compositions on such a scale that the equilibrium that supports their own existence has started to shift. They did not realise that what they created would last forever, perhaps as garbage disintergrating at a glacial pace underground or in the oceans, or as carbon molecules being released en masse into the atmosphere after having been locked up safely in the earth’s crust for billions of years. Most of the humans did not think about the consequences of this irreversible reshuffle of materials. 



Filling the World with Rightless Things

Non-living things are our ancestors, our neighbours, our nurses, our dominatrixes. Humans joined with them and procreated, and together they made stuff. Clothes, houses, bicycles, record players, inflatable unicorn floats. The stuff of dreams and the stuff of nightmares. Humans turned trees into ships, bunk beds, and rocking chairs. They turned oil into plastic, plants into jeans, cows into burgers and shoes. They burned everything for heat and sent carbon clouds to the skies. They filled the world with things that weren’t originally part of the system, so the system faltered. These things aren’t natural, neither living nor dead. These things have no future with humans. They are with too many, roaming around like an army adrift, suffocating life where they become unruly. 


Our Stuff May Grant Us the Right to Survive

Could there be such a thing as material rights? After considering the rights of humans, animals, organisms, and non-living entities, we should not forget about the stuff that we bring into this world ourselves. Once we create something, we are responsible for its existence. We need that thing to have the right to serve its purpose and to survive, because if it doesn’t, it will go on to further disturb the balance of things. We need the ship, the chair, the bike, and the pants to have the right to be taken care of, to be loved and repaired, to be given to those who need it. We cannot let them go to waste. We have to think carefully before we create something, because humans will be burdened with it for a long time. Just like the birth of a human being is recorded, and its rights are (ideally) monitored and protected for the rest of its lifetime, the creation of a thing should be a moment of reverence and responsibility for all involved. Humans need to expand rights to all things, because these things in turn extend their rights to us: their sustainability prolongs our own. Things might grant us humans the right to survive, if we treat them with respect. 

Marjanne van Helvert is a textile designer, writer, and lecturer based in Amsterdam. She received a bacherlor in textile design from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and a master in cultural studies from the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Both in her design work and her theoretical work, she focuses on the social, political, and environmental contexts of design, and the role of utopia and ideology in design history. She’s the editor of “The Responsible Object, A History of Design Ideology for the Future” (2016) and writer of the “Dirty Design Manifesto” (2013).


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