Change That Matters

Profiteering industries have been trying to demonize the Rights of Nature movement and change that matters.

As you would expect, corporate leaders have responded to the idea of natural rights and change that matters with the same calm consideration and civil respect they always give to any extension of democratic power: “Eeeeeekkk,” they shriek in unison, “the sky is falling!” If nature has rights, businesses and humans will have none! “You can’t do anything to the land,” exclaimed one of their delirious lawyers. “You can’t farm it, you can’t put new roads in, you can’t do any landscaping.” “OMG,” squeal their squads of corporate-funded property rights extremists, “we won’t be allowed to swat a mosquito or cut our grass!”

Wow. They should save some of their breath for breathing! The Rights of Nature movement is about protecting the health and survivability of ecosystems — not your lawn.

The problem that profiteering industries and their political screechers have in trying to demonize this rights movement is that it is strikingly sensible. It’s an honest, pragmatic, effective — and popular — alternative to today’s status quo “regulatory” charade that basically serves and protects nature’s violators. You don’t need a law degree to agree that, yeah, that bay and those creatures that live in it have a right to exist and not be sickened with some corporation’s chemical waste. People don’t think of ecological destruction as parts-per-billion, but as greed, gross disrespect … and as fundamentally wrong.

That’s why the Rights of Nature idea has taken hold and is spreading so rapidly worldwide. In little more than a decade, national parliaments, courts, and even constitutions in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nepal, India, New Zealand and Uganda have incorporated the concept into their legal systems, and campaigns are now underway to adopt versions of it in a dozen more nations.

But there’s no need to look afar. While U.S. mass media have generally ignored the remarkable adoption of this principle around the world, it has quietly taken root across our own country. In addition to actions by various tribal nations (Ho-Chunk, Nez Perce, Ojibwe, Yurock, et al.), more than three dozen U.S. communities have enacted enforceable Rights of Nature provisions. Especially notable is that this grassroots legal rebellion against the do-nothing system of environmental protection is not arising from predictable liberal enclaves, but mainly in working class communities.

Consider Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania coal country. In 2006 it enacted the first Rights of Nature ordinance in the world. City council member Cathy Morelli was working with a growing group of locals outraged that their area had become “a sacrifice zone” for dumping toxic sludge and other industrial waste. Unsurprisingly, Tamaqua was suffering a devastating outbreak of rare, fatal cancers. Meanwhile, business and regulatory leaders insisted that tests found no environmental links to the diseases — and proposed even more dumping permits.

Realizing the regulatory game was just a runaround, Morelli urgently sought a real remedy and came across Thomas Linzey, a lawyer and activist who was thinking outside the traditional legal box. He helped the councilwoman draft an ordinance that included the novel method of bypassing regulators by extending legally enforceable rights directly “to natural communities” and ecosystems, empowering them to protect their local environment from corporate harm. Though the town is solidly Republican, the people backed the clear-cut, democratic directness of Morelli’s ordinance. Sixteen years later, it remains in force. And not only has it helped deter more toxic dumping, but it has made Tamaqua an inspiration to the global movement for nature’s rights.

You might expect people in California, Colorado or other bastions of ecological activism to be pushing this advance in democratic policymaking — and they are. But grassroots groups in less-expected battlegrounds such as Toledo, Ohio; Columbia, South Carolina; and Mora County, New Mexico are also mounting feisty campaigns. And guess which state is the epicenter of today’s Rights of Nature political movement? (SET ITAL) Florida! (END ITAL) Yes, that Trumpian fantasyland where right-wing politicians routinely permit land developers to run schemes that ravage nature in pursuit of quick-buck profits.

At its core, the Rights-of-Nature movement is asserting the obvious: Earth’s biosphere is not a free candy store for our taking. We are one with the natural world and must find ways to cooperate fully with it for our own survival. As activist leader Mari Margil puts it: “The organizing never ends. That’s the case in any social justice movement, and the Rights of Nature isn’t an exception.”

To learn more and connect to action, go to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund:

Jim Hightower