The Earth Island Journal recently published a resource-filled article on natural law, which is becoming an ever-hotter topic in the environmental advocacy realm. Covering the history and key players in the ongoing campaign for the rights of nature, author and editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, begins the article with Tamaqua, Pennsylvania’s unprecedented recognition of the rights of “natural communities to flourish.” The councilwoman who enacted it, Cathy Miorelli, had no ecological agenda when she ran for city council, but she thought it was self evident that nature should have rights, and collaborators from The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) helped carry her thinking into law.
Several organizations like CELDF in the U.S. and abroad have been working on nature’s rights campaigns for years, and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature launched a petition they hope will be signed by one million people to declare the Universal Acceptance of the Rights of Nature at Earth Summit Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development being held in Rio de Janeiro this June. Of course, the biggest victory thus far for nature’s rights is Equador’s constitution, which since 2008 has included a chapter protecting nature’s inherent right to thrive. Thus far, only one case has been brought to court to protect a river from a road-widening operation. CELDF representatives say the outcome has been slightly disappointing, but the fact of it being brought to trial is important nonetheless. Bolivia’s parliament, too, has made strides for nature’s rights by passing the Law of the Mother Earth, but the ministry that is to enforce the law has not been established. The impacts of these laws have not yet proven their potential for positive change, but some activists say it’s not the law that matters, but the shift in the human relationship to the earth.
The article elaborates on these cases and their potential impact on the environment, citing the influence of South African attorney Cormac Cullinan, who coined much of the language that defines the Rights of Nature, detailed in his book, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. But the author is careful to note that these calls for the rights of nature are not the first of their kind by any means. Mark reminds the reader that ancient Roman legislation and many present cultures and religions have consistently protected the rights of the natural world for its own sake. He argues that Western Enlightenment thinking initiated the anthropocentricism we practice in western law today: if it is not for a human cause, it does not have worth.
Corporations play a huge role in whether natural laws get passed, as their interests lie in profiting from resources that nature provides. Corporations’ rights, which in the U.S. include free speech and many other human rights, have overridden the rights of nature in certain cases, but it is hard to tell how all of this will play out until more cases are brought to court.
Michael Feinstein, the Green Party of California spokesperson and former Santa Monica Mayor, beautifully describes the inherent link between corporations’ and nature’s rights in his address to the Santa Monica city council. Nature’s rights are viewed as “illegal impediments” to the “free flow of capital,” and are therefore a threat to corporate ventures. CELDF also recently released two documents to address the wider scope that must be taken to conquer the corporate obstacle on several planes, the most important being communities’ ability to exercise democratic decision-making without interference from corporate agendas.
The idea of writing nature in to law (and writing corporate personhood out) is growing, and what was previously a surprising amendment to the justice system could become a highly-effective avenue to environmental sustainability. Jason Mark ends the piece with a quote from the influential article, “Should Trees Have Standing,” written by legal scholar Chris Stone: “Each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable.” It may sound silly now for a river or an animal to have the same rights that a human does, and many think it is not our place to authorize other species to do what should come naturally, but a complete change of consciousness is necessary.
If we cannot universally rearrange our anthropocentric view of the environment by our own free will (or despite corporate influence), maybe a law can impose the perspective we need, and allow a different paradigm to filter into mainstream consciousness that way. And maybe a few generations down the line it will be laughable that nature — this beautiful, diverse, self-generating entity — didn’t have a right to live, because what would our rights matter without it?
Photo courtesy of Earth Island Journal