Giving animals, rivers and natural place rights might seem like a radical step, but a new book argues that's exactly the kind of powerful transformative idea the environmental movement needs.

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer and professor at the University of British Columbia, says planet earth is at a crossroads.

"Human beings are causing the sixth mass extinction in the four and a half billion year history of the earth.... The population has grown from three billion to over seven and a half billion. The global economy has grown by 2,000 per cent while average wildlife populations have fallen by about 60 per cent," he said.

"It's clear that the kinds of laws and policies we've been using over the past 50 years just aren't getting the job done — and that's why rights are such a powerful idea."

Boyd's new book The Rights of Nature explores the growing global movement to use rights for non-human entities to protect the environment. He says there are many examples around the world of this, from Ecuador's 2008 constitution enshrining rights for Pachamama (Mother Nature) to landmark cases recognizing the rights of great apes in captivity.

New Zealand river awarded personhood

One pertinent example he says is how in 2017 the Māori Nation in New Zealand won special recognition for the Whanganui River.

The court granted the river the same legal rights as a human being. Boyd says that ruling created guardians who now make decisions in the best interest of the river. This, he argues, is a more powerful protection than environmental law and regulations which can be full of loopholes and often subjugated to other — often economic — interests.

"That's very different from saying we're going to try and minimize the impacts of pollution while we go ahead with growing the economy," he explained. "These are legal rights that give these areas an unprecedented level of protection."

Boyd admits that giving rights to natural things might require a shift in culture. For example, giving rights to animals might create major implications for slaughtering animals for food.

"Granting rights to animals wouldn't mean an end to domestic animals but it would certainly mean we would have to have changes in the way animals are treated," he said.

He says changing perspective is not impossible.

"Over the last five or 10 years we're seeing amazing breakthroughs in the legal rights of animals, species and nature itself," he said

Boyd's book launches Thursday, Sept. 14 with an event at UBC's Museum of Anthropology at 7:30 p.m. PT with a $10 admission fee to the museum.

With files from The Early Edition