Earth Day’s 50th Sees Explosion in Rights of Nature Movement Worldwide, by Linda Sheehan

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.

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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,[1] including roughly 50 cities and counties spanning 13 states in the United States.[2] 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.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 12.58.52 PMThis 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.


[1] Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Uganda, United States.

[2] California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia.

McKibben and the New Yorker Launch Climate Crisis Newsletter

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.

ABA features NELC Fellow Mary Wood’s climate change work

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.

Join us for Oct 8 Movie showing “Redefining Prosperity” with filmmaker, John De Graaf

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.

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Consum Cooperativa: Feeding 3 Million in the Spanish Mediterranean

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NELC fellow, Bill McKibben, talking about climate in The New Yorker; NELC co-founder, Gus Speth’s response

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.

Gus Speth

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The Making Of A Democratic Economy- November 14th in Chase!

KellyLecture-email-600x600-10.1.18The New Economy Law Center presents “The Making of a Democratic Economy” with speaker Marjorie Kelly, Senior Fellow and Executive Vice President of The Democracy Collaborative. At a time when the nation is hungry for a positive vision for our economy – when 71 percent of Americans say they believe the economic system is rigged against them – Marjorie Kelly offers a compelling vision of the emerging alternative: a Democratic Economy, one tilted toward the common good. Kelly will explain how to build a Democratic Economy to meet the essential needs of all persons, to balance human consumption with the regenerative capacity of the earth, and to be responsive to the voices and concerns of ordinary people. Come learn about building shared prosperity aligned with environmental sustainability. Join us for a light reception before the lecture!

November 14, 2018 from 5:15 PM to 6:30 PM in the Jonathon B. Chase Center

Watch the video at:

Corporations Are People Too (And They Should Act Like It)


With an analysis sure to challenge the assumptions of both progressives and conservatives, Greenfield explores corporations’ claims to constitutional rights and the foundational conflicts about their obligations in society. He argues that a blanket opposition to corporate personhood is misguided, since it is consistent with both the purpose of corporations and the Constitution itself that corporations can claim rights at least some of the time. The problem with Citizens United is not that corporations have a right to speak, but for whom they speak. The solution is not to end corporate personhood but to require corporations to act more like citizens. Anyone interested in the role of corporations in our political system should come to this talk on the day Yale University Press releases his new book on this topic.

Co-Sponsored by the Business Law Society

Watch the archived live-stream footage here:


Purdy “The Roberts Court Protects the Powerful for a New Gilded Age” in New York Times, Jun. 28, 2018

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