Listen to the Living on Earth interview: “1970 saw the birth of major environmental laws including the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau and Host Steve Curwood reflect on the development of environmental law in the 50 years since: important successes like improved air and water quality throughout the nation, and major shortfalls like the lack of climate legislation. Finally, the pair look forward from today, considering the most prominent environmental challenges in the 21st century. (21:08)”
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day, expected to be celebratory, arrives at a somber moment. COVID-19 human tragedies continue to ravage communities, and UN Environment warns that “nature is sending us a message” we must heed to avoid future pandemics. This Earth Day demands both deep reflection and bold action. Fortunately, it arrives as the rights of nature movement is surging worldwide, offering new strategies for building legal systems that reflect our interconnected relationships with each other and the planet.
The first Earth Day in 1970 inspired nations to create sweeping, new environmental law regimes. In the United States, virtually all modern environmental laws arose in part from Earth Day marches, teach-ins, and movement building actions.
My personal commitment to nature’s well-being began during that exciting period, when I was in elementary school. My local creek was regularly polluted by upstream tannery spills, and in the leadership and passion of citizens around the globe, I saw a path for change. Many of these early advocates later took up the work of implementing the resulting suite of environmental laws – myself included.
Five decades later, we have seen significant improvement in some areas, but much remains to be done. As I wrote recently in the Vermont Environmental Law Journal, environmental laws have addressed some acute issues, such as large sewage and industrial pollution releases, but have failed to prevent long-term, devastating harm, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. This is due in large part to the fact that our environmental laws are grounded in the frame of “nature as property,” to be owned and degraded. Systems-based science now shows us that we are fundamentally connected with nature. To better guide our relationship with the natural world, we need legal and economic systems arising from a new frame, one of natural systems as fellow Earth citizens. Recognition of the fundamental rights of nature is a core element of such new governance systems.
“Rights of nature” is a legal and jurisprudential theory and movement sparked in part by University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone’s 1972 essay, “Should Trees Have Standing.” Stone calls for legal standing and associated rights for ecosystems and species, similar to the concept of fundamental human rights. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to take up this call, recognizing in its Constitution the inherent rights of ecosystems and species to exist, thrive, and evolve.
As described in new research from Craig Kauffman at the University of Oregon, legal recognition of nature’s rights now exists at the local to national levels in 12 countries worldwide, including roughly 50 cities and counties spanning 13 states in the United States. An additional 16 countries are also considering legal recognition of nature’s rights, which occurs in the form of constitutional provisions, treaty agreements, statutes, local ordinances, and court decisions. Most of this activity has arisen just over the last decade, with a spike in the last several years. Successes include legal standing and rights for rivers in New Zealand and India, a successful push-back on fracking in Pennsylvania, and the right to a healthy climate in the Colombian Amazon. Kauffman gives credit to movement building, finding that the “sudden and dramatic increase” in proposed and adopted rights of nature laws “reflects the strengthening of transnational rights of nature networks following a decade of network activation and mobilization.”
Earth Day has been a notable marker in the growth of the nature’s rights movement worldwide. For example, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2010 coincided with one of the United States’ most devastating environmental incidents, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Protective regulations put in place by President Obama to prevent another Deepwater Horizon were reversed by President Trump, demonstrating the ongoing need for broader, more durable, rights-based protections for nature.
This need was answered, also on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, at the global launch of the rights of nature movement in Cochabamba, Bolivia. A climate conference attended by over 35,000 representatives of 140 nations produced a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which led later that year to the creation of the UN Harmony with Nature Programme’s Earth Day UN General Assembly Dialogues. These annual UN Dialogues examine development of Earth-centered legal and economic systems, including recognition of the rights of nature. In parallel, a worldwide network of rights of nature advocates has begun to solidify and expand, with an associated “explosion” of new, rights-based environmental laws and policies as described by Kauffman.
The first Earth Day gave voice to widespread alarm over an increasingly polluted and degraded environment and produced a wide range of laws to combat identified threats. On Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, we are witnessing a new global movement, by “citizens disillusioned by the failure of governments to take stronger actions to address the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.” Advocates, governments, and courts are building laws and policies that recognize nature’s rights and are now beginning to implement them.
Fortunately, we can bring forward lessons learned over the last 50 years towards creation of Earth-centered legal and economic regimes. One example is the U.S. Clean Water Act, passed in 1972 over President Nixon’s veto. It was a monumental achievement at the time, but decades later, U.S. EPA reports that 46% of river and stream miles, 32% of wetland areas, and 18% of coastal and Great Lakes waters are in “poor biological condition.” A Healthy Waters Act, grounded in the rights of waterways, would address the shortcomings of the Clean Water Act and better support the human right to water for basic needs. Lessons learned from Clean Water Act implementation efforts can inform rights-based implementation strategies, such as expanding waterway restoration in addition to attending to antidegradation, and prioritizing whole waterway health rather than focusing primarily on individual designated uses.
Clearing skies and waters associated with COVID-19 shutdowns inspire visions of what life in harmony with natural systems might look like. The burgeoning rights of nature movement represents a new Earth Day revolution, one that is building modern legal and economic regimes that will guide us towards a mutually thriving relationship with the natural world.
 Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Uganda, United States.
 California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia.
The Climate Crisis is upon us. NELC Fellow, Bill McKibben, will keep you informed about the latest developments and how you can get involved through his new newsletter. You can subscribe to it for free, here.
In this Bloomberg podcast, NELC Fellow, Pat Parenteau, provides an overview and analysis of the $1.6B lawsuit the NY Attorney General brought against Exxon Mobil Corp. in a high profile climate-related securities fraud case under NY state law. Did Exxon’s actions cause material harm to investors when they communicated different numbers internally and externally about the cost of carbon. If investors had known would they have put their money elsewhere? At the close of the two week trial, the Attorney General dropped the common law fraud claims, which required a showing of intent to deceive. Parenteau has maintained that this case will have a serious effect on pending litigation against a number of oil companies that focus on the impacts of climate change. The documents that have come to light in this case will be useful in the other cases, even though they involve different laws.
Common Dreams published NELC co-founder and fellow, Gus Speth’s, “A People’s State of the Nation,” which rings alarm bells in terms of how the US compares to other high consuming countries in terms of social, environmental, economic, and health indicators.
In this latest ABA feature, they highlight the pioneering thinking of Mary Wood in shaping climate change litigation strategy in the US. NELC co-founder Gus Speth also weighs in on the story.
Please join NELC Fellow, Marta Ceroni, and John de Graaf, on October 8 at 6pm at the Ava Gallery, Lebanon, NH (come at 5:30PM if you want to enjoy some light refreshments) for a night of conversation in which John presents his latest movie “Redefining Prosperity: The Gold Rushes of Nevada City” a story of a community that built a different future for themselves amidst polarization and pressures from an extractive economy. The film is part of a larger campaign that John is working on to reclaim the beauty of the American wilderness as a something that belongs to all and creates connection instead of polarization.
John de Graaf is a filmmaker and new economy activist. If you’ve followed John’s work through the years, you might have seen that he has worked on a campaign to take back your time i.e. work less, share work with others, and live happier. He is the author of Affluenza about the American addiction to consumption.
Can cooperative grocery stores compete with large investor-owned grocery chains? Consum, in Spain, shows it is possible to be a worker and consumer-owned grocery coop with strong sustainability practices AND be the largest grocery chain in the Spanish Mediterranean. Consum has more worker-owners in Spain than all of the worker owned cooperatives across every industry in the US combined, and it continues to grow. Let’s think about how to scale up the positive impact of cooperatives. NELC co-founder, Melissa Scanlan, interviewed Consum’s director of Corporate Social Responsibility for this story. For more about Scanlan’s cooperative research, read.
McKibben, Notes from a Remarkable Political Moment for Climate Change, read more.
May 7, 2019 (Gus Speth). I greatly admire and agree with Bill McKibben’s kick-off contribution. I have followed Bill into jail and would do so again, and agreeing with him in many contexts has proven graciously easy.
I do want to lay out here my version of the case for systemic change, in response to question 2. These comments are written from a US perspective, where our particularly virulent system of corporatist, consumerist capitalism highlights the imperative of deep change.
Whatever gains can be made working within the current US system (and they can and must be considerable, see below), lasting success will require transformations away from the following:
*An unquestioning commitment to economic growth at essentially any cost, including the costs of climate disruption;
*A measure of that growth, GDP (Grossly Distorted Picture), that includes as positives fossil industry growth, the costs of coping with climate change’s effects, and much else;
*Powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to generate profit and grow, including profit from avoiding the costs of the climate change they cause;
*Markets that systematically fail to recognize those costs unless corrected by government;
*Government that is both subservient to corporate interests and deeply wedded to GDP growth;
*Runaway consumerism spurred on endlessly by sophisticated advertising and gross disparities in status and lifestyle; and
*Social injustice, economic insecurities, and concentrations of wealth so vast that they paralyze effective political action.
The United States will never be able to go far enough, or fast enough, doing the right things on climate, as long as our systemic priorities are ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, neglecting the half of America that is just getting by, feeding runaway consumerism, focusing only on the present moment, facilitating great bastions of corporate power, helping abroad only modestly or not at all, and so on. As Tellus has put it, progress in the current system is not impossible, but it is like struggling up a very fast down escalator.
It is not hard to sketch out policy and other initiatives that fundamentally alter the key features of the current system, as I and others have done. (See, e.g., America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.) But it *is* hard to bring about real change in the prevailing order. And that is going to require a resounding YES in answer to question 3: we desperately need a fusion of progressive forces, one that is prepared at this late date to risk everything.
Scorn, rage, and many actions:
protests coming round the world.
Today we see but a fraction
of banners yet to be unfurled!
I do not see an inherent conflict between reformist and transformative actions, nor between problem-solving focused on particular goals and cross-cutting initiatives aimed at structural change. It is all going to be needed to move steadily through the stages of transformation while overcoming the many obstacles between where we are and new systems of political economy dedicated to the well-being of human and natural communities. Large opportunities for climate mitigation are available in the current system. It is vital to seize them where they exist, which today in the US is most often at the state and local levels. Moving to 100% renewables can be achieved in ways that further energy democracy. Own your own utility! Local finance decisions can be done in ways that cut out big for-profit banks. Move your money (from Wall Street)! New climate-related infrastructure and other investments can be done in ways that increase economic security and reduce family vulnerability as well as lead to the burgeoning of new enterprise types such as worker-owned co-ops, municipal companies, profit-not for profit hybrids, and public trusts. Good jobs for all!
I have worked on the climate issue since I was in the Carter White House in the late 1970s and we issued several reports calling for climate action. These forty years without effective action are the greatest dereliction of civic responsibility in the history of the republic. The world will pay a large price for it. It is hard for me to approach optimism without my guard up. Still, something is happening here today. The level of public, media and political attention is not nearly where it should be, but there some hopeful signs of movement in the right directions. Leading climate scientist Joachim Schellnhuber has said that “we need something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy.” He is on the right track. Our job is to make it happen, using all the tools we have.
The craft beer market in the U.S. has exploded, but where can you find a company that is democratically owned, producing organic beer, and 100 percent powered by renewables? Cerveses Lluna brews its beer in Alcoi, Spain, where it is committed to creating good jobs, local sourcing, and sustainable production. NELC co-founder, Melissa Scanlan, interviewed the worker-owners for this story…