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On the Environment

Tuesday, December 02, 2014
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Nature’s Rights in Practice: Envisioning Sustainable Communities and Economies

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

In her October 20 webinar,Nature’s Rights in Practice,’ Linda Sheehan made it painfully clear that environmental laws in the US are founded on outmoded principles: Most of them still embody the concept that nature is separate from – and exists in order to serve – human needs. Appalling cases of recent environmental degradation indicate how unequipped our legal tools have been in addressing persistent and systemic social and ecological injustices. Laws that emerged in the 1970s in response to egregious cases of environmental disasters still assume that infinite growth is possible and desirable.

But academics and civic institutions are raising questions about both of these once-inviolable concepts. Their work shows how environmental and social problems are interlinked and outlining howand why we must alter our legal and economic paradigms. Progressive legal causes such as the Rights of Nature and the Pluralist Commonwealth model contribute to a wider conversation about how legal and economic frameworks could re-imagine their relationship to social and environmental challenges.

The Rights of Nature is unique in its endeavor to grant Earth’s living communities legal standing conventionally reserved for humans. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, and The Future We Want (that emerged from the UN+20 Earth Summit), use language that positions nature as deserving of common protection under the law. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth describes “the peoples and nations of Earth [as] an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny.” The preamble avers that “it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth.”

At the local level in the US, a few towns and counties include the Rights of Nature in their ordinances. Linda Sheehan highlighted Santa Monica, California, for its Sustainability Rights Ordinance. Passed in April, 2013, the ordinance calls attention to the inadequacy of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the California Environmental Quality Act. The document asserts that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish in the City Of Santa Monica.” This language, unlike any other legal premise at the local, state, or federal level, contends that natural communities ought to thrive alongside human communities, not at the latter’s expense.

In 2013, Mora County, New Mexico, passed a Community Rights Ordinance that uses the rights of nature concept to protect the community from oil and natural gas industries. In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also passed an ordinance that both banned natural gas drilling in the city and recognized the “legally binding rights of nature” in its stand against the natural gas industry.

The Rights of Nature movement reflects a wide-spread scholarly attempt to draw attention to the interconnected nature of our environmental and social problems. Responses that fall within this call for integrated—and sometimes radical—change range from altering how businesses are structured to transforming our economic model. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change, Naomi Klein describes that she “started to see signs—new coalitions and fresh arguments—hinting at how, if these various connections were more widely understood, the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”

Linda Sheehan reminded listeners that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, known for his belief in rational self-interest and competition, also described an economic system that emphasized relationships and community. He theorized that well-being is achieved, in part, by exercising responsibility toward the community. This idea seems entirely out of synch with modern economic rationale. Sheehan argues that it’s precisely this engrained, conventional logic that has been so troublesome. But, she says, alternate forms of legal, economic, and social relationships are possible.

Community-level ideas like public banking and employee-owned companies are beginning to gain legitimacy far beyond any initial novelty factor. New Belgium Brewing, for example, is now 100 percent employee owned as well as a certified benefit corporation. As a “B Corporation,” New Belgium bases many of its decisions on social and environmental factors rather than just profit. The result is not only an independent company but also a high-quality work environment driven by an unprecedented level of investment from its employees.

Gar Alperovits, founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is particularly outspoken in this realm. He’s developed a systemic model, the Pluralist Commonwealth that endeavors to “resolve theoretical and practical problems associated with both traditional corporate capitalism and traditional state socialism.” The main argument behind his work is that democratizing the way wealth is owned and managed is crucial in addressing chronically unstable socio-economic institutions. Alperovits claims that even employee-owned companies may “develop narrow interests that are not necessarily the same as those of society as a whole.” In response to competition on the free market, for instance, the company may still be pushed to pollute local streams and air. The Pluralist Commonwealth model is based on altering “larger patterns of distribution and power,” nurturing a broad culture that embodies inclusive rather than profit-minded goals, and redefining what constitutes a community.

Perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge—at the heart of our warming climate and exhausted ecosystems—is this: creating an inclusive “culture of community accountability” out of which just and equitable legal and policy responses can flow.

A recording of the webinar is available at https://vimeo.com/113417655.

Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

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