In a recent article on the rights of nature, the author explores the nascent rights of nature movement within a global context, focusing on a recent legislative breakthrough in Ohio in which Lake Erie was granted the same legal rights as a person. After years of contending with a serious water crisis, citizens of Ohio organized together to brainstorm how the lake could better protect itself from ongoing pollution and other forms of environmental harm. This initial idea eventually resulted in a special election that was held a couple weeks ago on February 26th, 2019, in which the citizens of Toledo easily passed a vote to grant Lake Erie the same legal rights normally reserved for a person. Although granting the status of personhood to an ecosystem may seem a bit surprising, it is no more surprising than the fact that corporations have benefited from the status of personhood since the 1880’s (a fact that many of us may feel ambivalent about). This means that citizens of Ohio will now have the legal authority to sue on behalf of the lake whenever its “right to flourish is being contravened.” Named the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, this groundbreaking legislation marks the first time that rights-based legislation has been successfully passed within the USA to protect a whole ecosystem: the lake, it’s tributaries, and the many species that subsist from it.
Although this is the first time such a law has been passed within the USA, it is not without precedence within the global community. This legislation follows in the legal footsteps of countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, India, and New Zealand, which have previously passed legislation to protect rivers and forests within their territories. More specifically, the article explains that Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008, thanks in large part to the work of indigenous activists. New Zealand followed along by recognizing the legal rights of the Te Urewera forest in 2014. In 2017, Colombia granted rights to the Rio Atrato river and India recognized the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as legal persons. And then in 2018, the Amazon rainforest got its own rights, and for the first time, so did a specific plant species: the wild rice known as manoomin, one of the Anishinaabe people’s staple crops. Ecuador has been one country that has had such rights of nature legislation challenged: after the country incorporated the rights of nature in its constitution, locals have brought lawsuits against companies they say were causing serious environmental harm. In one recent case, citizens sued on behalf of a river that was being polluted in the course of a construction project, and the court ruled in the river’s favor.
We at SEEDS celebrate the nascent rights of nature movement because it rejects the predominant Western homocentric viewpoint that privileges humankind over all other aspects of the natural world, and replaces it instead with an ecocentric viewpoint that places intrinsic value on all living organisms and their natural environment, regardless of their perceived usefulness or importance to human beings. In addition, we see this emerging movement as an exciting next frontier in expanding our collective moral compass. Over the past couple centuries of our modern societal timeline, we’ve witnessed more and more rights being extended to people across identity spectrums (i.e. womxn, people of color, LGBT folx, etc. – although there is of course so much more work to be done here!) and so we celebrate the possibility that our collective moral compass could expand to include nature herself as worthy of rights and protections under the law. Instead of relating to nature as property that is destined to be owned, consumed, and exploited however humans see fit – as an object rather than a subject – we recognize that the rights of nature movement views the natural world as being worthy of inherent honor and protection, due in part to the basic fact that the future of the human species is not feasible without the earth’s continued health and wellbeing to sustain us.
Although this is groundbreaking legislation within the USA that may indicate a new legal path forward, we must acknowledge that ecocentricism is actually a very old ideological and spiritual framework, safeguarded by indigenous wisdom-keepers across the globe for thousands of years, persisting even through the lived experience of colonialism and genocide. Although we at SEEDS are not aligned with the many ways that the legal system has been employed historically and contemporarily to perpetuate injustice and exploitation of humans and the natural world, we hope that this burgeoning rights of nature movement may indicate an innovative path forward that works within the existing Western legal system to breathe new life into ancient ways of knowing and being in relationship with the earth and each other. In the face of our impending climate crisis, it seems as reasonable as anything else to place hope in our society’s capacity to broaden our collective conception of what elements of our world deserve protection, honor, and respect. At SEEDS we believe that we must broaden our lens to understand our place amongst the family of things amidst the interdependence of all beings. From an ecocentric perspective, value is placed on all life because of a deep knowing that life fundamentally supports life, and that everything is mutually dependent on everything else. From this perspective engendered by daily practices, we can all work toward building a world that promotes life and celebrates the beauty of diversity, interconnection, and belonging for all beings.