Environmentalism’s Next Frontier: Giving Nature Legal Rights

Ships and corporations have legal standing. Should ecosystems?

Matt Chinworth

In the summer of 2014, officials in Toledo, Ohio, announced that the city’s tap water was no longer safe to drink. A toxic algae bloom caused by fertilizer runoff had poisoned Lake Erie, the primary water source for the area’s half-million residents, sickening more than 100 people. Stores emptied of bottled water within hours. For three days, “it was just total panic,” recalls Markie Miller. “People were fighting over it.”

Miller joined Toledoans for Safe Water, a group of residents who had been trying to convince officials to clean up the lake, to no avail. Then, in late 2015, members of the group attended a presentation put on by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund about advancing the “rights of nature”—the idea that eco­systems, like humans, have legal rights.

After the presentation, some Toledoans met in a pub and drafted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. This past February, voters chose to amend the city charter to grant the lake the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The amendment allows any resident to sue governments or businesses that infringe upon the lake’s rights—for example, by polluting it with fertilizer.

Toledo isn’t the only place to recognize the rights of nature. In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, passed an ordinance to prohibit corporations from dumping waste sludge into nearby open-pit mines by mandating that any resident could sue to vindicate the “rights of natural communities and ecosystems.” Since then, more than three dozen communities across the United States have adopted similar measures. In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a Native American nation in Minnesota, codified the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” As Casey Camp-Horinek, an environmentalist and matriarch of the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, points out, the rights-of-nature movement “simply recognizes what the indigenous people have always been a part of: the natural cycle of life belonging to all living things, not just humans.”

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe codified the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.”

Outside the United States, Ecuador wrote the rights of nature into its constitution in 2008. In 2017, a court in India ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers have the same legal standing as people (the ruling was later overturned). The Whanganui, New Zealand’s longest navigable river, has legal standing under a law passed that same year.

Rights-of-nature laws often work by appointing a guardian to advocate for a particular ecosystem or natural feature, much like a parent represents a child’s interests in court. The guardian can sue on the ecosystem’s behalf. If the ecosystem is awarded damages, the money might go into a trust dedicated to funding its restoration. MORE

RELATED:
The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

Both Notley and Kenney Hiding from a $260-Billion Cleanup Problem

The Alberta government may well leave taxpayers to clean up the oil and gas industry’s mess.

Oil well
‘I think this issue is too big and too scary for both government and industry to face.’

The main thing Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley have in common, other than their affinity for pipelines, is their joint fear of the possible $260-billion cleanup bill for the province’s aging oil and gas fields.

Neither Kenney, the United Conservative Party leader, nor NDP Premier Notley have said much on the hustings about this astounding liability, which includes tens of thousands of inactive wells, abandoned gas plants, oil sands tailing ponds and 400,000 kilometres of pipelines.

The mountainous size of the cleanup costs dwarfs the puny pile of security deposits the province has collected from industry to pay for the cleanup — $1.5 billion.

Regan Boychuk, a 41-year-old Calgary roofer, independent researcher and a driving member of the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project, understands why Kenney and Notley don’t want to talk about such embarrassing math.

“I think this issue is too big and too scary for both government and industry to face. It is a can of worms,” said Boychuk in a Tyee interview.

But if not corrected, the scale of the problem could affect the province’s credit rating, bankrupt hundreds of smaller oil and gas firms and leave Canadian taxpayers with the mother of all cleanup bills. MORE

 

Environmentalists call for Carbon Capture and Storage – with forests

Amazonian rainforest
CC BY 2.0 Amazonian rainforest/ Lloyd Alter

Greta Thunberg, Margaret Atwood, Michael Mann, Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot and more make the case.

We go on about wood here on TreeHugger, but often fail to see the forest for the trees. In fact, those forests could save us, by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere faster than we are making it. Instead, we are chopping them down and, in many parts of the world, failing to replant them. Every thing we say about the wonders of wood construction are meaningless if we don’t replace every tree we turn into CLT and NLT and DLT and every other form of wood we invent.

Writing in the Guardian, a long list of environmental luminaries, from Greta Thunberg to Brian Eno, have written an important letter calling for protecting and restoring ecosystems.

By defending, restoring and re-establishing forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural seabeds and other crucial ecosystems, large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. At the same time, the protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help minimise a sixth great extinction, while enhancing local people’s resilience against climate disaster. Defending the living world and defending the climate are, in many cases, one and the same. This potential has so far been largely overlooked.

The writers note that this can’t be a substitute for decarbonization of industrial economies, but note that “natural climate solutions could help us hold the heating of the planet below.”Drax carbon capture and storageDrax carbon capture and storage/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

MORE

Making the most of the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration’: bioregional regenerative development as a deep adaptation pathway

On a crisp and frosty April morning in the North of Scotland in 2002, at the Findhorn Foundation ecovillage, some 250 activists and landscape restoration practitioners from all over the world declared the 21st Century as the ‘Century for Earth Restoration’. The conference was called by Alan Watson Featherstone who set up Trees for Life, a project that has since planted close to two million native trees to restore Scotland’s great ‘Caledonian Forest’. John Manocheri was the official UNEP delegate at the conference, and now — 17 years later — UN Environment has finally taken leadership on this issue and announced the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration’ (2021–2030).

I remember the conference well. How we all shared this sense of urgency back then already. How being surrounded by people sharing stories of hope from their ecosystems restoration projects around the world was deeply inspiring and yet at the same time news was flooding in that we were loosing biodiversity, forests, top soils, and wilderness so much faster than we were able to respond to.

This is still the case, but the tide is turning. During the ‘circle of commitment’ at the conference I voiced my intention to set up an environmental education and sustainability training centre in Spain, and all these years later I am delighted to be on the advisory council of the Ecosystem Restoration CampsFoundation, who’s first camp is located in Souther Spain near Murcia. My own work as an educator writing curriculum for Gaia Education has helped to train more that 15k people from 125 countries around the world in the skills and frameworks necessary to engage in whole systems design for sustainability and regeneration.

Alan Watson Featherstone on Restoring the Caledonian Forests

Growing numbers of people are committing their lives to healing the damage our species has done over the centuries and millennia to this abundant blue green planet. Projects have been established around the world that demonstrate that human beings as part of life are capable of creating conditions conducive to life. MORE