What is "Rights of Nature"?
Modern-day environmental laws rose up over 40 years ago out of spreading environmental disasters such as the silencing of bird populations through DDT poisoning, the engulfing of the California coast by the enormous Santa Barbara oil spill, the televised futility of firefighters combating the burning Cuyahoga River, and the growing death under the surface of Lake Erie. Despite achieving some notable successes over the years, our modern environmental laws have been unable to prevent increasingly grave threats, including climate change, drying waterways, and disappearing species. These and other environmental threats contribute to growing populations around the globe without clean water, safe shelter, healthy food or other basic necessities.
The weaknesses of our environmental laws stem in large part from the fact that our overarching legal system treats the natural world as property that can be exploited and degraded, rather than as an integral ecological partner with its own rights to exist and thrive. While our laws focus on the rights and needs of people to flourish, they pay relatively little attention to the same rights on the part of the natural world. They assume that the environment will be protected if humans take from it a little less, and a little less quickly. But this simply slows, never stops, the downward slide. Since we are inextricably intertwined with our environment, this trend does not bode well for us either.
The environment is increasingly registering its objections to this legal mismatch. Climate change is the most direct protest, one that disproportionately impacts the most disadvantaged human populations. But other signs are increasingly making themselves known.
For example, decades of damming and pumping progressively more fresh water and pouring back contaminated wastewater have pushed ecosystems such as the massive San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, and its fish and wildlife, to near collapse. The reaction to this crisis by some of California’s most eminent scholars? To criticize the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for preventing further human manipulation of the waterways, and to denigrate ESA’s lack of a “provision for allowing species to go extinct.” This stark reaction illustrates the inevitable endpoint of our current laws, one in which water and other elements of the natural world will continue to be polluted and unwisely used, with a growing scramble for what is left. Members of the natural world will disappear first, and without major change, our lives and livelihoods will be next. This is already the case for numerous disadvantaged California communities who do not have clean water for their basic needs.
This does not have to happen. The false dogma of “humans over nature” needs to shift to allow us to recognize our interconnectedness with the natural world and acknowledge its rights to exist and thrive. By creating a legal system that incorporates and respects ecosystem rights, we will prompt planning and actions that ensure that we truly live sustainably, for the benefit of all humans and of the natural world that sustains us.
Fortunately, models are cropping up for legal systems that can steer us in the right direction. For example, the Ecuadorian Constitution at Articles 71 and 72 endows the environment with inalienable rights to "exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." The Constitution further grants individuals the legal authority to defend these rights on behalf of the environment. This language acknowledges the interdependence between humans and environment, and respects both sides of that tightly-knit relationship. The Constitution also led to the adoption, led by Bolivia, of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which was formally presented to the United Nations in an April 2011 General Assembly event.
In examples closer to home, numerous U.S. towns and cities have been adopting ordinances that grant legal rights to the natural world and enforcement rights to affected communities. Earth Law Center itself will be campaigning for legal rights to be granted to waterways and fish for the flows necessary for their health. These “rights to flow” would be safeguarded and enforced by independent, appointed guardians representing the waterways. Such a system would prompt improved sustainable water planning that benefits both humans and ecosystems, a particularly important task in the face of climate change impacts on water.
The development and implementation of legal rights for ecosystems will create its own feedback loop – one where science and ethics drives law, which drives culture, which drives further evolution in law, science and ethics – until the law and the culture meet, and we cannot envision a time where our laws relegated the natural world to second-class status.
This feedback loop will drive other disciplines as well: our policy, economic, financial and corporate governance systems similarly arose from a flawed foundation of nature as property to be manipulated and controlled. The success of efforts to remake our legal systems will depend on similar evolutions in these other disciplines.
Along this path, “environmentalism” itself will evolve from a subset of the population acting to safeguard the planet, into a deeply-felt awareness in the hearts and minds of all individuals, an awareness that guides our self-governance over how we live our lives and make our daily choices.
Related Documents and Links
Summary of Key Milestones in Rights of Nature Movement
Center for Earth Jurisprudence
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature
World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth
Wild Law UK
The Gaia Foundation
POLIS Project on Green Legal Theory
California Coastkeeper Alliance