CELDF's Associate Director Mari Margil authors Legal Rights for Nature -
Local to National: How Do We Get There? in Global Exchange's publication Rights of Nature: Planting Seeds of Real Change
June 26th, 2012
Legal Rights for Nature
Global to National: How Do We Get There?
In 2006, Tamaqua Borough in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, became the first community in the United States to recognize legally enforceable rights of nature.
Now more than three-dozen communities have followed suit – including the City of Pittsburgh, with a population of roughly 305,000 – recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities have the right to exist and flourish, and that residents of those communities have the authority to enforce those rights.
Recognizing Nature’s Rights
More than a generation ago, American law professor Christopher Stone penned his seminal law review article Should Trees Have Standing? In it, he conducted something of a thought experiment, exploring what it might mean and why we may seek to recognize legal rights of nature.
Stone described how under the existing structure of law, nature was considered right-less, having no legally recognized rights to defend and enforce. Thus, nature – much like slaves once were – was treated by the law as a thing, as property, existing for the use of its owner.
Stone examined what it might mean for nature to move from rights-less to rights-bearing. For example, whether a forest may have standing to defend its right to existence, to life, in a court of law.
In 1989, Professor Roderick Nash, published The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics, which traces the evolution of environmental law and ethics over centuries. He explained how, throughout history, the right-less – slaves, women, others – have struggled to expand the body of legal rights to include themselves. Nash’s book helped advance the discussion about nature’s rights, providing a context for how and why the body of rights is moving in the direction of expanding to include the rights of nature.
In 2001, the author and religious leader Thomas Berry published The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights in which he described how all members of the Earth community possess inherent rights. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, by South African attorney Cormac Cullinan, followed Berry’s work several years later. Together, Berry and Cullinan have work opened up a new front on nature’s rights – adding a significant spiritual and moral element to the legal and historic discussion begun by Stone and Nash.
Each of these writers has played an important role in driving a shift in Western culture regarding the relationship between humankind and nature. Such cultural change – as the Abolitionists, Suffragists, and other rights-based movements have found – is essential for achieving an expansion of the body of legal rights. But alone it is not enough. Rather, such cultural change must be paired with legal changes.
History shows us how cultural change can drive change in law, and similarly, changes in law can drive change in the culture. When it comes to the question of rights – that is, expanding the body of legal rights to include those who are currently without rights – such change can take generations, if not centuries.
Moving from the idea of rights of nature (culture) to the codification of those rights (law) occurred for the first time in Tamaqua Borough in 2006 — a move from discussion to practical application. Other communities and even countries have followed Tamaqua’s example, building a growing movement recognizing the rights of nature.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature in its national constitution. Last year, the first lawsuits were decided in Ecuador under those constitutional provisions. Each upheld the constitutional rights of the ecosystems being harmed and required that activities causing such harm to cease.
More and more communities and countries are now beginning to consider rights of nature legal frameworks as they increasingly see that existing environmental laws are not able, or were never intended, to protect nature.
Building a Movement for Nature’s Rights
Changes in both law and culture are necessary to successfully transform that which we now consider right-less to being a possessor of enforceable legal rights.
In the U.S., building such a movement – essential, if we are to achieve true sustainability and survive – will not be top-down. Rather, it will build from the grassroots, as more and more communities join Tamaqua, Pittsburgh, and several dozen others to openly defy existing environmental laws that legalize environmental harm and are causing the collapse of species and ecosystems.
As past movements can attest, there is no straight line from right-less to rights-bearing. Yet historic and current rights movements provide numerous lessons for building a national and global movement for nature’s rights.
This includes the adoption of law at the local and state level that challenges higher levels of law. That defiance – which frontally takes on current legal and governing structures – defines past rights movements.
As we saw with the Abolitionists and Suffragists, the Civil Rights Movement, and the contemporary Gay Rights Movement, such defiance “lifts the veil” by shining a spotlight on how existing structures of law deny rights. This helps drive a cultural shift in which the belief in the need for change shared by a few builds into a demand for change supported by the many. And as such movements grow, they increasingly put pressure on existing legal and governing structures, forcing change in law.
A movement for nature’s rights is beginning at the most local level in the U.S. – in communities both large and small – and will continue to grow there, forcing change upward. Today we see the formation of the Pennsylvania Community Rights Network, where people and communities are gathering in a statewide effort to drive change into the Pennsylvania constitution. And we see communities from Maine to Maryland, Virginia to New Mexico, advancing rights of nature frameworks into law and other states as far west as California and Hawaii following suit.
These efforts support and are supported by efforts outside the U.S., including in Nepal, Italy, and Australia – where groups are introducing the idea of rights of nature, and considering how to advance nature’s rights frameworks.
Mari Margil is the Associate Director of the U.S.-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) where she conducts campaign and organizational strategy, media and public outreach, and leads the organization’s fundraising efforts. In 2008, she assisted Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly on the re-writing of their constitution to include Rights of Nature, and is now assisting Nepali organizations in the drafting of that country’s first constitution.