Rights of Nature: The Time Has Come

Feb 19th, 2019 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.

Whatever you can do or imagine, begin it; boldness has beauty, magic, and power in it.   ~ Goethe

The rights of nature movement has hit the mainstream media, which surely is good news for those looking for a way to change the planet’s current course of continuing environmental degradation and climate disruption.  The world is facing immense problems, and new thinking (to Western cultures, at least) is needed if Earth and all her inhabitants are to stand a chance.

Lake Erie [photo: Harmful algae bloom. Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.]

Lake Erie [photo: Harmful algae bloom. Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.]

The Right to a Healthy Planet for All

Voters in Toledo, Ohio will soon be deciding if the severaly polluted Lake Erie should be granted rights of nature – that nature has the right to exist, regenerate and flourish. This means that in a legal sense, the lake will have standing and therefore a person can bring a lawsuit against a polluting entity on the lake’s behalf.  It is an effort to bring back clean and healthy water to the lake ecosystem, as well as for the health of the people of Toledo and surrounding regions.

The New York Times article notes the uniqueness of this election item, and the importance: “The peculiar ballot question comes amid a string of environmental calamities at the lake — poisonous algal blooms in summer, runoff containing fertilizer and animal manure, and a constant threat from invasive fish. But this special election is not merely symbolic. It is legal strategy: If the lake gets legal rights, the theory goes, people can sue polluters on its behalf.”

Pittsburgh, Santa Monica and a number of other U.S. municipalities have passed rights of nature ordinances.

If the ballot measure passes, it will “likely to be challenged in court as having little or no legal footing, and that it could ultimately be invalidated as reaching beyond the scope of city law.”  But it would be a big win for the rights of nature movement.

This is the direction in which the world should head if we are to stand a chance at having a livable planet, and with it, human happiness and well-being. Human rights are dependent upon environmental rights – the planet can live without us, but we can’t live without a healthy and thriving Earth.

What Exactly is Rights of Nature?

The Global Alliance for Rights of Nature describes this endeavor in the following terms:

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. Laws recognizing the rights of nature thus change the status of natural communities and ecosystems to being recognized as rights-bearing entities with rights that can be enforced by people, governments, and communities.

Globally, a number of countries are recognizing environmental rights.  Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, New Zealand and India all have some type of legislation or governing document in place that addresses rights of nature.


The Yamuna (Jamuna) River as it crosses Taj Mahal at Agra. [Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:YamunaRiver.jpg]

The Yamuna (Jamuna) River as it crosses Taj Mahal at Agra. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their related ecosystems have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities … in order to preserve and conserve them”. [Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:YamunaRiver.jpg]

Recently, in Minnesota, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe has legally recognized the rights of wild rice (known as manoomin), a crop of great cultural and spiritual significance to the native community. Indigenous leader and activist Winona La Duke wrote that these rights were recognized because “it has become necessary to provide a legal basis to protect wild rice and fresh water resources as part of our primary treaty foods for future generations.”

Other indigenous tribes in the U.S. have also recognized rights of nature, including the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, which is seeking ways to protect its communities from fracking.

A Needed Change

Whatever the outcome in Toledo, it is encouraging that rights of nature is garnering more attention, and that more cities and municipalities are looking at this as a means to protect the natural environment and community health from negative impacts driven by industry and fossil fuels. Given the threats to the environment and roll back of regulations in the U.S., something more clearly needs to be done.

Recognizing rights of nature offers a framework for lasting change. While society certainly needs to replace dirty fuels with clean energy systems, reduce pollution, etc., what is really needed is an inherent respect for nature.   The bottom line is that we humans need to broaden our thinking and evolve to the point that we understand we are not only part of the web of life, but also dependent upon the web of life.

Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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