Thetford Town Meeting: Didi Pershouse’s Testimony on the Rights of Nature

This week in town meeting, Thetford and many other towns are voting on the question of whether our state should consider protecting the rights of nature under the law. This has already been passed into law in certain US towns and cities, and in 2008 was incorporated into the constitution of the entire country of Ecuador. Bolivia has done the same. In places where this has passed, people still have rights to use natural systems in ways that do no long term harm (for sustainable forestry, farming, ¬†etc.) and courts help to weigh the proper balance between human’s legal rights as members of the natural world, the rights of nature itself, and the interdependence between the two.

In Ecuador this amendment has been used to help efforts to protect the Amazonian rainforest as mitigation against climate change, to stop illegal mining, and repair damage to local waterways, just for a few examples. South African Attorney Cormac Cullinan’s book “Wild Law,” (available in the US from our local Chelsea Green) explores the ins and outs of giving nature legal rights of its own, and comes out strongly in favor of it.

Here is how I understand it: The lines between our own health and the health of our ecosystem are much blurrier than we thought they were when our current environmental legislation was written. Current legislation falls under the “commerce” clause of the constitution. This means that these outdated laws view nature as property, and mainly serve to preserve one person’s commercial interests against another’s by regulating how much damage can reasonably be done, and how much of nature can be used up. When legal damages are awarded, they are given from one person to another for the money that has been lost because of the damage that was done to natural property. (This has been compared to previous laws entitling a slave-owner to damages when another person beat or killed his slave.)

Even when citizen’s rights are “protected,” nature itself is not. For example, if people won a lawsuit against a hydrofracking operation that polluted their drinking water, instead of the money going to restore a polluted river, people would be paid to move somewhere else where there is clean water. This way of viewing nature–as something that we own, and can buy more of if we need to–does not reflect the reality that we live on a relatively small planet, and that we would actually need another half a planet in addition to our own in order to keep feeding our current appetite for natural resources without using them all up. Unfortunately paying another person rarely helps the effects of a damaged and “used up” environment, which affects the health and survival of all the species that depend on it, including us. When nature has no rights, there are many situations where there is no lawsuit possible.

This is complicated even further by our new legal situation in which corporations are considered “persons” under the law. Corporations use up nature much faster than single persons, so environmental regulation (currently designed only to protect other humans’ legal rights) now can be argued to “impinge on the rights of” corporations–giving them legal reasons to undo environmental regulation. This can be remedied by giving nature legal standing, and giving people the right to petition on the part of nature.

Our new understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental and human health calls for updated laws that actually protect our climate and the natural processes and genetic patterns we depend on for life. This is our chance to show our support for those at the statehouse who would like to update these laws to reflect our current world and our current scientific understanding.

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