Peter Burdon

people are People too, you know
A F A C U LT Y O F T H E P R O F E S S I O N S
RESEARCH PROFILE

From the perspective of the 21st Century, we

Indeed, a few names probably spring to

It came about in part because some People (most of
them with a capital ‘P’) began to formulate and organise
a collection of new ideas about people (with a little ‘p’),
which called into question whether the whole ‘p’ thing
really made sense at all. Rather than the traditional
collection of writhing masses, without much in the
way of discrete rights or interests, philosophers of the
enlightenment began to argue that even quite ordinary
people are individuals deserving of some basic respect
and dignity. It took a while, but eventually this notion
gathered steam, and here we are today, perhaps still
(in some cases) the great unwashed – but with the law
on our side.

In any case, given the opportunity to examine the names
on your list, there is a fair chance that Peter Burdon is not
one of them. At least, not yet.

might be forgiven for taking the state of affairs for granted.
But 200 years ago, people (with a little ‘p’) weren’t
always People (with a capital ‘P’), when it came to the
law. Indeed, the law has had to change substantially,
and more than just a few times since then, for the likes
of many of us to be able to vote, or to own property or,
indeed, to not be someone’s property.

It needs to be stressed that the agents of this change
would not all necessarily be comfortable with all the fruits
of their labours. Indeed, some of them might be quietly
horrified if they knew, for example, just who is allowed
to vote these days. But many of them have, nonetheless,
gained the status of heroes for recognising the need for
reform, and having had the courage to follow it through.

mind as you read this. Among them might be people who
helped put an end to slavery, or extended the vote beyond
the scope of a particular social status, or religious affiliation,
or gender. The list might include the names of people who
helped put an end to the segregation of races, or called for
the dissolution of serfdom, or helped secure Indigenous
Australians a right to vote and stand for Parliament.

I hope you are comfortable, because, in

a few moments, things might begin to get a little more –
unexpected.

That’s because, if you are anything like me, the list of things
we have spoken about so far seems, well, fairly obvious.
It’s partly the benefit of hindsight, of course – perhaps
supported, if you are a thoughtful kind of person, by some
carefully considered philosophical values or beliefs. There
is a natural tendency to think that we might have elbowed
our way alongside the Suffragettes, or quietly sat down
with Gandhi – if we had been there, if we had known.
And that’s where Peter comes in, and quietly points out that
this is what we always tend to think, every time it happens.
We just don’t ever seem to notice that we are there, and
that we do know, while it’s happening all around us.

Take, for example, the

environment. Or, to put it perhaps a little
more forthrightly, the Earth, and Everything
In It. It is fair to say that Peter, himself, does
not mind the more forthright way. Indeed,
this is one of the areas of law and society
which interests him the most.

‘Can our law work to protect the
environment, or will it continue to facilitate
it’s destruction?’, he asks.
We remember those heroes of the
enlightenment, and their interests in
human rights and dignity. But we might
also reflect that many of them held firm
convictions that it did not stop there. Their
philosophy and beliefs frequently led them
to the conclusion that they were part of
something much larger than humanity.
Humanism, oddly enough, opened the
possibility of us being beyond merely
human – and instead being earthlings.
Many of our heroes, for example, were
not only opposed to slavery, but also to
vivisection, or other forms of cruelty to
animals. Over the course of the years, this
has translated into laws which govern the
treatment of animals – especially animals
which we use as resources. As a result,
our domesticated animal friends are now,
at least to some degree, hedged about
by laws which govern how we may breed,
treat or use them.
In more recent times, we have seen
the emergence of heritage laws, which
serve to protect particular regions of
natural beauty, or areas of significant
ecological uniqueness, including, in some
cases, individual trees. It is true to say,
though, that in the face of strong social or
economic pressure, these laws can give
way, and we might no longer recognise
the protections which many people
envisaged, or hoped might be provided.
It is also true to say that heritage laws
are essentially human-centred. They do
not acknowledge any inherent rights for
those regions of natural beauty, or areas
of significant ecological uniqueness, or a
particular old tree.
But if we fast forward another 200
hundred years, some people see a future
where the franchise of inalienable rights
might have been further extended to the
benefit of the world as a whole. To a time

where we will perhaps have incorporated
the very fabric of nature into a legal sytem
which recognises certain fundamental
rights to dignity and fair treatment.
It might be surprising, but this very
thought is well-underway in spheres of
research and philosophical investigation.
The concept is often referred to as ‘Earth
Jurisprudence’, or even, ‘Wild Law’. As a
law researcher, Peter is interested in its
legal implications for societies and their
environments.
So is this a natural continuum of moral
philosophy and legal instruments, or must
we pause before we take the matter too
far, and elect a forest to Parliament, or
get sued by a hedgehog?
‘The legal recognition of nature’s rights
is a novel but potentially important step
toward an ecologically sustainable human
presence on Earth,’ Peter explains, ‘when
the legal standing of an entity shifts, so too
does our understanding of it. Throughout
history, we have seen a continual evolution
in the types of things that can be owned,
who was considered capable of ownership
and the meaning of ownership itself.’
One of the subjects of Peter’s research,
Professor Christopher Stone – a pioneer
of earth jurisprudence – put it this way,
‘throughout legal history, each successive
extension of rights to some new entity
has been, thereto, a bit unthinkable ...
each time there is a movement to
confer rights onto some new ‘entity’,
the proposal is bound to sound odd or
frightening or laughable.’
But this need not necessarily be the
frightening concept it might at first seem.
As Peter points out, ‘Achieving the delicate
balance between human use and access
to nature and its rights would be key.’
In the meantime, it is clear that public
sentiment at least acknowledges some
need for environmental protection to
be enshrined in law, and yet evidence
continues to point to an ever-worsening
situation, suggesting that current
measures fail to meet this need.
Peter’s research focuses on this type of
situation – where there is a disconnect
between law, and things which many
people, perhaps even most people,

If you would like to contact Peter for more information about his research,
please email peter.d.burdon@adelaide.edu.au

would consider to be sensible, or
important, or even essential.
He is interested in whether law is
something which should be fought against
under such circumstances, or whether
it is something which can be changed,
and put to use by us newly enfranchised
people, who now have it at our disposal.

Peter explains this in terms of a

Democratic Deficit – the idea that there
can be a gap between the values a society
holds, and the laws which govern it.

For some reason, there appears to be
a certain toughness, even immutability,
to human rule-making, which makes it
much harder to change laws than one
might think – even when such changes
might appear to be absolutely imperative,
or fundamental to dignity, or essential for
wellbeing, or just plain right.
Of course, everybody’s idea of what is
right varies. That’s true and, of course,
extremely important. But it is also true,
and worth realising, that our earlier list
is not really very controversial anymore.
It might not be finished, it might not be
perfect, but there are certainly not mobs of
people on the steps of Parliament calling
for the abolition of universal suffrage.
It turns out that the idea of universal
suffrage was a value held within society,
at least to some degree, long before it
came into law. Before it was enacted,
it was believed, and held to be an
important idea. It was talked about,
and hoped for. It was a little frightening
(who knows what might happen when
uneducated people, or even women, get
to vote), but it was also strangely quite
right, even while it wasn’t yet real.
So now we have the law on our side, what
are we going to do with it? Are we going
to just feel good about what has changed
already, or start to think about what needs
to change in the future? Are we going
to take a chance that what we believe
should be reflected in our laws, or are we
too afraid that something might go wrong,
and open the floodgates to calamity?
According to Peter, each and every one
of us could be a name on that list of
people who bridged the gap between
what the law is, and what it should be.

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