Sued by the forest
Should nature be able to take you to court?
(Boston Globe / Steve Wacksman)
By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
July 19, 2009
Last February, the town of Shapleigh, Maine, population 2,326, passed an unusual ordinance. Like nearby towns, Shapleigh sought to protect its aquifers from the Nestle Corporation, which draws heavily on the region for its Poland Spring bottled water. Some Maine towns had acquiesced, others had protested, and one was locked in a protracted legal battle.
Shapleigh tried something new - a move at once humble in its method and audacious in its ambition. At a town meeting, residents voted, 114-66, to endow all of the town’s natural assets with legal rights: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.” It further decreed that any town resident had “standing” to seek relief for damages caused to nature - permitting, for example, a lawsuit on behalf of a stream.
Shapleigh is one of about a dozen US municipalities to have passed measures declaring that nature itself has rights under the law. And in 2008, when Ecuador adopted a new constitution, it recognized nature’s “right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.” A campaign is also underway in Europe for a UN Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, which would attempt to enshrine such principles in international law, following the model of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These developments are part of a small but growing movement that aims to reorient the relationship between the earth and the law. Advocates argue that natural objects should not be treated as mere property, vulnerable to exploitation or destruction as owners see fit, but as rights-bearing entities with intrinsic value. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, works with communities such as Shapleigh to protect local ecosystems, and more towns are considering ordinances in the same vein. The Center for Earth Jurisprudence, established in 2006, works with two Florida law schools, developing a legal philosophy based on respect for the planet, and seeking avenues in current law to advance that goal.
“Someone needs to be able to represent the rivers,” says Patricia Siemen, director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. “Someone needs to be able to represent the forests.”
Of course, the notion will strike skeptics as preposterous. Would we need to worry about offending litigious shrubs? With a boulder, or a swamp, as a witness in the proceedings? Critics dismiss the idea as grandstanding that could clog the courts with frivolous cases.
But proponents see it as part of an ongoing progression, an expansion of rights that slowly brings about an increasingly just society. After all, not so long ago, slaves and women were in some legal regimes deemed property, just as nature is today. Now we all accept universal human rights. The concept of animal rights has also become familiar, if much more contested. Advocates of this agenda see the extension of rights to ecosystems as the natural next step. And they believe it could spark a profound shift in our relations with nature, leading to more effective environmental protections.
“The language of rights has a great deal of currency. It’s the most powerful of our ethical terms,” says John Baird Callicott, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas. “Rights shift the burden of proof from those who are defending nature to those who want to exploit it.”
So my question to this idea that nature has rights would be centered around the responsibilities that go with rights. The rights that humans have been granted also come with a responsibility. If nature can sue us, does nature also have a responsibility to us. Is Mother Nature going to pay us back for the damage she causes? I think it’s a fair question to ask. The next time a tornado tears up a town, maybe nature can reimburse those that were affected.
And did you also notice that they are trying to classify people into two categories now? You are either someone that will defend nature or you are someone who exploits it. What about our need to utilize what nature gives us?