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Tribes have led the way. And in less than fifteen years, three dozen laws recognizing the Rights of Nature have been passed in communities in New Mexico, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, California, and elsewhere. (Photo, San Agustin, New Mexico, USA by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Tribes have led the way. And in less than fifteen years, three dozen laws recognizing the Rights of Nature have been passed in communities in New Mexico, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, California, and elsewhere. (Photo, San Agustin, New Mexico, USA by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rights of Nature Debate Reaches New Heights

A bill was just proposed in Missouri to ban Rights of Nature litigation, the American Petroleum Institute just filed a brief to oppose local Rights of Nature laws, as the Democratic Party shows interest in the concept.

Markie MillerCrystal Jankowski

In our April 2020 op-ed for Common Dreams titled “Abolish Earth Day,” we argued that “it’s time environmentalists finally let go of the blind faith they have in the current environmental laws and regulatory system. Doing so will allow them to work in more meaningful solidarity with other movements who have also been abandoned by the law. We must expand on what we think is possible.”

As petitioners for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the first law on settler colonial land that recognizes the rights of a specific ecosystem in the United States, we support a paradigm shift in law toward recognizing the inherent rights of ecosystems and complimentary human rights.

Four days later, in response to our op-ed, National Review contributor Wesley Smith wrote, referring to us, that “two environmental activists have now urged abandoning Earth Day as a ‘failure’ in favor of pushing the ‘rights of nature.’”

These responses by states and corporate interests are dangerous. But they are also proof of the growing momentum toward a total paradigm shift away from an extractive relationship with the natural world.

“The nature rights movement is gaining traction,” Smith went on. “It has had national and international successes and was endorsed by the prestigious scientific journal, Science….It wouldn’t surprise me if nature rights is embraced as well by the national party, and before long, adopted into the ‘Green New Deal.’”

Sure enough, a few months later, in August, the Democratic National Committee Council on Environment and Climate Crisis released an “Environmental and Climate Policy Agenda for the Democratic Party” that recommended the formation of a presidential Rights of Nature mission. It reads:

“Establish a commission, similar to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, to explore incorporating Rights of Nature principles into U.S. law.”

This recommendation did not make it into the final party platform, but nonetheless is proof of Rights of Nature’s growing popularity and justifies Smith’s fears. Such broader acceptance of the concept presents opportunities, and risks.

Now, corporations and reactionary state legislatures are continuing a coordinated attack on the movement.

This week, the American Petroleum Institute, perhaps the most influential fossil fuel lobby in the nation, filed a brief in opposition to a federal civil rights case brought by our colleagues at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, in defense of several communities’ right to vote on duly qualified local Rights of Nature laws.

The same day API filed this legal brief, a bill (HB 54) was introduced in Missouri to try to ban Rights of Nature in the courts. Smith celebrated the development. The language is almost identical to language passed in 2019 by the Ohio Legislature that was drafted by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce in direct response to the passage of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

Weeks ago, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision in McGirt that ruled much of Eastern Oklahoma falls within Indian reservations that have sovereignty to pass environmental law (including Rights of Nature lawmaking by the Ponca Tribe), Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and allies sought to undermine the decision by asking Congress to strip environmental authority from tribes. (Ponca Environmental Ambassador Casey Camp Horinek and the group Movement Rights have been organizing to defend tribal sovereignty and the Rights of Nature in the state.)

After filing a lawsuit against the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, in September, a corporate law firm used civil rights law to demand attorney fees from the City of Toledo for its fleeting defense of the people’s law. This amounts to financial reprisal against residents of Toledo, Ohio for their enactment of the historic law.

Tribes have led the way. And in less than fifteen years, three dozen laws recognizing the Rights of Nature have been passed in communities in New Mexico, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, California, and elsewhere. A common thread has been the recognition of unique rights for ecosystems, and assertion that they be elevated above corporate-claimed rights to destroy them.

Smith’s response to our Common Dreams op-ed, was a call to action for extractive interests to pay close attention. “The nature rights movement,” he warned, “is gaining traction.”

He couldn’t be more correct. Every week, it seems, the movement grows. People in Spain are now moving to recognize the rights of the imperiled Mar Menor.

This year, the movement has made significant gains in Ecuador, French Guiana,Australia, the Nez Perce Tribe, Spain, Costa Rica, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, and elsewhere.

These responses by states and corporate interests are dangerous. But they are also proof of the growing momentum toward a total paradigm shift away from an extractive relationship with the natural world.

It’s about time.


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

Markie Miller

Markie Miller is a Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund-affiliated Toledoans for Safe Water organizer and petitioner behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

Crystal Jankowski

Crystal Jankowski is a Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund-affiliated Toledoans for Safe Water organizer and petitioner behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

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