If Nature Had Rights, Would We Need Earth Day?

News & Politics

What if nature had rights and the Gulf Coast could bring BP to court for the disastrous oil spill that gutted the gulf one year ago?

Utter madness? A utopian scheme cooked up by elements of an enviro-extremist fringe to give legal rights to individual bugs and trees.

Not so fast: in fact from major cities like Pittsburgh, PA to the politically conservative rural heartland, where nearly two-dozen US communities have passed local laws recognizing nature's rights to "exist, flourish and evolve"-- the idea that the eco-systems deserve the protection of law.

Once the epicenter of steel production, Pittsburgh was dubbed "hell with the lid off" for its soot-filled skies and rivers that occasionally caught fire. By the 1970s, Big Steel had fled, and residents undertook two-decades of social and environmental revitalization known as the "Renaissance." But just about the time it was safe to drink the tap water for the first time in 50 years, along came hydro-fracturing. To the horror of residents, in a corporate quest to release hidden deposits of natural gas, "fracking" injects millions of gallons of pressurized water and toxic chemicals deep underground. Unfortunately for residents, the highly flammable gas and chemicals travel easily to the surface via aquifers, wells, rivers and soil.

And, like blowing the tops off of mountains for coal, or launching toxic chemical into passing clouds to "create" rainwater for hydropower corporations to control--it's all perfectly legal.

In the eyes of the law, nature isn't a system governing our own wellbeing, its property--like a slave--to be owned and used by humans. Property can't have rights, which means it lacks the legal standing necessary go to court to halt devastating projects, or sue for restoration once the damage has been done. Meanwhile, corporations (which actually are property) use the Constitutional rights of people and bevy of other federal and state protections in order to force our communities, oceans, streams, forests and prairies to become sacrifice zones for profit.

To the residents of Pittsburgh, and a growing number of other communities, it is this kind of sanctioned corporate invasion that seems like utter madness.

Last November, the city council of Pittsburgh unanimously passed a cutting-edge law banning fracking while elevating community decision-making--and the rights of nature--above corporate "rights." They join over 125 communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia who, with the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), have passed rights-based ordinances in order to take local control of their destinies.

The idea for rights of nature isn't new, and most species of the planet observe it naturally: Take what you need without destroying the ecosystem that sustains you. Laws recognizing the rights of nature do not protect individual bugs or trees, rather they stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of local ecosystems. They create a welcome environment for sustainable enterprise, and empower decimated ecosystems to seek legal damages for restoration.

This week marks not only Earth Day, but the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Thousands of miles of killer dispersants and oily goo remain, yet offshore oil drilling ventures farther and deeper than before. Under current law, only those with legal claim to personal damages from the spill could take BP to court. But just how different would environmental protection look if say, the Gulf ecosystem itself had rights and could sue to undo all of the damage done?

Emerging everywhere, a new set of rules is being put into place. A dozen California communities are developing laws to recognize nature's rights, so too in New Mexico and Washington State. In 2008, the nation of Ecuador enshrined the rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth) into the national Constitution, and this year Bolivia is passing pass 11 separate laws.

There is a growing movement led by Indigenous peoples worldwide to support and foster the cultural and legal shift necessary to transform our human relationship with everything else from one of dominance, to one of balance. This week Bolivia is sponsoring the first ever dialog on nature's rights before the United Nations General Assembly, perhaps toward the eventual adoption of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.

While climate change is telling us we have lived beyond the limits of nature's law, our culture and laws places humans not just apart from, but actually above nature. Utter madness, you say?

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