Environmentalism’s Next Frontier: Granting Legal Rights to Nature
In recent years national and regional governments have granted rights to nature, creating a new level of protection for the environment. In Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court has given all rivers in the country legal rights. In the US, Ohio voters granted Lake Erie the legal right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve”, allowing any resident to sue governments or businesses that infringe upon the lake’s rights (i.e. polluting it). Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance to prohibit corporations from dumping waste into open-pit mines by mandating that any resident could sue to vindicate the “rights of natural communities and ecosystems.”
It’s all part of the nascent “rights of nature” movement that recognizes what indigenous people have always known: the natural cycle of life belongs to all living systems, not just humans. Instead of viewing nature as property to be owned, nature has its own inalienable rights including: The right of restoration, to allow natural processes/ecosystem functioning without interference, and the right of advocacy with laws that appoint a guardian for a particular ecosystem, like a parent who represents a child’s interests in court. The guardian can sue on the ecosystem’s behalf; if awarded damages, the money can go into a trust dedicated to funding its restoration.
Implementing similar forms of ecological governance is a way to support sustainability, placing human activities within the framework of Nature’s laws and limitations. The four criteria of sustainability that a rights of nature paradigm aims for include prohibition of mitigation or substitution for monetary or political gain; sustainable levels of human use (vs. over-consumption); the shrinkage of the human footprint on earth; and a flexible and continuous process that maintains Nature’s biophysical integrity, despite ongoing changes in the environment.
Even as the rights of nature movement has inspired new legislation around the world, concerns about enforcement are challenging. For istance, once a river gets rights, what happens to all the people whose livelihoods depend on it? In Bangladesh, millions live in informal settlements or slums alongside the rivers and depend on the waters for their livelihoods. Now some are being evicted. A second problem is that rivers don’t obey borders; they often traverse to more than one country. If a country has granted rights to a river but a neighboring country hasn’t, that makes it difficult to legally protect the waterway from environmental harm. A third problem is that rights of nature laws tend to get tied up in court — and not everybody has the kind of money required to file and sustain a lawsuit. The risk, is that whoever has the funding may get to impose their will.
At the very least, the rights of nature movement could inspire people to consider their surroundings in a new light. Once you start seeing something as being deserving of moral consideration, you start to view the natural world differently, and you start to see that nature isn’t simply created for people to use. That’s a fundamental shift in perspective.
There has been minimal recent corporate media coverage (including a 2019 NPR report and a 2017 editorial in the New York Times) about the rights of nature movement. These articles failed to cover the complexity and scope of the rights of nature movement and how this movement can help human society become truely sustainable.
Editor’s Note: For previous Project Censored coverage of the global movement to establish legal rights for nature, see “Indigenous Communities around World Helping to Win Legal Rights of Nature,” Story #9 from Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, and “Ecuador’s Constitutional Rights of Nature,” Story #18 in Censored 2010: Media Democracy in Action.
Cameron La Follette, “Rights of Nature: The New Paradigm,” AAG Newsletter (American Association of Geographers), March 6, 2019, http://news.aag.org/2019/03/rights-of-nature-the-new-paradigm/.
Jackie Flynn Mogensen, “Environmentalism’s Next Frontier: Giving Nature Legal Rights,” Mother Jones, July 9, 2019, https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/07/a-new-wave-of-environmentalists-want-to-give-nature-legal-rights/.
Sigal Samuel, “This Country Gave All Its Rivers Their Own Legal Rights.” Vox, August 18, 2019, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/8/18/20803956/bangladesh-rivers-legal-personhood-rights-nature.
Student Researcher: Carly Talhami (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)
Review Article with Credder