Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

On Earth Day, Recognize the Rights of Mother Earth

Maude BarlowShannon Biggs

This Earth Day, we need to start envisioning a future based not on exploiting nature but on recognizing that nature has inherent rights.

Ironically, this week also marks the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, the worst one in U.S. history.

Beyond headline-grabbing catastrophes, every day we dump 2 million tons of toxic waste into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population.

Every day we literally blow the tops off of mountains to release hidden coal.

And it’s all legal, because under current law, nature is nothing more that human property, like a slave.

But thanks to some innovative thinking by governments, municipalities and indigenous peoples, a wiser mindset is taking hold. And the United Nations has also begun to consider the rights of nature.

This may be the first step toward the adoption of a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. A companion piece to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, this emerging declaration — which would be backed by enforceable laws around the world — seeks to redefine our human relationship with all other species from one of dominance to one of harmony.

Many places have already begun to change their laws in accordance with this new way of thinking.

On November 16, 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to recognize the legally enforceable rights of nature. Faced with dangerous “gas-fracking,” Pittsburgh’s city council unanimously passed a cutting-edge law that stops gas-shale drilling by elevating the rights of communities and nature above the interests of energy corporations.

Nearly two-dozen other U.S. municipalities have passed similar ordinances, finding that existing laws cannot protect their local ecosystems and, by extension, their human health, safety and welfare.

Canadian communities are also wondering if legally recognizing rights for nature can stop the privatization of their public water systems and halt dangerous tar-sands drilling in the fragile Alberta region.

And these bold municipalities are not alone.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to rewrite its constitution to include rights for nature to exist, flourish and evolve.

This year, Bolivia is set to pass 11 separate laws recognizing the rights of Mother Earth.

These laws do not give rights to individual bugs or trees. Rather, they stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of local ecosystems.

A worldwide movement, led by indigenous peoples, has emerged to support this cultural and legal shift.

Einstein said that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. The earth, and all its inhabitants, urgently needs this to be one of those times.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, chairperson of Food and Water Watch in the U.S., and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which is instrumental in the international community in working for the right to water for all people.

Shannon Biggs

Shannon Biggs is director of the community rights program at Global Exchange.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'A No-Brainer': Lawmakers Urge Pelosi to Hold Vote on Stock Trading Ban

"Perhaps this means some of our colleagues will miss out on lucrative investment opportunities," said House members in a bipartisan letter. "We don't care."

Jessica Corbett ·


Virginia Schools Sue Youngkin Mandate Making Masks Optional

The Republican governor wants to allow parents to decide whether their children should wear masks to school to mitigate Covid-19 transmission—guidance at least 58 school districts have no plans to follow.

Julia Conley ·


US Puts Troops on Standby as War Tensions Over Ukraine Mount

The U.K. threatens "lightning war" as military forces mobilize in eastern Europe.

Andrea Germanos ·


Advocacy Group Urges Pfizer to Combat Paxlovid Inequality

"Help end the pandemic this year around the world," one advocate told Pfizer. "Not just in a handful of rich countries."

Kenny Stancil ·


260+ Companies Demand 'Big, Bold Action' on Clean Energy

"The time to act is now," the firms wrote in a letter to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo