Originally published in 1972, Should Trees Have Standing? rallied a new environmental movement. Christopher Stone, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote the article and then published a book with the same title. Article here. The idea of Rights of Nature appeared in the United States Supreme Court later in 1972, when Judge William O.Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion to the Sierra Club v. Morton decision:
Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality; a fiction found useful for maritime purposes … So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life …The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.
What’s happened since the 1970s?
Since Stone’s essay, the movement has taken big leaps forward. In 2008 and 2011, two countries (Ecuador and Bolivia) amended their constitutions to recognize Rights of Nature. The movement has continued to build with 160+ municipalities and towns around the world, three rivers (Whanganui in New Zealand, Atrato and Amazon in Colombia) and a volcanic mountain (Mount Taranaki) now recognized as having legal rights recognized in the courts.
Earth Law Center has launched nearly two dozen initiatives to secure legal rights recognition for rivers, coastal regions, towns, and Marine Protected Areas.
What will it take to make the Earth Law the norm?
According to a new paper from the University of Pennsylvania, roughly 25% of people need to take a stand before the large-scale social change occurs. This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace and any movement or initiative. Today the normative framework advances through a proliferation of conferences, ‘ high-level panels,’ international targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals, treaties, and conventions.
The body of international agreements that has emerged captures and nudges along the world’s evolving understanding of its condition, building our sense of belonging to one ‘humanity’. Very little of it is ‘hard law’, enforceable in the courts. But it sets standards that national movements can use to rally for change in legislation and public attitudes. Betsy Levy Paluck, a Princeton University psychologist and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant has spent her career studying how shifting social norms affect behavior. She looked at the change in American attitudes toward same-sex marriage before and after the Supreme Court decision that established it as a constitutional right in June 2015.
In the months before the decision, Paluck and Tankard surveyed people in cities all over the country. They repeated the survey after the decision was announced. They found that while personal opinions on same-sex marriage hadn’t shifted, people’s perception of others’ opinions had changed almost immediately. Americans, whether liberal or conservative, thought that their fellow-citizens now supported same-sex marriage more than before, even though, in reality, the only thing that had changed was the ruling of a public institution. The impression created by the ruling was that “more Americans currently support same-sex marriage, and that even more will support it in the future,” Paluck said.
The voice of authority speaks for many, influencing social norms because they change our perceptions of what other people think. So, for this reason, the Rights of Nature movement has focused on securing legal rights recognition for nature to strengthen and evolve the protection of natural ecosystems.
What can you do to spread Earth Law?
To add your voice to strengthening the protection of nature both now and for future generations, consider:
Donating to ELC
Signing up to volunteer at ELC here
Staying informed by signing up for ELC’s newsletter
Connecting with ELC on social media
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. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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