As an old axiom notes, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” From coast to coast, millions of these long-lived jewels have graced our landscape, but one mighty specimen in particular has recently become a hardy symbol of a fast-growing environmental movement. The significance of this oak–rooted on a small piece of land at the corner of Dearing and Finley Streets near downtown Athens, Georgia–is that no one owned it. It was an autonomous being, known locally as The Tree That Owns Itself.
The Tree was already a couple of centuries old back in 1832 when William Jackson, a property owner and prominent resident, expressed his “great affection” for the tree he had long enjoyed, and proclaimed his “great desire to see it protected.” So Jackson formally deeded “unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself [and the plot around it].”
Alas, age and decades of storms took their toll, and even though appreciative locals had tenderly nurtured it, the 100-foot-tall, self-possessed oak finally toppled in 1942. End of story? No! It was common in Athens for people to collect and cultivate the tree’s acorns, growing its offspring in their yards. So, in a citywide effort, a hearty, five-foot-tall direct descendent was soon located, donated, transplanted in the original plot, and granted the same status of self-possession. And there it stands today, now more than 50 feet tall and officially embraced by the city as “Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.”
Let the trees speak
This is more than just a heartwarming story, for that oak’s autonomy and ancestry have become emblematic of a newly energized, transformative legal concept: Rights of Nature. It’s a simple idea: Rather than continuing to rely on the corporate- controlled, business-as-usual model of environmental regulation, why not grant self-protective rights of law to our invaluable natural systems? In a 1972 article, University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone first pushed this straightforward and profound idea into public discussion by “seriously proposing that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers, and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment–indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.”
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His point was that these living beings, no less than humans, have intrinsic value and the inherent right to exist, regenerate, flourish, and defend themselves from exploitation and death. Current legal theory, though, generally recognizes nature as nothing but “property,” and those who harm or even kill it can be prosecuted only if it can be proved that the damage injures humans. In short, harming nature is not itself illegal.
Thus, under the present regulatory regime, nature’s well-being is irrelevant, and environmental cases are reduced to nitpicking over micro details, such as how many parts-per-billion of a chemical contaminant in a river is safe for humans. Establishing rights for nature would empower the river itself to sue for its loss of life, along with harm to the fish, plants, and other organisms that depend on the river’s health.
But, you might ask, how can trees, lakes, etc. argue in court? The same way we do, explained Stone: Lawyers could sue on their behalf, and groups, from Greenpeace to local coalitions, could serve as legal guardians. No less a judicial eminence than Justice William O. Douglas endorsed Stone’s proposal in a dissenting opinion in a landmark 1972 Supreme Court case. In Sierra Club v. Morton, Douglas asserted:
Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”
The foundational truth upholding this legal approach is that we humans and our environment are one organism. After all, we can’t live without nature–indeed, we are nature, and nature is us.
Such an obvious truth, however, is not only inconvenient, but abhorrent to profiteering environmental exploiters. They immediately ridiculed Stone and the Rights of Nature idea, but the concept caught on anyway, so that now, 50 years later, corporate interests are hyperventilating and on the attack. Last July, Koch brothers political operative David McDonald warned property owners to rally against this movement. “Streams don’t have rights,” he barked. “Rights … belong to people, not to artifacts within the environment or natural wonders.”
Seriously? A tree is just an “artifact”? Don’t “natural wonders” –from rainforests to coral reefs–have more intrinsic value to Earth, our own health, and our posterity than some corporation’s short-term profits?
And what a hoot it is for this representative of corporate supremacy to declare that rights only “belong to people.” He is, after all a functionary for the avaricious money powers that have spent years perverting law, logic, and reality to promote the absurd fiction that corporations (artificial constructs with no life, no organic systems, no pulse or brain, no sentient existence whatsoever) are “people” with the legal rights of “personhood.” If an inanimate, self-serving monopolistic behemoth like Amazon Inc. can be armed with the legally enforceable rights of a human being, how much more deserving is the Amazon River, which abounds with real life and serves the common good?
The Rights of Nature movement is ascending now specifically because the existing system–which regularly allows corporate lobbyists, politicians, and big donors to undermine, evade, and mock environmental laws and regs–simply doesn’t work. As Mike Roth, a leading clean water advocate in Florida, puts it:
As we watch developers …[pave] lands with impervious concrete, as we see our springs turn green and our rivers turn lifeless and our wells dry up, we have tried it all. We have called our water management districts and other “protection” agencies, called our representatives, written letters, signed petitions, marched and pleaded–everything the law “allows” us to do. …[Yet,] we see continued granting of water withdrawal permits and allowing of excessive fertilizer and other chemical uses … and mining permits handed out like candy on Halloween. …Thus began a movement to give rights to nature.
An indigenous idea
The demand that nature have a seat at society’s governing table sparks panic in corporate boardrooms. But this concept is centuries old and widely practiced among some of the most experienced environmental stewards in our country: Indigenous Americans.
Despite the long effort by Anglos to exterminate them, Native People and their concepts have endured and are regaining strength, in large part because they connect to the whole family of life. The fundamental worldviews of practically all of the 574 tribes recognized by Washington embrace both a spiritual and symbiotic kinship with their ecosystems. Tribal decisions, then, are not just left to monetary interests, but must include meaningful “consultations” with the land, water, habitat, and future generations.
In recent years, multinational extractive corporations such as pipeline builders, frackers, and mining operators have intruded ever more arrogantly and forcefully into tribal rights, waters, and lands. In response, leaders of these sovereign peoples have increasingly been codifying their traditional practice of protecting these resources by enacting their own Rights of Nature laws.
For example, three years ago, the Ojibwe people–centered around White Earth, Minnesota–recognized the right of wild rice “to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” And not just the wild rice plants, but the fresh water resources and habitats that sustain them. More than a nutritional and economic mainstay, “Wild rice is the most important cultural aspect of our livelihood,” says tribal attorney Frank Bibeau. “Our migration path took us here to the Great Lakes, where the food grows on the water. If we can protect the water, then we’re probably protecting everything else.”
The Rights of Nature concept is an organic outgrowth of the reality that Earth and its many creatures and elements are inextricably connected, so the approach considers the well-being of the whole. For example, under an 1837 treaty with Washington, the Ojibwe Nation governs wild rice (manoomin, good berry in Ojibwe) in its territorial waters. But that water is not separated from adjacent waterflows damaged by industry or from contaminants running from adjacent lands. Rights of Nature lets the plants “speak” about their right to live and thrive in systems not artificially bounded by human-defined territories.
That premise is the basis of the Ojibwe’s ongoing legal case against the State of Minnesota, which proposes letting Canadian oil giant Enbridge pump out 5 billion gallons of groundwater so it can build its “Line 3” oil pipeline through the region. This landmark case names wild rice itself as a plaintiff, claiming the pipeline scheme drains the the marsh grass ecosystem and damages its right to live. The state tried to dismiss the case, but the court ruled in August that manoomin has standing under tribal law and that “the Band is exercising its inherent authority to protect a necessary and vital resource.”
As you would expect, our esteemed corporate leaders have responded to this idea of natural rights with the same calm consideration and civil respect they always give to any extension of democratic power: “Eeeeeekkk,” they shriek in unison, the sky is falling! If nature has rights, businesses and humans will have none! “You can’t do anything to the land,” exclaimed one of their delirious lawyers. “You can’t farm it, you can’t put new roads in, you can’t do any landscaping.” OMG, squeal their squads of corporate-funded property rights extremists, we won’t be allowed to swat a mosquito or cut our grass.
Wow. They should save some of their breath for breathing! Rights of Nature is about protecting the health and survivability of ecosystems–not your lawn.
The problem that profiteering industries and their political screechers have in trying to demonize this rights movement is that it is strikingly sensible. It’s an honest, pragmatic, effective–and popular–alternative to today’s status quo “regulatory” charade that basically serves and protects nature’s violators. You don’t need a law degree to agree that, Yeah, that bay and those creatures that live in it have a right to exist and not be sickened with some corporation’s chemical waste. People don’t think of ecological destruction as parts-per-billion, but as greed, gross disrespect … and as fundamentally wrong.
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
That’s why the Rights of Nature idea has taken hold and is spreading so rapidly worldwide. In little more than a decade, national parliaments, courts, and even constitutions in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico City, Nepal, India, New Zealand, and Uganda have incorporated the concept into their legal systems, and campaigns are now underway to adopt versions of it in a dozen more nations.
But there’s no need to look afar. While US mass media have generally ignored the remarkable adoption of this principle around the world, it has quietly taken root across our own country. In addition to actions by various tribal nations (Ho-Chunk, Nez Perce, Ojibwe, Yurock, et al.), more than three dozen US communities have enacted enforceable Rights of Nature provisions. Especially notable is that this grassroots legal rebellion against the do-nothing system of environmental protection is not arising from predictable liberal enclaves, but mainly in working class communities.
Consider Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania coal country. In 2006 it enacted the first Rights of Nature ordinance in the world. City council member Cathy Morelli was working with a growing group of locals outraged that their area had become “a sacrifice zone” for dumping toxic sludge and other industrial waste. Unsurprisingly, Tamaqua was suffering a devastating outbreak of rare, fatal cancers. Meanwhile, business and regulatory leaders insisted that tests found no environmental links to the diseases–and proposed even more dumping permits.
Realizing the regulatory game was just a runaround, Morelli urgently sought a real remedy and came across Thomas Linzey, a lawyer and activist who was thinking outside the traditional legal box. He helped the councilwoman draft an ordinance that included the novel method of bypassing regulators by extending legally enforceable rights directly “to natural communities” and ecosystems, empowering them to protect their local environment from corporate harm. Though the town is solidly Republican, the people backed the clear-cut, democratic directness of Morelli’s ordinance. Sixteeen years later, it remains in force. And not only has it helped deter more toxic dumping, but it has made Tamaqua an inspiration to the global movement for nature’s rights.
Change that matters
You might expect people in California, Colorado, or other bastions of ecological activism to be pushing this advance in democratic policymaking–and they are. But grassroots groups in less-expected battlegrounds such as Toledo, OH; Columbia, SC; and Mora County, NM; are also mounting feisty campaigns. And guess which state is the epicenter of today’s Rights of Nature political movement? Florida! Yes, that Trumpian fantasyland where right-wing politicians routinely permit land developers to run schemes that ravage nature in pursuit of quick-buck profits.
In the past few years, the Florida Rights of Nature Network, a savvy grassroots coalition, has carried the fight directly to the domineering power sector that has long been free to destroy lands, water, and habitats. In 2018, FRNN took on the corporate and political bigshots who were poisoning Orange County (home to Orlando’s Disney World), as well as lakes, creeks, marshes, and other magnificent waterways. Corporate contaminants repeatedly spurred toxic algae blooms that kill the region’s fish, dolphins, manatees, and other wildlife–as well as the tourism economy. Yet industry lobbyists and campaign donors blocked people’s actions to protect the ecosystem.
A whole new approach was needed, so FRNN launched a ballot campaign to put a Rights of Nature provision in the county charter. After an arduous yearlong effort, the volunteers got their measure on the 2020 ballot. But even they doubted such a new idea could win against the doomsday attacks run by the money powers. Yet this democratic approach to protecting nature proved astonishingly powerful–and bipartisan: With an electorate that is 36% Dems, 34% GOP, and 30% independent or other, 89% of Orange County voters approved the initiative!
But to hell with democracy and the people’s will. In a sneak attack just before the November election, industry lobbyists and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (a Trump acolyte and corporate whore), preemptively snuck a provision into state law to nullify any local election that granted protective rights to nature.
So, as the fight goes on, FRNN has:
challenged the constitutionality of the nullification ploy
filed a promising Rights of Nature lawsuit against a corporation trying to destroy another 115 acres of Orange County wetlands, and
launched a petition drive to put a statewide Rights of Nature initiative on the 2024 ballot.
Establishing in law the Rights of Nature is change that matters. Not only is it a structural reform that can produce actionable environmental remedies over the opposition of selfish, big money elites, but it can also unite people in producing common sense, non-partisan policies that benefit the whole community. That’s why the entrenched forces of the status quo are panicked by the threat it poses to their financial interests and their grip on the system. And that’s why grassroots people themselves, not politicians or parties, are the only ones to trust, for they have the commitment to overcome setbacks and keep pushing to make the change.
As activist leader Mari Margil puts it: “The organizing never ends. That’s the case in any social justice movement, and the Rights of Nature isn’t an exception.“
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Your town could be a leader: The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund assists communities in developing laws for the Rights of Nature. celdf.org
If you’re in Florida: The Florida Rights of Nature Network is gathering signatures to put a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waterways”state constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot. fronn.org
Tip for foodies: The White Earth Band of Ojibwe, which sued Minnesota’s Dept. of Natural Resources on behalf of their cultural and nutritional staple, sells hand-harvested wild rice at whiteearth.com
Take it global: Founded by Mari Margil and Thomas Linzey, the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights advocates for global legal protections for nature. centerforenvironmentalrights.org
Host a movie night! Invisible Hand, a Rights of Nature documentary, has piled up awards, but more people need to see it. Details for arranging your own virtual screening at invisiblehandfilm.com. Dig deeper Our friends at Bioneers maintain an online library of Rights of Nature resources. bioneers.org