Do birds have rights? What about bees, flowers, and trees? Or whales and giraffes? Rivers and lakes? These are profound questions that tap into the very nature of life on Earth. Currently, people around the world are focused on climate change: Does it exist, and if so, is it natural or unnatural? Yet, climate change is only one aspect of the larger issue of how human beings relate to the world in general. Do we see Nature as something to be used and then discarded, or do we see it as a living presence that we are part of, the heart and soul of life on Earth?
At the deepest level, it’s a spiritual, as much as a political, question: How do we live in relation to this planet, our “home” in the universe? Throughout the ages, Earth has been seen as a mother figure to the life forms she provides a home for. Mother Earth, or Gaia. Contemporary societies have forgotten this, or they disregard it as foolish fantasy. The corporate/political alliances that rule much of the modern world do not perceive our planet as alive and sentient. To them it is an object that brings them profit, to be used and used until there is nothing left. They don’t notice the invisible living connections that hold the living world together. To reduce everything to an argument about belief or disbelief in climate change is a distraction that keeps all of us from seeing something greater is at stake.
Ultimately, we need to enlarge the discussion to consider whether or not Earth and Nature have the same rights we claim for ourselves. Corporations are now seen as having the rights of a person because they have had the political clout to obtain that legal status. Mother Earth has never lobbied for her rights in the courtrooms and political arenas of this country. Her children, however, are now standing up for her as destruction of the natural world escalates everywhere. There are many grass-roots groups who have begun to work for the “Rights of Nature.”
In Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, the public water supply, sourced in Lake Erie, became so toxic (because of the lake’s high pollution from agricultural runoff and industrial waste) that residents were warned not to drink or even touch it. This crisis sparked a local movement to establish the rights of Lake Erie and the adjacent communities, which are being infringed upon by agribusiness and industries that pollute the lake. Voters passed an ordinance, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is now being challenged by the state government. Rights-of-Nature groups are popping up in many places, including Pittsburgh (to stop fracking) and Oregon (to stop aerial pesticide spraying). In Southwest Florida, where I live, residents are organizing to establish rights for the Caloosahatchee River, polluted by algae flowing from Lake Okeechobee and contributing to red tide in the Gulf.
There is an awakening occurring across the country, as well as elsewhere in the world, to the essential rights of the natural world and humanity to live a healthy, balanced, unpolluted life on this planet. It’s not only about climate change, which is important but just the tip of the iceberg. Ordinary citizens in rural areas as well as large cities are coming together to say no to the poisoning of their communities by businesses that value money over life itself.* Mother Nature is a living breathing being, which every one of us is part of, and without her, we cannot live ourselves. The “Rights of Nature” movement is an idea whose time has come.
* See the documentary We the People 2.0 and the dramatic film Dark Waters (based on real events) for the inspiring personal stories of those who are standing up to polluters and state (and federal) governments that back them.