The Rights of Nature

“Enough about Human Rights!
What about Whale Rights? What about Snail Rights?
What about Seal Rights? What about Eel Rights?
What about Coon Rights? What about Loon Rights?
What about Wolf Rights? What about, what about, what about
What about Moose Rights? What about Goose Rights?
What about Lark Rights? What about Shark Rights?
What about Fox Rights? What about Ox Rights?
What about Mole Rights? What about, what about, what about
What about Goat Rights? What about Stoat Rights?
What about Pike Rights? What about Shrike Rights?
What about Hare Rights? What about Bear Rights?
What about Plant Rights?”
~ Moondog

Most environmental laws today are meant to protect the well-being of humans. Their purpose is to prevent the degradation of ecological systems and resulting threats to the public health of nearby communities. But according to the the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), environmental laws like the the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws “legalize environmental harms. They regulate how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, our environmental laws allow and permit it.” What is needed, therefore, are new kinds of laws that do a better job at recognizing the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Thomas Berry and others have called for an “earth jurisprudence” or “earth law” where nature is granted legal standing equal to humans. According to the CELDF, “When we talk about the Rights of Nature, it means recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned. Rather, they are entities that have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish.” In the US, Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was the first community to enact a rights of nature law in 2006; its action was followed by dozens of other communities. In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first US city to to grant legal status to the rights of nature. However, the rights of nature law movement hasn’t always met with success.

In 2018, a rights of nature law was enacted by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, of the Chippewa Nation. The law was meant to protect a species of wild rice growing in the Great Lakes region. The Anishinaabeg (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) regard this wild rice or manoomin (the “good berry”) as a spiritual and cultural staple as well as a culinary one. But since its enactment, the law has been entangled in a series of court cases involving the White Earth Tribal Court and the federal Eighth Circuit of Appeals. The plaintiff was the manoonim and it was represented in court by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe; the defendant was Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. In 2021, the DNR had issued a permit for the Enbridge corporation to construct the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. While laying the pipeline, Enbridge crews punctured an underground aquifer in Clearwater County, causing uncontrolled flows of groundwater which posed a threat to the healthy growth of manoonim. Complicating the case was the issue of tribal versus state jurisdiction. The break occurred outside the White Earth Indian Reservation but it clearly had repercussions for manoomin. The DNR appealed to the Eighth Circuit as part of the agency’s ongoing fight to keep a tribal court from considering whether the state’s issuance of the water permit to Enbridge violated the legal rights of manoomin and the treaty rights of White Earth tribal members. In September 2021 the Eighth Circuit ruled that the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Court of Appeals had jurisdiction, but in March 2022 the Ojibwe court, citing federal case law, decided against the plaintiff because the break had happened outside the reservation.

In November 2020, a rights of nature law in the US was overwhelmingly adopted by voters in Orange County, Florida. In April 2021, the law was put to the test in a legal action. The plaintiffs were five waterways that were threatened by a developer’s proposal for commercial and residential development. Representing the waterways were two organizations, Florida Rights of Nature Network and Speak Up Wekiva (a Muskogee word meaning “spring of water”). In July 2022, a judge struck down Orange County’s rights of nature law citing Florida’s 2020 Clean Waters Act and its provision that bans “local governments from recognizing or granting certain legal rights to the natural environment or granting such rights relating to the natural environment to a person or political subdivision.” Clearly in Florida (as in many other states and localities in the US), developers enjoy more government support than environmentalists.

The status of rights of nature laws will continue to be a contentious issue in the courtrooms and state and local governments of our country. At the same time, we will continue to see Native Americans (in addition to numerous environmental protection organizations) advocating for the rights of nature. The CELDF believes that indigenous people need to be involved.

Aboriginal nations and communities retain sovereignty and knowledge over the natural ecosystems they have evolved with. To recognize and follow the natural laws of nature necessitates the elevation particularly of the Traditional Knowledge of local indigenous communities.

While this is a new area of law, it’s a growing global movement. According to Cary L. Biron of Reuters, “Lawmakers have been implementing rights of nature, which are rooted in indigenous thought, through laws, judicial decisions, constitutional amendments, and U.N. resolutions in countries including Ecuador, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Australia.”

To understand the importance of this movement is to recognize that the rights of nature can play a significant part in our efforts to deal with the climate crisis. In a 1972 law review article titled “Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”, Christopher Stone, a Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, argued that “nature should have its own voice” and should be considered as a plaintiff in any court case against parties threatening its well being. By placing nature and humanity on an equal legal footing, the human-nature relationship would be less one of subject – object, owner – owned, and more of a relationship of equals within an earth community. In the concluding section of his article, Stone wrote:

Scientists have been warning of the crises the earth and all humans on it face if we do not change our ways – radically . . .

A radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems; there are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness from the point of making us far better humans. . . . To be able to get away from the view that Nature is a collection of useful senseless objects is . . . deeply involved in the development of our abilities to love – or, if that is putting it too strongly, to be able to reach a heightened awareness of our own, and others’ capacities in their mutual interplay. To do so, we have to give up some psychic investment in our sense of separateness and specialness in the universe.

Written fifty years ago, the article still remains highly relevant, even more so given the dramatic increase, in Stone’s words, of “material planetary problems.”


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