Vision: How to Change Our Laws So That Corporations Don't Trump Communities
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So when the people of Nottingham asked state agencies for help that was not forthcoming, the lack of assistance was not sheer unwillingness; rather the state agency was simply carrying out the law of the land in assisting the corporation to take their water.
The nature of property: Is Nature a slave?
In the United States, title to property carries with it the legal authority to destroy the natural communities (which include human communities and ecosystems) that depend on that property for survival. In fact, our environmental laws were passed under the authority of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants exclusive authority over "interstate commerce" to Congress. The migration of birds, rivers flowing to the sea, or almost any natural process you can name is, or can be classified as interstate commerce. Treating Nature as commerce has meant that all existing U.S. environmental law frameworks are anchored in the concept of Nature as property.
But history shows that with enough will, unjust laws that deny rights can change. Slaves and women were once considered property, but through massive shifts in law and culture they moved from being "right-less" to being rights-bearing.
During slavery in the United States, the economies of both the North and South were based on slavery. Slaves provided the labor force upon which the new country depended. Slaves were the property of the slave master and a series of "slave codes" were put in place to regulate the treatment of slaves. Slave codes in South Carolina required the whipping of a slave who left his master's plantation without permission. In Louisiana, any slave who hit his master was to be punished by death. In Alabama, teaching a slave to read was illegal and violators were required to pay a fine.
Many advocates of slavery argued that the slave codes would somehow lead to a gradual end of the slave system; that slaves themselves did not "need" legal rights in order to be sufficiently protected. It is easy from today's vantage point to see that this regulatory framework did not and could never protect the slaves or end slavery. To the contrary, it codified, enforced and upheld the system of property and the continued enslavement of human beings. Today in the United States and in much of the world, Nature is treated in the same way, and laws and regulations have been put in place to regulate ecosystems as property.
What does it mean to recognize the Rights of Nature?
If we believe that rights are inherent, then Nature's rights already exist, and any law that denies those fundamental rights is illegitimate.
Under existing environmental laws, a person needs to prove "standing" in order to go to court to protect Nature. This means demonstrating personal harm from logging, the pollution of a river, or the extraction of water. Damages are then awarded to that person, not to the ecosystem that's been destroyed. Women were once considered the property of their husbands or fathers, and as such had no legal standing. Prior to the 19th Amendment, if a married woman was raped, it was considered a property crime and damages were awarded to her husband. In the wake of the BP oil spill, the only damage deemed compensable by the legal system is the financial damage caused to those who can't use the Gulf ecosystem anymore.
Communities in the United States are turning their backs on a system that cannot provide true environmental protection. They are beginning to craft and adopt new laws that recognize that natural communities and ecosystems possess an inalienable and fundamental right to exist and flourish. Residents of those natural communities, as stewards of the place where they live, possess the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of those ecosystems. In addition, these laws require local governments to remedy violations of those ecosystem rights.