I read some really good news today and I want to share it with you. A global movement has begun to grant nature the same legal rights as people. And while it is presumptuous for humans to grant rights to a holistic being that transcends them, it is a big step forward from the exploitation of nature as property.
The first step was taken in 2006 in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, when legal rights were granted to nature to stop the dumping of sewage sludge on agricultural land. A civil organization, The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, helped secure this landmark victory for the environment. Never underestimate the power of a small group of motivated citizens to challenge powerful business interests and a worldview of profit-driven environmental exploitation.
As is the case with legal precedents, this had a knock on effect, and in 2010 in consultation with the above-mentioned NGO, the City of Pittsburgh granted legal rights to nature to prevent fracking and the pollution it causes. Ten US states have passed their own rights of nature laws.
In legal terms what has been established by these cases is both standing and personhood. Standing means that nature has a right to sue, and personhood means that nature has the same legal rights as individual humans, although obviously it must present its case via human representatives.
If the granting of personhood to a holistic entity such as nature seems strange to you, consider this: corporations were granted personhood in 1818. Corporations are also a collection of individuals interacting in a physical environment that speak with one voice through their representatives. The major difference being that there are many private corporations, while there is only one nature comprising all life and matter on earth. Also, the corporation exists for profit maximization and is therefore ultimately unsustainable, while nature exists for the sake of existing and is self-sustaining. So it is only fitting that nature should have the same rights as corporations that up to now have been able to harm it because it could not defend itself.
These American examples are bolstered by environmental breakthroughs in Ecuador, Boliva, New Zealand, and India. In Ecuador in 2008, the national government drafted a new article to its constitution that stated, “"Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycle, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes." In practice this meant and means that all persons can enforce the rights of nature in court. The rights granted are specific (right to restoration, regeneration, and respect), and grant everyone standing, or the right to go to court to defend the environment, regardless of their relationship to or ownership of a piece of land, ecosystem, or ecosystem process. Bolivia, for its part, passed a Law of Mother Earth in 2009, which established 11 new rights for nature, including: “the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.” It is not surprising that Latin America is at the forefront of this movement. Its native peoples have always recognized the Earth as a living being, mother of all things. Consequently, the Bolivian government has established the Plurinational Mother Earth Authority to adapt to climate change and for watershed and forest protection.
The Maori of New Zealand have waged a 140 year campaign to protect their environment. Their goal to have the Whangunui river recognized as a living entity and an ancestor was fulfilled when the New Zealand government granted it legal rights in 2017. In this way, the Maori were able recognize the spiritual value of nature, and its inherent sentient identity interlinked with their own.
In India, a court ruling granted the Ganges and Yamuna rivers legal personhood, in order to protect them from human harm. The question that arose here was whether those responsible for safeguarding these rights would be responsible for any harm to humans by the river, in the case of flooding, for example. Of course, this is to miss the point. As corporations always state in their legal terms and conditions, they are not responsible for acts of nature. Nature itself does not intend or deliberately cause harm, and natural disasters are mostly bad luck, or as often is the case with flooding, bad urban planning, as we saw during Katrina, and the recent floods in Houston. So, no, nature’s representatives are not responsible for random acts of nature, but nature has a right not to be intentionally harmed by people, which occurs most often by proxy by managers and stakeholders of corporations who have no connection to the particular environment in question. Basically, what all these legal decisions do is define and codify the legal rights of nature, its “legal naturehood,” including its right to existence, sustainability, regeneration, and restoration.
It is hard to overstate the revolutionary change this represents. For far too long nature has been treated as an object to be exploited for short-term profit by private business interests. Now that we have reached the point that such exploitation and wholesale environmental destruction poses an existential threat to humanity, communities like Tamaqua and nation states such has Ecuador, and others, have stepped up to demand that nature be given its due representation in human affairs. More importantly, the granting of legal rights to nature codifies the fact that human beings are connected to nature and we are therefore dependent on it. As such, it is in our interest to preserve and protect it. The reason the natural environment has suffered so much violence, is because it hasn’t had a voice. Rights of nature laws give the environment that voice, and resituate humans as stewards of nature, and not the reverse. This is a welcome return to the beginning.
Native peoples have long maintained this symbiotic relationship with nature, its species, ecosystems, and the natural landscape. Above and beyond the practical interest of protecting nature in order to survive, humans also draw their sense of meaning and belonging from the earth. The places where people live shape human culture. Human spirituality ultimately derives from nature. From the early stages of human existence, hunter-gatherers venerated the animals they depended on to survive, and created mythologies based on the natural world. Even today, the concept of god is a derivative of the mystery of nature in its totality. While scientists have long attempted to categorize nature, the earth is such a complex living system that we will never be able to fully understand the interactions between all species, and the natural events that are beyond our control.
Up until now, environmental law and policy has been about mitigating the environmental impacts of human activity for humans’ sake, or paying restitution to individuals or groups for environmental damages; it has been about setting up local, state, national, and international frameworks for “acceptable” exploitation. To be an environmental professional meant cleaning up other people’s mess, instead of ensuring they don’t make a mess in the first place. These landmark legal rulings set a precedent in recognizing the right of nature to exist in, of, and for itself, which presupposes the application of the precautionary principal in all economic activity; moreover, it paves the way for a paradigm shift from the pursuit of growth as an end in itself, to sustainability.
Today it is common for corporations to have corporate social responsibility programs and sustainability initiatives and departments where they address the environmental and social impacts of their business activities. This is in large part a scam, generally referred to as greenwashing, given that these companies are mandated to generate profit for their shareholders, first and foremost. What they ignore is the fact that there is nothing sustainable about growth for its own sake. Accelerated consumption only increases environmental destruction. The earth is finite, its resources limited, and everything artificial that is produced, from a hardwood table to a cellphone, ultimately comes from nature. Producing something artificial is always downcycling in physics, with waste as a byproduct (in regard to energy, pollution, inefficient use of resources, and end of lifecycle products). Although some resources are renewable if managed properly, overproduction is always destructive.
It does not help that corporations promote premature obsolescence of products using lower quality materials that wear out faster, and that through their advertising they encourage citizens (whom they exclusively refer to as consumers) to engage in status competition by buying the latest make or model of X, Y or Z. Now that nature has legal standing, it has its own voice through human representatives, and can fight to preserve itself, without having to rely on companies claiming to be “green,” while continuing with their harmful “maximize shareholder value” behavior.
The legal battle of the future will increasingly not be about who gets to use nature and how, but how it can be preserved for all, including nature itself. It is this holistic philosophy that will save us from the fractured special interests that are exploiting the environment for their own greed. It will also provide us with the legal and political framework to move beyond capitalism to a management of world resources as a commons, without the tragedy of certain individuals taking more than their fair share.
So in spite of all the bad news, and the political distractions of the ruling classes fighting over power, I am optimistic that humanity will move toward a holistic worldview, where human cultures will thrive in mutual cooperation with other species while respecting the integrity of nature in all its manifestations.
What the rights of nature laws codify is the law of nature itself. Humans are a part of nature, we do not own or control it. As long as we remember and respect this simple truth, our lives will be both harmonious and meaningful.
Hat tip to Mari Margil