The first of these series focused on the consequences of two differing interpretations of the word ‘dominion,’ and the second introduced the concept of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This begs the question, is there a BHAG that
incorporates a definition of dominion as stewardship, interdependence and a web of life, that places trust in cooperation, nurturing and partnership and which will lead to a shift of our world view for the benefits of all living things, not least our
The US Declaration of Independence, in words composed by Thomas Jefferson, proclaims that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What if the Creator (whatever that term might mean) believed that these unalienable rights are endowed not just to human
kind but to all living things, just as ‘dominion’ does not justify self serving pillage so much as demand the protection and nurture of all life?
Unfortunately, legal systems around the world are not designed to
protect nature. Rather, laws and governments are focused on how to use the natural world and it’s resources as fast as possible for maximum financial gain. There are numerous examples of CEO’s who are contractually obligated to make a profit
for the benefit of the share holders even when the product is proven to be environmentally harmful. International trade agreements empower corporations to sue governments in order to obstruct or restrain the reach of environmental laws. Global climate agreements
remain largely non-binding and unenforceable.
But there are signs of change, and as with many effective movements, they are evident in small groups of passionate people from all around the world. It might be called
The Rights of Nature and is described by Mari Margil on a new website, Democracy : A Journal of Ideas, in an article titled Nature and the Law (20th December, 2016)
I first got to experience
it in Costa Rica some ten years ago. In lieu of a standing army Costa Rica devotes equivalent funds to education, health care and conservation, to the point that small schools and clinics cover the countryside, 25% of which has been preserved as national
parks. The passion and pride of Costa Rican citizens for the natural world is evident in their daily actions.
Magil cites several examples. Ecuador, in 2008, was the first country to recognize the rights
of nature in its national constitution, which was tested when a provincial court found that the rights of the Vilcabamba river were being infringed by road construction that was impacting the river’s flow. Similarly in the Galapagos, a judge cited the
rights of nature constitutional provisions in ruling that road construction must stop until a government review could guarantee the protection of iguana and other species’ habitats.
Here in Pennsylvania, in 2013, Highland
Township passed a local law prohibiting frack wastewater injection wells, recognizing that the wells would violate the rights of people and ecosystems. The township supervisors repealed the ordinance in 2016 under pressure from an oil and gas company,
community members voted in November 2016 to reinstate the prohibition and the township was sued a second time. The case is currently before a Court of Appeals.
In February of 2106 the Green Party of England and Wales
adopted a national policy platform on the rights of nature, and in September 2016, the General Council of the Ho-Chunk Nation, based in Wisconsin, introduced an amendment to their tribal constitution to recognize the rights of nature. If passed by a vote of
the full membership later this year the Ho-Chunk would become the first tribal nation to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution. Similar initiatives are evident in Australia and India, and as late as March 15 of this year, after 160 years
of pressure from local Maoris, the New Zealand parliament has recognized the Whanganui River as a living entity which can be represented in court proceedings by two appointed people.
Unsurprisingly, much of industry is actively
trying to block these efforts.
“Rights of nature laws differ significantly from conventional environmental laws,” Ms. Magil argues. “They recognize nature as possessing legally enforceable rights, including
the right to exist, flourish, regenerate and, importantly, be restored. Nature is empowered to defend and enforce its own rights, and people and governments are authorized to do the same. If the rights of an ecosystem are found to be violated, damages are
to be awarded in the amount it would take to fully restore the ecosystem, and such funds are to be used solely for that restoration.
Under rights of nature laws, proposed activities must be evaluated as to whether their operation
would violate the rights of natural systems. Thus a frack wastewater injection well would need to be considered in light of whether it would infringe on the right of ecosystems to health and well-being. In so doing, such laws are intended to stop harm before
it happens. Under current oil and gas laws, on the other hand, harm is legally authorized and damage that occurs is considered after the fact. For environmental laws that do provide for citizens to bring suit against a corporation for environmental
harm, the courts require citizens to show that they’ve suffered “injury in fact” by the company’s action. That is, they need to show some personal injury from that which was inflicted upon the environment. Harm to an ecosystem is considered
Rights of nature laws move the focus away from the human-centric premise that willfully disregards actual harm to the environment; the concern is the ecosystem itself.
Margil points out that although these laws may be relatively new, the ideas behind them are not. In the nineteenth century environmentalist John Muir wrote that we must respect “the rights of all the rest of creation.” More than a century
later Pope Francis, in calling for a new era of environmental protection, declared, in a speech before the United Nations, that “[a] true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…”
As past movements
have demonstrated, recognizing rights of the disadvantaged and disposed is difficult, lengthy work, and as current movements show, years of work can be undone by the stroke of a pen.
What it means for honey bees and other
threatened species is that instead of trying to rescue individuals we turn instead to the larger environment in which they exist, and in so doing, accept responsibility for having caused it. Like the story of the sage in India who came across villagers
pulling a never-ending series of individuals from the river, it’s equally important to find out why they were falling in in the first place.
Changing the hubcaps on a Model T Ford and calling it a Cadillac does not deceive
anyone. We need to stop tinkering and go back to big issues. As Margaret Meade famously asserted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” We
cannot stand by much longer. “Our ability to radically transform the world,” Dr. Winston wrote, “has caught up with our historical, human-centered sense of dominance and distance,” or as Wendell Berry argued in the 41st Annual
Jefferson Lecture, “Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth ‘something’; it is worth everything.”