Vision: How to Change Our Laws So That Corporations Don't Trump Communities
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This work is now expanding as people and communities and governments conclude that we have pushed the Earth's ecosystems to the brink and that our existing frameworks of environmental laws are not only inadequate to reverse this destruction, but were never intended to do so.
In September 2010, an international gathering was held in Tamate, Ecuador, to develop a strategy for building an international movement on Rights of Nature. The gathering brought together individuals and organizations from South Africa, Australia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and the United States. The outcome of the meetings was the formation of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Key areas of work will be education and outreach, as well as assisting local, state, and national governments around the world to put Rights of Nature laws in place and to build and support a global movement for the Rights of Nature.
A new cultural context for Nature supported by law
How different would our world look if the Amazon could sue oil companies for damages, or if those responsible for the oil spill could be forced to make the Gulf of Mexico "whole"? What if communities could be empowered to act as stewards for their local environments and say "no" to massive groundwater extraction?
As a species we have come to value "endless amounts of more" to our own detriment, and we have codified that value into law. Of course it is up to us to begin the process of deprogramming our society and dispelling our arrogant belief that the Earth "belongs" to humans. Like all successful movements for rights, the cultural change necessary needs only be enough to change the law ¬- the law itself forces the larger cultural change that must take place. However, both are needed in order to truly recognize rights for the right-less.
In 1973, Professor Christopher Stone penned his famous law review article, "Should Trees Have Standing?". He wrote, "The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new 'entity' the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the right-less thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of 'us' -- us being, of course, those of us who hold rights."
This is the challenge that every rights-based movement comes up against -- not only an illegitimate structure of law that defines a living being as property, but also the culture which is built upon this concept.
The Abolitionists faced this -- with slavery not only providing the labor force in the South, but being the driving engine of the economy of the North. Abolishing slavery meant abolishing a way of life. Most said it could not and must never be done. That is the argument we hear and face now. But it can, and we must.
Shannon Biggs directs U.S.-based Global Exchange's Community Rights Program, working to place citizen and Nature's legal rights above corporate interests. She is the author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPoint Press, 2007), a former senior staffer at the International Forum on Globalization and a lecturer of International Relations at San Francisco State University.
Mari Margil is the Associate Director of the U.S.-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund where she conducts campaign and organizational strategy, media and public outreach and leads the organization's fundraising efforts. She is a co-author of the recently published The Public Health or the Bottom Line (Oxford University Press, 2010).