When I first learned about Earth Law Center (ELC), I visited my dad shortly thereafter and had a bit of trouble explaining to my dad what exactly ELC did. Nature having rights didn’t make much sense to him, a retired NASA engineer — he likes facts and figures best. So, I gave him a hypothetical example.
As a kid, I remember having to hold my breath every time we drove by Onondaga Lake because all the chemicals dumped into the lake made it stink. It got so bad that fishing was banned in 1972. Local activists have since persuaded County and State governments to ban chemical and waste discharge -with the Lake being made a Superfund site in 1994. Clean up has progressed so well that 56 species of fish now live in the Lake (compared to 8 species in the 1970’s).
Me: So if Onondaga Lake had legal rights, none of the chemical and waste dumps could have happened.
Me: Dumping chemicals in the Lake would have been like dumping waste into your house.
Dad: Oh you mean they could have sued the dumpers? Or actually no one would dump waste into my house to begin with because they know they’d get into trouble.
Me: Yep, that’s exactly right.
Dad: Oh, that’s not a bad idea then.
So what is earth law exactly? Earth law, including rights of nature, builds on a long history of indigenous perspectives which: embrace nature, live within nature, and instead of holding themselves above nature — honor nature’s rules and ways of supporting life on earth as part of the cosmic order.
Moving beyond the human-centric point of view, earth law puts earth at the center — with all inhabitants of earth being considered, and seen as interconnected (including humans).
It means countries (like Ecuador and Bolivia) can amend their constitutions to recognize rights of nature. Then people like Richard Wheeler and Eleanor Huddle could sue on behalf of a river (the Vilcambamba in Ecuador) and have the court rule in favor of nature, citing the amended Constitution. It means rivers like the Whanganui (New Zealand), the Ganges and Yamuna (India) and the Atrato (Colombia) can now do the same since all were recognized as having legal rights in 2017.
Why does it matter? Current environmental protection can’t keep up with the pace of environmental destruction. Earth law paves a path to connect many different groups and interests working to protect nature, unifies activists and advocates towards a common tangible goal, and gives nature the same rights that corporations and humans have.
Earth law matters, because we need to halt and reverse the havoc we’ve wreaked on the planet. Earth Law provides a conceptual framework to help catalyze a global movement so we can protect and restore nature for future generations. Nature is the one thing we truly can’t live without.
Want to join the movement? Follow and share the news. Volunteer with a Rights of Nature organization near you. Donate and support specific legal initiatives that will secure rights of nature for oceans, lakes, rivers, coastal regions and municipalities. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.earthlawcenter.org to find which of our latest initiatives most engages you.
Photo by Yann Arthus Bertrand
Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature's rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.