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Vision: How to Change Our Laws So That Corporations Don't Trump Communities

Our environmental laws and regulations, rather than put in place protections for the environment, instead seem to be written to exploit it. Here's what can we do about it.

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Under a rights-based system of law, a river has the right to flow, fish and other species in a river have the right to regenerate and evolve, and the flora and fauna that depend on a river have the right to thrive. It is the natural ecological balance of that habitat that is protected. Just as the lion hunts the antelope as part of the natural cycle of life, recognizing Rights of Nature does not put an end to fishing or other human activities. Rather, it places them in the context of a healthy relationship where our actions do not threaten the balance of the system upon which we depend.

In essence, these laws represent fundamental changes to the status of property in the United States. While not eliminating property ownership, they do eliminate the authority of a property owner to destroy entire ecosystems that exist and depend on that property. These laws do not stop development; rather they stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems.

This represents a true paradigm shift, one that recognizes that we can no longer tinker at the margins of a legal system that places property at the apex of civilization. It makes no apologies for recognizing that a linear system of development cannot be sustained on a finite planet and that we enslave Nature to our own demise.

Building a movement for the Rights of Nature

Environmental and community rights attorney Thomas Linzey has been known to say that, "There has never existed a true environmental movement in this country" because movements drive rights into fundamental structures of law, which environmentalists have never sought to do. It's a provocative statement sure to raise the ire of many an advocate for Nature.

On September 19, 2006, the Tamaqua Borough Council in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, became the first municipal government in the United States to recognize legally enforceable Rights of Nature. Working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, they drafted and adopted a local ordinance recognizing that natural communities and ecosystems have a legal right to exist and flourish, that individuals within the community have the authority to defend and enforce the rights of those natural communities and ecosystems, and that the Borough government has a legal duty to enforce the ordinance.

Over a dozen more communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia have now adopted ordinances recognizing legally enforceable Rights of Nature. Communities in California, New Mexico and elsewhere are in the process of adopting similar laws. The people of Nottingham adopted an ordinance in 2008 that recognizes the inalienable Rights of Nature and bans corporate water extraction.

That same year Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its constitution; after generations of watching its fragile ecosystems destroyed by corporate mining, drilling and other practices. The new constitution was approved by an overwhelming margin through a national referendum on September 28, 2008. With that vote, Ecuador became the first country in the world to codify a new system of environmental protection based on rights, leading the way for countries around the world to make this necessary and fundamental change in how we protect Nature. The constitution reads, "Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes."

In 2009, international leaders that gathered in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference predictably failed to reach an agreement to save humanity from its own destruction. In response, the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Some 32,000 people from around the world attended and, led by indigenous communities of Latin America, proposed the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

 
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