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Can We Save the Environment and Our Communities By Giving Nature Legal Rights?

From rural Pennsylvania to South America, a global alliance is promoting the idea that ecosystems have intrinsic rights.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Lukiyanova Natalia / frenta


Cathy Miorelli doesn’t think of herself as an environmentalist. When Miorelli decided to run for the city council of Tamaqua Borough – a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived her entire life – she didn’t have any sort of eco-agenda. It was 2004, and the hottest controversy in Tamaqua involved a proposal by an outside company to dump sewage sludge and coal fly ash into abandoned mining pits on the edge of town. But the main issue on Miorelli’s mind was creating more transparent governance on the council, which she says had long been dominated by an old boys’ network. “I was just concerned about everything overall, not really so much the environment,” says Miorelli, who has worked for 16 years as the nurse at the Tamaqua high school. “You know, I didn’t run on any kind of platform, saying that I was going to change the world here or anything.”

She did change the world, though. Halfway through her one-term stint on the council, Miorelli spearheaded the passage of an anti-sewage sludge ordinance that included a provision recognizing the rights of “natural communities” to flourish – the first law of its kind in the world. The Tamaqua Borough ordinance inspired dozens of other communities in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – including the city of Pittsburgh – to adopt similar rights of nature laws. Those ordinances then helped influence the people of Ecuador to put legal rights for ecosystems in that country’s new constitution. The idea that nature, just like people, possesses inalienable rights has percolated up to the United Nations, which has considered a proposal to adopt a “Charter on the Rights of Mother Nature.”

Miorelli finds it all unbelievable. “It’s awesome, really. I just kind of laugh about it, because it’s kind of amazing,” she says. “At the time it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Like, why wouldn’t we give rights to nature?”

Miorelli had been on the Tamaqua Borough council for about a year and was thinking about ways to stop the proposed dumping when she got invited to something called a “Democracy School” in Schuylkill Township, outside of Philadelphia. That was where she met two men with the  Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund: Ben Price, one of the group’s organizers, and Thomas Linzey,  CELDF’s founder. “Within minutes of hearing the two of them talk I was like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are unbelievable,’” Miorelli says. “I learned so much. … I think just how they talked about the history of our government, and that the things that we learned in school were a little bit different to what really happened. What they say makes perfect sense.”

Linzey started CELDF in 1995 to help communities stop development projects that posed public health or environmental risks. But he found that even when he won, he lost. Companies were almost always able to slip through the regulatory system meant to control their activities. So CELDF took a different tack and began working with city councils to pass ordinances that simply asserted a community’s right to self-governance and declared that within their jurisdictions corporations would no longer enjoy the rights granted to flesh-and-blood people. To help lay the groundwork for the ambitious ordinances, CELDF started hosting its Democracy Schools in 2003. The weekend-long seminars teach that in order to have real democracy it is necessary to subordinate corporate privileges to the will of local communities.

“Regulation is not really protective of the rights of people in a community,” Price says. Price, 59, spent much of his life in the corporate world, but he says he’s always “been a questioner of received wisdom.” His job at CELDF seems perfect for someone who clearly relishes expounding on big ideas. “We work with communities to establish the greatest degree of local self- governing authority possible,” he says. “If we want people to be the stewards of the environment and to create sustainable communities, first off it can’t be illegal to do so.” He laughs – “and of course it’s illegal to create sustainable communities, because corporations have been declared to be juristic persons with constitutional rights.”

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