There was a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia, that was so treasured by the locals it was not owned by anyone, not even the city. It was an autonomous entity known as the The Tree that Owns Itself.
Around the 1820s, William Jackson, owner of the property where the oak resided, wrote a formal deed in which he proclaimed, "(I)n consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides."
What if all trees, watersheds, canyons and other natural ecosystems had a legal right to exist, thrive, evolve and regenerate?
Naturally, age finally took its toll, and in 1942, the tree was downed by a big windstorm. Yet, its autonomy lives on! That's because residents took a seedling from the original and planted it in the same plot of land, and that offspring is still there, known as the Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.
One tree with the legal rights of selfhood is a sweet novelty, but what if all trees, watersheds, canyons and other natural ecosystems had a legal right to exist, thrive, evolve and regenerate? This concept of nature existing in its own right as a living entity—not merely as inert property to be extracted and exploited for profit—is the essence of a rapidly spreading Rights of Nature movement. A legal comprehension that Earth is an indivisible, interrelated and interdependent community of living beings is enormously empowering for the health of the planet but also for the ordinary families and local communities who're now routinely abused by profiteering corporate giants that plunder nature. All across our country (and around the world), people wake up to find that faraway financial elites have come in by stealth, using legalistic ruses to poison local waters, strip forests and fields, defile the air and otherwise destroy people's natural surroundings. Regulators and legislators, owned by the defilers, enable the plunder.
Sometimes, aloof corporate interests get absurdly, almost-comically hypocritical, yet they're so obtuse that they don't even realize it. In that case, is it still hypocrisy ... or are they just dimwitted?
To see this phenomenon in action, look at the histrionic outburst of horror emanating from a myriad of corporate bunkers over rising public approval for the idea that nature be given legal rights that are enforceable in courts. The Rights of Nature movement argues that if a mining conglomerate decapitates a mountain or a chemical giant dumps mercury in a bay, those injured citizens of our natural world ought to have their day in court. "Outrageous!" shriek the honchos of Corporate America. "The courts and legal rights are for people , not for pieces of property!"
A single drop of water has more life in it than all the corporations in the world.
Hello, hypocrisy. After all, what is a corporation? Not a person. Not a sentient, living creature—no brain, no pulse, no soul, no life. It's not even a real piece of property, just an inert document printed by a state. Yet, the owners of that piece of paper claim that it magically bestows "personhood" on their corporation, giving it the legal and political rights of real people. Yet, these "paper people" cry that Earth's actual living creatures, which they've felt free to destroy for their own profit, can't have any legal rights because they are just property. Excuse me, but a single drop of water has more life in it than all the corporations in the world.
Also, let's note that the long evolution of law has constantly progressed to transform "property" into beings with fundamental rights. Generations of enslaved people, indentured servants, women, child laborers and other humans have been brutally denied personhood—even the right to exist. Even that fight hasn't been won, but the body of legal (and moral) rights has grown, and it enhances our own humanity to recognize that we and nature are one. Crass corporate exploitation, on the other hand, diminishes all living things, threatening life itself.
Those who reflexively mock the Rights of Nature movement—scoffing at the idea of legal standing for marshes, grasslands, forest networks and other wildlife—might consider taking a moment by a quiet stream in the woods to ponder: Does nature need us, or do we need her?
To learn more, go to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund website.