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public healthThe Crisis in Flint Isn't Over. It's Everywhere. The warning not to drink or wash in the tap water lasted for two days, but the anger did not subside quickly. Miller started meeting with other residents to figure out how to protect their water. But what to do? There aren't great options for individual citizens to take legal action when a lake has been wrecked.
You could sue a polluter (for polluting) or a government agency (for neglecting its regulatory duties), but even if you won, the damages would be too small to be a deterrent. You could assemble a class action suit of hurt residents, but that's a ponderous and uncertain process. The real and wretched problem, of course, was that the lake itself was polluted—and individuals can't sue over that. In the eyes of the law, they don't have “standing.”
That's when one activist raised an idea: What if the lake itself had standing? What if the citizens of Toledo passed a law giving it legal rights?So working with advice from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund , the residents wrote the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and convinced 60 percent of Toledoans to vote for it. In the spring of 2019 it became law. Now anytime the lake is polluted, a city resident can sue on its behalf.
The idea of giving personhood to nature has been slowly gaining adherents. Environmentalists have prodded governments and courts to award rights to lakes, hills, rivers, and even individual species of plants. The New Zealand parliament has given legal rights to the Whanganui River, while Colombia has made the Páramo de Pisba region in the Andes—threatened for years by mining—a “subject of rights.” About three dozen towns across the US are passing Toledo-style bills, and the Florida Democratic Party lists the rights of nature in its party platform.
This sounds like a plot device ripped from an Ursula Le Guin sci-fi novel, no? Bodies of water throwing it down before the judge: “Your honor, the river objects to this line of questioning!” But it's not as weird as it sounds. In 1972 the legal scholar Christopher Stone wrote a paper called “Should Trees Have Standing?” in which he pointed out that courts have long recognized entities that possess rights but require someone to sue on their behalf, from corporations to ships to children.What's more, the concept that nature has a discrete identity of its own is thousands of years old. Pretty much every indigenous culture has such a tradition. Indeed, indigenous groups have been at the forefront of this legal movement: It was New Zealand's Maori who advocated for the Whanganui's rights and who now serve as legal guardians for the river. In 2018 the White Earth Band of the Chippewa tribe in Minnesota gave legal rights to wild rice in their tribal courts. The rice “is part of our migration and creation stories,” notes Frank Bibeau, a tribe member and lawyer.
Balneario Camboriu view from the bay with partial watershed © Timm Kroeger/TNC In the first rigorous, peer-reviewed study on water fund Return on Investment (ROI) for cities in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, TNC scientists examine the Camboriú Water Fund and show that nature can be a cost-effective solution for improving urban water supplies and reducing treatment costs.
LEARN MOREThe WIRED Guide to Climate Change As intrigued as I am by the idea of mountains suing mining companies, though, I'm not sure the rights of nature will hold up in US courts. Corporations are against it. One Ohio farm has sued to have the Lake Erie Bill of Rights struck down, claiming, among other things, that cities legally aren't allowed to create new types of felonies and that the bill reaches beyond Toledo's purview. (There are “multiple tiers of problems,” as Yvonne Lesicko, vice president of public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, tells me.) Ohio's governor signed a budget bill with an amendment that seems aimed at invalidating Toledo's law. Even some indigenous thinkers aren't keen on the idea, arguing that these new laws could infringe their treaty rights. And there's some hubris here too. How do we humans know what nature wants or if it cares if humans survive?
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