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Rights of Nature: One Big Step for Nature, One Small Step for Humankind

We must consume less. We must change everything we know.

A young girl plays with colorful rose petals during the Inti Raymi celebration in the village of Pesillo, Ecuador. The highland Indians, wearing beautiful costumes, dance, drink and sing with no rest. Colorful processions in honor of the God Inti (Sun) pass through the mountain villages giving thanks for the harvest and expressing their deep relation to the Mother Earth (Pachamama). (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)

A young girl plays with colorful rose petals during the Inti Raymi celebration in the village of Pesillo, Ecuador. The highland Indians, wearing beautiful costumes, dance, drink and sing with no rest. Colorful processions in honor of the God Inti (Sun) pass through the mountain villages giving thanks for the harvest and expressing their deep relation to the Mother Earth (Pachamama). (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)

Between the forest fires, plagues, and locusts, it’s beginning to look like humanity has finally breached the “seventh seal,” initiating a showdown of biblical proportions. Unlike the holy version, however, this time humankind has only itself to blame.

In a statement released in June, leaders at the United Nations, World Health Organization, and World Wildlife Federation International declared that “pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature. . . the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places are the driving force behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans.” 

Will the virus known as SARS-Cov-2 be the tipping point for humanity – the point at which we realize that our incessant bulldozing of the natural environment must end because we are destroying ourselves along with it?

Probably not. If a vaccine comes along, it’s likely that the “2020 Coronavirus Pandemic” will recede in our memories just like the “1918 Flu Pandemic.” The phrase “returning to normal” can already be heard on the lips of governors across the U.S., from Oregon to Florida, and elected leaders in-between.

Returning to normal, of course, means returning to an economy fueled by the belief that endless growth is possible, that the planet exists solely to fuel our iPhones, our data centers, our new “Space Force,” and our seemingly endless fascination with the Kardashians

Returning to normal, of course, means returning to an economy fueled by the belief that endless growth is possible, that the planet exists solely to fuel our iPhones, our data centers, our new “Space Force,” and our seemingly endless fascination with the Kardashians. It means returning to a way of life in which our core beliefs rest comfortably uncontested – including the notion that our needs and wants should rightfully supplant all others, in the name of economic expansion, population growth, and human “exceptionalism.”

It’s a “normal” in which the best that humanity can offer in the name of “protecting the environment” is a system in which the biggest corporations – from manufacturing, to agribusiness, to oil and gas extraction – have the biggest voice in writing environmental regulations. Regulations which, ostensibly, are supposed to regulate their own industries. It’s a normal in which those industries have more power and standing than the people or natural environment affected by their decisions.

 It’s a normal in which oceans continue to acidify, the forever extinction of plants and animals accelerates, forests are clear-cut and razed, mountaintops are blown off, microplastics are consumed by the smallest creatures at the ocean’s deepest depths, over three hundred synthetic chemicals are now found in every child, and Siberia boils.

It’s a normal in which those in power stay in power by diverting our gaze from the dominos that are falling, to reinforce our belief that everything is just fine. They know that by the time enough people worry about these “existential” threats, it will be too late to make the difficult decisions necessary to turn it around.

Turning it around means changing almost everything we know. It doesn’t mean no fracking for oil and gas, it means eliminating their extraction. It doesn’t mean expanding production of power by leveling mountains for industrial wind farms, it means actually reducing the amount of power that we use.

It means consuming less and using less. And when have you heard any politician running on a platform of anything but promises of “more!”?

If we’re not capable of controlling ourselves, then we need rules that empower those who care to restrain those who don’t.

Rights of Nature       

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Taking steps to recognize that nature, and yes, the planet itself, has certain rights; and empowering those who care about nature to step into the shoes of rivers, oceans, forests, and mountains to legally defend those rights in front of courts and environmental agencies, would be one big step for nature, one small step for humankind.

Using laws to limit our ability to harm basic environmental functions – the ability of waterways to provide clean water, the ability of forests to provide clean air and absorb carbon – provides a way in which people can stop others from interfering with those basic functions upon which all life relies.

Our environmental regulatory system, it seems, has merely regulated the rate at which the natural environment will disappear.

Why legal rights? Rights provide the highest form of protection for certain values. Since we value free speech, we protect that speech through the creation of a protected right to speak (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Because we value the privacy of our homes, we protect that privacy by recognizing a right against certain searches of our homes by police (Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

In addition to the argument that the essentialness of natural systems – for our survival, as well as the survival of other life on the planet – requires the highest level of protection that the law can provide, rights of nature also makes sense for another reason: because nothing else has worked.

Nearly two generations after landmark environmental laws for clean water and clean air were enacted in the U.S., with similar laws adopted around the globe, the state of the environment is worse now by almost every major statistic. While rivers don’t (routinely) catch on fire anymore, it should be apparent to anyone paying attention that we are on a long, steady march to nowhere.

Our environmental regulatory system, it seems, has merely regulated the rate at which the natural environment will disappear.

Frustration with this status quo has led many to embrace a new frontier of environmental law. Beginning in 2006, cities, towns, and counties across the U.S. began passing local laws recognizing the legally-protected rights of ecosystems to “exist, flourish, regenerate, and be restored.” They were driven by specific threats of siting toxic waste dumps, fracking for shale gas, corporate water withdrawals, new high voltage power lines, and aerial pesticide spraying.

In 2008, the people of Ecuador created a new precedent, overwhelmingly ratifying a new national constitution recognizing legal rights of nature, or Pachamama.

Over the last five years, courts in India, Colombia, and Bangladesh have declared that rivers and other ecosystems have rights, and political parties across the globe – including the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the United States – have declared their support for rights of nature laws.

Tribal nations have also led the way. The White Earth Nation of Ojibwe has adopted a law recognizing the rights of manoomin (wild rice), and the Menominee, Yurok, Nez Perce, and Ponca Nations have adopted laws and resolutions recognizing the rights of rivers and other ecosystems. As they have expressed, this represents both an issue of sovereignty, as well as an alignment of tribal laws with long-held indigenous respect for nature.

Since it is beyond thinkable in the U.S. that the federal and state governments – which rely on largesse provided by the largest industries of our day – will suddenly find themselves in favor of a system of law that threatens that, a grassroots movement must emerge which becomes powerful enough to force them to do so. Part of that movement must also force these changes at the local level, by continuing to recognize the rights of nature through local, municipal governments.

In the end, this is the beginning of a long journey to rediscover our place on this planet. As Derrick Jensen, an environmental author, writes, “If we wish to stop the atrocities, we need merely to step away from our isolation. There is a whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home.”

Thomas Linzey

Thomas Linzey is a Senior Legal Counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights (CDER)

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