The Battle for Rights of Nature Heats Up in the Great Lakes

By Valerie Vande Panne, a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, Politico, and many other publications. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In February, the voters of Toledo, Ohio, passed a ballot initiative that gives Lake Erie and those who rely on the lake’s ecosystem a bill of rights. The idea is to protect and preserve the ecosystem so that the life that depends on it—humans included—can have access to safe, fresh drinking water.

On the surface, it seems pretty logical: Humans need water to survive, and if an ecosystem that is relied on for water—in this case, Lake Erie—is polluted (in this case, with algae), then the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (or LEBOR) would ensure the rights of humans would come before the polluters (in this case, big agriculture).

Except, that’s not what’s happening.

Rather, in a perhaps unsurprising move, the state of Ohio has at once both acknowledged rights of nature to exist, and taken them away, with a line written in, of all things, the state budget: “Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas.”

“It’s not surprising that the Ohio legislature has the shameful distinction of being the first in the country to specifically name ecosystem rights— trying to quash them rather than taking the lead in recognizing them,” the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund(CELDF), which was involved in the initiative and is experienced with rights of nature laws and actions, saidin a press release. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has received international acclaim.

Last week, a judge ruled Toledoans for Safe Water, the local group behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, cannot defend the voter-passed initiative in a lawsuit brought by a factory farm against the city over the initiative. Yet, the state of Ohio is being permitted to support the farm in the lawsuit against the city.

Big agriculture, of course, is the primary source of nutrient pollution that has caused algae blooms that have denied half a million people access to clean, safe drinking water, sometimes for days at a time.

Markie Miller, Toledo resident and concerned citizen with Toledoans for Safe Water, says the new barriers to implementing LEBOR shows the citizens are on to something. “Obviously we’re doing something right, because we’re scaring the Farm Bureau.”

As the lawsuit is set to proceed as of this writing, the judge said there was no need for the two sides (the farm or the city) to file briefs, and would, rather than hold a hearing, have a phone call on May 17. The call would be closed to the public, and without briefs, the public—who passed the initiative by over 60 percent of the vote— will not have access to the arguments being used.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report released by the United Nations, “one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival,” the Washington Postreported.

The report specifically attributes the die-off to human activity. Worse, it points to an inevitable collapse of the natural world humans rely on for food and water.

“Nature’s current rate of decline is unparalleled, and the accelerating rate of extinctions ‘means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,’ ” reports the Washington Post.

“All the studies say we need drastic action. If we think the courts are going to save the plants or the animals,” says Tish O’Dell, Ohio community organizer with CELDF, “they aren’t.”

O’Dell points to the fact that the people who passed the law aren’t part of the lawsuit trying to prevent its implementation, and to the fact that the state of Ohio is intervening on the side of the factory farm, “Not on the side of the people—and denies the people and the lake the right to intervene.”

Laws should reflect our values, O’Dell continues. She supports a culture shift to curb the rapid decline of the natural world humans rely on. The change may take time, O’Dell says, saying, “It’s like [with] segregation. That lunch counter moment, it wasn’t in the courts. It was the pushing and the pushing,” that shifted the courts. “That’s what we have to do. As we get more and more people saying nature should have rights, doing their own laws and their own actions, it’ll start shifting things.”

While this shift could take time, we don’t have 150 years to push or wait for nature to have the right to exist.

“We talk about climate change. It’s climate crisis. In my opinion, they’re committing crimes against humanity. It’s homicide and ecocide. We have the scientific studies these species will go extinct. It’s homicide because humans won’t be able to live,” O’Dell says. “We need to start getting more blunt about what is happening.”

“People think the corporation is the problem,” she continues, but cautions against blaming the farming industry or the oil and gas industries for our current situation: “It’s your own government that’s the problem, because they’re protecting them.”

It seems, then, we are in a time when corporations are considered people and their rights are preserved, and the rights of people—actual humans—to have access to the single thing they absolutely must have to survive, clean drinking water—are denied.

“If they think they’ve prevented this movement, all they’ve done is fired people up,” Miller added.

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  1. vlade

    TBH, nature does not have rights. Would any rights exist in the absence of humans? We’re trying to do this in self-preservation (and I could imagine a case where our “nature preservation” interferes with normal process of selection, although we’re right now making pretty damn sure there’s nothing to select from..).

    From the long-perspective, we’re most likely a blip. Humans may turn out into the equivalent of an asteoroid slamming into Earth, or Permian-Triassic boundary.

    Yep, we’d try to not to be just a blip. But the “nature rights” stuff is TBH mostly detracting from it, and is, for me, immensly human-centric hubris – “nature needs us to protect it!” Here’s news.

    Nature doesn’t operate on years, decades or even millenia. We may kill ourselves, and a lot of other living organism around, but short of splitting the planet into cosmic debris, it’s almost certain life will survive and something move on. And that’s just Earth, not to mention the whole universe – and nature is whole of the universe.

    We, humans, need nature. But pretending that nature needs us.. We could start with humility acknowleding who needs who, and not with hubris.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you and well said, Vlade.

      I wonder if this hubris is also from certain cultures and classes.

      Having partly grown up in and visited some rural / indigenous communities, your view that we, humans, need nature, is more prevalent.

      Not unrelated, am I the only reader, perhaps explained by me being in part of African origin and rural background, being mystified and troubled by MSM coverage of conservationists in Africa always featuring European or American volunteers or local whites, like former England cricketer Kevin Andersen last week. It’s as if the locals are child like and need help. The latter is not untrue, but getting locals aboard, many of whom share the same communities as poachers, is essential.

      1. vlade

        When nature can kill you as well as save you, you have a bit more respect for it I believe.

        Yes, the “white (wo)man cometh” can be pretty bad, and I speak here as a white man who actually tried to do something related to african agriculture.

        But, TBH, I think it’s more of a cultural thing , when black MBAs were coming “back home” thinking how they would show everyone and everything. My understanding is for example that a lot of land consolidation in Africa is now with (relatively to Africa) wealthy people of African origin coming back, buying land, and trying to get in first-world extensive agricultural practices. Of course, they also claim how it will help all there (and sometime even believe it).

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Vlade.

          Oh, yes, definitely. And some of the people returning are even more dangerous.

    2. David

      Have to agree. Giving “rights” assertively is difficult enough when it’s to other people. It’s hard to see how, even in principle, you can “give” nature rights.
      It suggests to me that we have now completely forgotten the parallel concept of responsibility. Just as we are ultimately responsible for each other, so nature is our responsibility also. Most older cultures, in Africa and Asia particularly, recognise this, and the remains of such traditional beliefs are still to be seen there. But ever since Francis Bacon, the West has seen nature as an enemy to be defeated or a power to be controlled and used. So I suppose it’s natural enough that eventually, by analogy with the end of slavery, we have had second thoughts, and are giving poor nature, whom we have so abused, “rights.” And just as we control humans by graciously according them rights, so here we are doing the same with nature.

    3. Krystyn Walentka

      “Nature does not have rights.”

      Yes, it does. It is not that we are granting nature rights, but we are finally giving rights back to nature. Man is the only animal that feels it can take away rights, like Americans did with African American slaves. We need to “provide rights” to a lake because when we make the natural rights of others lesser or non-existent we treat them like garbage. It is not about rights, it is about respect and understanding interdependence. Nature does not need SO MUCH of us would be a healthier way of seeing it.

      And when saying “nature does not have rights”, you give the polluters and corporatuions the edge. And if we are a blip who cares about a lake or people or anything?

      I am hoping this nihilism can be overcome because if it does not, being alive for this short time is just going to suck much worse. There is something after nihilism, keep searching for it.

      1. Wukchumni

        When you read Justice Douglas’s dissent, the groundwork for nature having rights is there, just waiting to be enacted.

        Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), is a Supreme Court of the United States case on the issue of standing under the Administrative Procedure Act. The Court rejected a lawsuit by the Sierra Club seeking to block the development of a ski resort at Mineral King valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains because the club had not alleged any injury.

        The case prompted a famous dissent by Justice William O. Douglas suggesting that in response to ecological concerns, environmental objects (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) should be granted legal personhood by the public.

      2. vlade

        If a mountain can have rights, why can’t a corporation? Why a war can’t have rights? And who decides whether corporation “right” to profit, by polluting, is worse or better than lake’s “right”? Will they have a fight?

        Rights are an entirely human construct. We, the humans, decide who has “rights”. There are no “natural rights”. Nature has laws, it does not have rights. You have no “right” to be acted on by gravity. A wild animal has no “right” to survival. If a nature’s law causes an asteoroid to hit the Earth, what “rights” will anything on the Earth have?

        Claiming that a mountain, lake etc. has rights is nice and romantic. But
        a) it gives ammunition to those who claim that a corporation, or any entity, has rights.
        b) positively alienates a lot of people who would heartily support the idea that people have right for clean environment, and that it’s OUR DUTY to protect our environment (because withouth it, we as human race will survive even shorter than we could).

        If someone feel that we need to “grant rights” (We, Humanity the First, will generously grant these rights to .. ) to nature to protect it, then we, as a society, have a problem.

        We can do much much better job protecting the environment for us and our kids than by playing word games of “granting rights”. And they are just word games, w/o enforcement and protection.

        Just because “we” (who precisely?) give “natural rights” (where where they before we granted them?) means squat. ACW freed the slaves and gave them “freedom”. In a lot of cases, “freedom” to starve, to be at the bottom and mistreated as much as they were when they were slaves, because the actual actions of the society that would make that “freedom” a real thing still didn’t happen, 150 years on. And what gain there was, was with actions of people making laws to give those rights meaning and actioning on it. And that was dealing with humans, just because they look(ed) different. *)

        So we, as a society, can start by actually enforcing existing laws, and then building a new ones. We don’t need to “give rights” – because, by laws, we have already given. What we need, absolutely, is to enforce those laws. And create new, modify them, if found insufficient.

        I could even understand the PR of this (as I say, it does look nice and romantic), but for the fact that it takes away the argument of agency in rights (and that rights are just another side of the coin, with responsibilitis on the obverse), and helps those who will do anything to move agency in attempts to hide stuff (granting rights to corporations being a step in that directions).

        1. Wukchumni

          5 friends and I were walking the High Sierra Trail across the Sierra Nevada a few years ago, and 15 miles into the 72 mile walk is beautiful Hamilton Lake, set in an amphitheater of granite, stunning.

          We get to the lake, drop our backpacks & promptly go for a skinny dip, and like most Sierra lakes it’s on the cold side, but we’re hot and bothered from the hike in, so all it’s all good.

          We get out and the Sun bakes us dry & we put our sweaty clothes back on and relax. This is it for the day.

          There’s a Swiss couple @ the lake, and he asks me if it’s normal for Americans to be nude like that, as he’s always thought we were pretty much against such displays?

          I tell him that really only in the wilderness will you see it happen…

          I asked him if they had National Parks in Switzerland, and he told me that it would be illegal to take a swim in a lake in one of their NP’s, and not only that, illegal to go off-trail.

          Nature seems to have rights in der Schweiz…

        2. William Hunter Duncan

          “Nature has laws, it does not have rights.”

          Well, natural law at least used to recognize to some degree a relationship between people and the earth. Only since the “enlightenment”, the rise of science and industrialism have we decided nature is mostly irrelevant except as a thing to exploit and turn into garbage.

          Otherwise, nature’s law pretty much dictates that we are, due to access to fossil energy, in gross overshoot, and we will have a population crash to the same degree as there is a decline in available fossil energy, after which maybe Humanity will get a clue and recognize it is not humans who dispense rights to the earth, but the earth which dispenses “rights” to humans.

          As for “who decides whether corporation “right” to profit, by polluting, is worse or better than lake’s “right”?” The answer to that is, the corporation does, by way of it’s sycophants in science, gov and media. Nature does not get a word, and nor do I, no matter how much I call it pathological and ecocide.

        3. Carla

          Vlade says: “If a mountain can have rights, why can’t a corporation? Why a war can’t have rights?”

          Because corporations and wars are human-made artifacts. Mountains, rivers, oceans and lakes are not.

          (Yes, I’m aware that lakes can be “man-made” but those are artificial lakes and could not have rights.)

          1. polecat

            So, as a mountain, a volcano can have anything and eveything it wants ! .. by rights !! Who’s gonna argue the cone .. er .. point !
            And, oh man ! … talk about creative destruction ..

            Don’t get caught-up in the trapps of hubristic hominidism. Be one with your inner oldivi.

      3. David

        See my earlier comment stranded for some time in moderation. Nothing, and no-one, ´has’ rights inherently. They have to be accorded them. When these rights cannot be usefully enforced by the person or entity, as obviously here, then claiming to know what those rights are, and putting yourself forward to enforce them, is a way of gaining power. I’m not sure this works even as a gimmick : does the earth have a right not to be cultivated ? Come to that does a tree have a right not to be struck by lightning? In the end, as I suggested, this a question of duties, not a question of rights.

        1. Carla

          “They have to be accorded them.” David, that’s a pretty passive sentence. Actually, rights have to be asserted, by someone or on behalf of someone.

      4. Grebo

        Nature cannot have rights since rights are a two sided deal: I’ll respect yours if you respect mine. Nature cannot enter such deals.

        Trying to graft the idea of rights onto nature will just undermine its value to humans.

        A different approach is required to protect nature from abuse. Nature should (once again) become common property. Then a corporation abusing nature will be infringing the rights of humanity.

        1. Carla

          Nature preceded us. We do not own nature; if anything, we are owned by nature. But still, we can advocate for nature, recognizing that without is, there is no “us.”

    4. Enrico Malatesta

      Given the rights of Petro-Chemical-Pharma-Agriculture, I’m willing to clutch on to any pushback, by any name.

      That ain’t hubris in my drinking water.

    5. Mitchell McBride

      Well for now there are humans so the question of whether nature should have rights or not is relevant. When we are gone then nobody will be around to question it so no problem there.To me the most important point of it is it helps change the perspective with which we view nature. Instead of a collection of passive objects to be exploited or revered it is an Other (or collection of Others) who is going about its own business and has its own intent. Saying it has rights is admitting that in legal fashion.

      The point that we’re doing this out of self-preservation is important and shouldn’t be forgotten, but i don’t think it needs to cheapen the message any simply because a major reason we find ourselves in peril is because we have not had respect for nature and have ignored what it tells us about limits to human enterprise.
      Maybe there is a wiser way to go about changing how we relate to nature but this looks to me like a good step in the right direction at least.

  2. Christopher Herbert

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

  3. human

    “I am not at all surprised when some of those for whom I have lived and labored lift their heels against me. Since the days of Moses such has been the fate of all men earnestly endeavouring to serve the oppressed and unfortunate.” ~ Frederick Douglass, May 1883

  4. William Hunter Duncan

    Those who are blithe about the polluting of the earth and the exterminating of species are like half a click removed from those thousand year Reich types who went about their lives acting as if the final solution was just an evolutionary advance in civilization-building. Another generation of such indifference to suffering is sure to lead to us eating each other, after which nature will thrive again and possibly those humans left will have regained some civility.

  5. Tish O’Dell

    I don’t disagree with any of the comments about granting or giving rights to nature. Of course it already has rights, just as slaves and women did. I too dislike the idea of having to use “personhood” as the standard we use. But the goal is to be able to get into court to be able to protect more destruction of nature. Currently, and even in the case of Lake Erie, the community members and the Lake are invisible under our current system of law. Rights of Nature is also a way to open people’s eyes to our system which they don’t understand. We need a paradigm shift in our cultural views and societal values when it comes to nature. Human elitism is a big hurdle and we have to start somewhere. Hopefully, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and the Rights of Nature movement are a start in the right direction. Always open to hear more ideas on how to prevent further destruction of the environment.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      The court system of a corrupt nation isn’t going to save the environment.

      There was a piece here within the last few days regarding the attempts of some states to further criminalize protests of pipeline projects with larger fines and jail sentences. One activist mentioned that this may have the opposite effect that the corrupt lawmakers intended, and that if they know they will go to jail for a long time regardless, then their actions will be more impactful.

      Throw a wrench in the works – that and bodies on the line is what it’s going to take to reverse course before mother nature decides she’s had enough of us.

  6. Ander

    The whole discussion on whether or not it is hubris to assign rights to natural entities strikes me as silly. By giving ‘rights’ to ecosystems we can hopefully create a more robust legal method of protecting them from degradation. It’s an uphill battle and in the moment we live in I don’t have much faith that many courts or states will prioritize water resources over corporate profit, but it’s one front in the war for the survival of our communities, and it shouldn’t be abandoned without a fight.

    1. David

      The discussion is about whether the shared (I trust) objective of preserving nature is helped or not by framing it in the currently fashionable vocabulary of rights. I don’t think it is. Such framing encourages pointless discussion about who decides and which rights belong to what, and frequently serves as an alibi for preferring talk to action. What we need to do is to recover the sense of responsibility for the natural world that our ancestors took for granted.

  7. Enrico Malatesta

    Wish we would call a lot of what constitutes the Climate Crisis by its real name: Pollution Crisis

  8. Synoia

    Are lakes part of the Commons?
    Are the Commons recognized under US Law?

    Can the people sue to maintain the commons?

    1. Carla

      My local U.S. post office manager told me I couldn’t circulate a petition anywhere on their property because it was “private property.” I informed the manager that the U.S. Postal Service is a federal agency and is owned by the American people — she maintained otherwise and insisted I had to leave. Since I had already collected quite a few signatures in the two hours before she discovered my presence, I left in order to avoid the police being called and my possible arrest.

      That’s just one tiny example of how f****d up we are in this country.

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