Why Education is Critical to the Earth Law Movement

Reader Contribution by Darlene May Lee and Earth Law Center
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I’m a newcomer to the Earth law and rights of nature movement, which aims to secure rights for nature. My steep learning curve has given me a new appreciation for the role of education in building a movement.

The rest of the world is catching on, as well. We’ve come a long way since the mid-1850s, when the Maori tribe challenged the Crown’s impact on the sacred and “living” Whanganui River.[1] The concept of “rights of nature” has transformed from faraway battles to a concept approaching mass awareness and broad support. In 2015, Pope Francis, the head of 1.2 billion Catholics, released an encyclical on the environment and human ecology.[2] In 2017, rights of nature had its biggest year yet, with rivers earning personhood rights in India, Colombia and New Zealand – where the Maori finally won their battle to protect the Whanganui.

Despite these recent victories, the rights of nature movement has yet to reach the general public. For example, when I first joined Earth Law Center (ELC) – a nonprofit that advocates for rights of nature – none of my friends or family had heard of nature’s rights, despite being reasonably well-educated and well-traveled. “Legal standing for ecosystems in a court of law” did not get discussed over dinner.

Perhaps the cause of this knowledge gap results from the movement’s education efforts focused on specialized segments of society rather than the general public. For example, ELC’s “Earth Law” course, taught at Vermont Law School for five years, primarily targets law school students. The Community Rights Awareness Workshops and Democracy Schools designed and led by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) mostly includes residents of specific municipalities. While a critical first step, perhaps it’s time to build on that initial foundation and expand education to broader swathes of society. Doing so can help nudge us to that tipping point where rights of nature will seem inevitable and obvious.

How Can We Broaden Rights-of-Nature Education?

ELC launched several new initiatives to mainstream the movement. ELC’s Directing Attorney, Grant Wilson, is currently designing a judicial training seminar about rights of nature, sharing knowledge from recent court decisions worldwide that recognize nature’s inherent rights. True, still a specialized audience – but a new audience! ELC also created a secondary school Bottle Biosphere curriculum for high schools, intended to boost STEM learning with hands-on activities. Finally, ELC Educational Outreach Lead Lisa Curtin is reaching out to environmental clubs at universities and colleges, to give them Earth Law materials to add to their discussion agendas.

What Can You do to be Part of This Educational Drive?

Here are three things you can do to help:

Share our course: If you know of a school interested in adding rights of nature to its curriculum, let us know at info@earthlaw.org. We will send and help customize the course free of charge for interested administrators and teachers.

Volunteer: If you have educational experience and some spare time, ELC is seeking volunteers to match the course to different state and science standards so new schools can more easily adopt the curriculum.

Translate: Finally, if you speak another language and would like to translate, several schools in Argentina and Mexico have expressed interest, and we’d love to provide a Spanish-language version for them. Translations into other languages would be helpful, as well.

Education starts with a single conversation. Follow and share the news. Donate and support specific legal initiatives that will secure rights of nature, or contact ELC if you have a local initiative for which we can lend our expertise. Email info@earthlaw.org or visit us at www.earthlawcenter.org for more information and ideas.

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