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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.

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Still, the former UN ambassador recognizes that arriving at such coherence will take time. “It will be a process,” Solon says of the Bolivian law. “It won’t be something that will be approved and implemented immediately.”

The same could be said for the United States. None of the municipal ordinances establishing legal rights for natural communities have been tested in court. Rights of nature has not been challenged by corporations, nor has any local government or individual sought to use the expanded definition of legal standing to sue on behalf of a woodlot or a watershed.

At least some of the rights of nature advocates are unconcerned about the legal limbo. For them, the local ordinances are mostly useful as a tactical wedge to prompt a reconsideration of our relationship with the environment. They can be influential even if they are not implemented. “This work is not looking for some kind of ecotopia,” says Shannon Biggs, an organizer at the human rights group  Global Exchange who has worked to pass rights of nature measures. (Disclosure: Biggs and I are co-author of the book  Building the Green Economy.) “No one is looking for shortcuts with this work. We are moving at the pace of the culture. And rights of nature provides a path for transforming our existing culture into one that does live sustainably, a world where it’s natural to think, ‘What would the forest say about this?’”

Listening to the rights of nature partisans, it’s striking how differently each of them talks about the idea.

For Natalia Greene, battling to put words into practice, this is an effort to establish new legal norms. The same is true for Bill Twist. “How do you start dismantling the systems and structures that stand in the way of a sustainable and just world?” Twist says. “One way you start by is modifying our legal system.”

CELDF’s Ben Price has a different take. “Frankly, I don’t really give a damn what the courts say,” he says. “It’s not simply a legal strategy. It looks like a legal strategy because we use local laws to create a movement, a historic community rights movement, and that includes nature in the definition of community.” The local ordinances aren’t necessarily designed to change laws, but to force a conflict between laws and values that will compel people to rethink the basic assumptions of our society. “It opens the eyes of people, win or lose. People can see more clearly what exactly is at stake.”

Sometimes the rights of nature idea doesn’t sound different from the old utilitarian notion of protecting natural resources for our own well-being: “It is in our best interest to care for that environment and defend that environment because without it we can’t live,” says Doug Shields, a former Pittsburgh councilman who sponsored a rights of nature ordinance in his city. Sometimes the idea breathes the biocentric worldview of Cullinan’s  Wild Law : “We have to see the damages [to the environment] not only from the perspective of humans, but also from the perspective of nature itself,” Pablo Solon says.

The differing interpretations could be considered a virtue, the natural consequence of having a big idea. Since rights of nature is an ideology – a whole worldview – it shouldn’t be surprising that individuals will understand it in their own way. “It’s new for the lawyers, it’s new for the ecologists, it’s new for everybody. We need to train the judges and the lawyers who are going to be defending this,” Greene says.

More than 40 years ago, legal scholar Chris Stone anticipated this difficulty. In his book  Should Trees Have Standing? he writes: “Each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable.” But “each advance in the law-legitimating concept of ‘ownership’ fuels a change in consciousness, in the range and depth of feelings.”

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