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My Turn: The rights of nature

  • A lone tree stands in a deforested farm field near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 27. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/5/2019 8:00:15 AM

The natural world is under siege. Rather than heed the dire warning signs staring them in the face, those who ravage the Earth’s resources are stepping up their efforts. They are in a frenzy to wrest every drop of oil and gas from the ground, to remove every tree, to destroy every species standing in their way.

The burning of the Amazon rainforest is a global catastrophe, made worse because it’s being done to graze cattle, a major cause of global warming. Icebergs melting in the Arctic are spawning a mad race to claim rich oil, gas and mineral resources accessible for the first time.

How do we put a stop to this insanity? Who speaks for nature? Does the natural world have rights? Who do natural resources belong to?

In a sane world, the Earth’s natural resources would be the birthright all humans inherit. With this comes a responsibility to maintain those resources for future generations. Indigenous people for millennia have understood this. Our Native American ancestors enjoyed a veritable Garden of Eden before our Caucasian ancestors trampled over it.

Fortunately, there’s a growing movement to protect the environment through legal action. If corporations can be considered to be people, as the Supreme Court declared in the Citizens United case, so can a lake, a river, a mountain, or a forest have its own rights. There is a certain blissful irony that the same law allowing unlimited funding of elections by corporations can work against them when they attempt to compromise the environment.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas is to thank for the legal precedent behind the current actions. In 1971, Justice Douglas argued that inanimate objects are unable to represent themselves in court but are parties to lawsuits all the time. “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium,” Douglas wrote, is reason to give “environmental objects” standing to sue for their own preservation.

In February of this year, the city of Toledo, Ohio, took legal action to declare Lake Erie a person. Agricultural runoff into the lake led to massive algae blooms that rendered the water undrinkable to the city’s 500,000 residents. Now the city has legal standing to curtail the pollution. This was the first time a part of the natural world was protected in this way in the United States.

A lawsuit has been filed to protect the Colorado River by declaring it a person. Similar efforts are underway in India with the Ganges River. In 2017, New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki, sacred to the Maori tribe, gained the legal rights of a person. In 2008 Ecuador became the first country to legally recognize the rights of nature.

Bolivia passed the “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth” in 2010. It requires the government to prevent the extinction of species, while enabling Bolivians to live well and in balance with nature. Citizens are empowered to take legal action to defend their environment.

In a sane world, there would be no private ownership or exploitation of land and its resources. We cannot own something if it’s not for sale to begin with. But we don’t live in a sane world. And Mother Nature is not able to protect itself from man’s greed.

Absent enlightened political leadership, the court system is an effective way to protect the natural world. Activists are leading these efforts with legal precedent on their side. If every forest, body of water and mountain needs to be declared a person to protect it, the sooner we start the better. If every town, city, state and country adopts similar laws, we will take a big step in preserving our precious planet.

(Sol Solomon lives in Sutton.)

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