July 29th, 2015 – “Today: Nature as Property. Tomorrow: Rights for Nature?”

Paul Cienfuegos’ July 28th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News

(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes.)

Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.

Have you heard about the growing movement in the US to recognize that nature has enforceable rights to exist, flourish and evolve? It’s one of the aspects of the Community Rights movement. A public interest law firm based in Pennsylvania – the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – has been pioneering these legal efforts since 2006, helping dozens of communities to pass legally binding and locally enforceable Community Rights ordinances that include the Rights of Nature. Today, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from their webpage titled “Rights of Nature: Frequently Asked Questions”.

What do we mean when we say that nature should have rights?

Under the current system of law in almost every country, nature is considered to be property, a treatment which confers upon the property owner the right to destroy ecosystems and nature on that property. When we talk about the “rights of nature,” it means recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, but are entities that have an independent right to exist and flourish …

Why do we need to adopt new legal structures recognizing Rights of Nature?

By most every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major U.S. environmental laws were adopted over forty years ago. … These laws – including the United States’ Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – legalize environmental harms by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, these laws, instead, allow and permit it. In addition, under commonly understood terms of preemption, once these activities are legalized by federal or state governments, local governments are prohibited from banning them. Laws recognizing rights for nature begin with a different premise – that ecosystems and natural communities have the right to exist and flourish, and people, communities and governments have the authority to defend those rights on behalf of those ecosystems and communities.

Where have laws recognizing the Rights of Nature been adopted?

The first laws establishing legal structures which recognized the rights of nature were adopted by local municipalities in the [US] beginning in 2006 with Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Since then, more than two dozen communities in the U.S. have adopted local laws that recognize the rights of nature. In November of 2010, the City of Pittsburgh … became the first major municipality in the United States to recognize rights for nature. In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize rights for nature in its constitution. …

What rights do those laws recognize?

The earliest Rights of Nature laws recognized the right for ecosystems to “exist and flourish.” Others, including the Ecuadorian constitutional provisions adopted in 2008, recognize the right for nature to exist, persist, evolve, and regenerate. Those laws also recognize the right of any person or organization to defend, protect, and enforce those rights; and for payment of recovered damages to government to provide for the restoration of those ecosystems.

Doesn’t recognizing Rights of Nature just add an additional layer of regulation.

No. Current environmental regulatory structures are mostly about “permitting” certain harms to occur – acting more to legalize the activities of corporations and other business entities than to protect our natural and human communities. Laws recognizing the rights of nature empower communities to reject governmental actions which permit unwanted and damaging development to occur – by enabling communities to assert the rights of those ecosystems that would otherwise be destroyed. Although people have been talking about “sustainable development” for decades now, very little has been done to change the structure of law to actually achieve that goal. Laws recognizing the rights of nature finally codify the concept of sustainable development – disallowing those activities that would interfere with the functioning of those natural systems that support human and natural life

What happens when nature’s rights and human rights conflict?

 The same thing that happens when different human rights conflict – a court weighs the harms to the interests, and then decides how to balance them. Given that ecosystems and nature provide a life support system for humans, their interests must, at times, override other rights and interests. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a planet to inhabit that would support our continued existence. Of course, humans are an integral part of nature as well, which means that human needs must also be considered when the rights and interests of ecosystems come into conflict with those of humans.

 Doesn’t this mean that rocks must be given lawyers?

 No, but what it does mean is that the rights of ecosystems and natural communities are enforceable independently of the rights of people who use them. That means that people within a community could step “into the shoes” of a mountain, stream, or forest ecosystem, and advocate for the rights of those natural communities. It calls for a system of jurisprudence in which those ecosystems are actually “seen” in court, and that assesses damages according to the costs of restoring the ecosystem to its pre-damaged state.

 I’ve been reading an excerpt from the “Rights of Nature: Frequently Asked Questions” page on the website of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. To learn more about the rights of nature, visit <TheRightsOfNature.org> or <CELDF.org>.

 You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.

 You can subscribe to my weekly podcast via I-Tunes or at CommunityRightsPDX.org. You can follow me on twitter at CienfuegosPaul. You can sign up for my newsletter at PaulCienfuegos.com. THANKS FOR LISTENING! And remember: WE are the people we’ve been WAITING for.

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