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Does Nature have Rights?

A couple of years ago, my son Logan and I completed the Daniel Pennock Democracy School. The 2-day program is offered by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) in Chambersburg, PA. The notion that nature somehow has rights has captured my imagination since my involvement with the Interfaith Roundtable on Sustainability in 1998, discussed in an earlier post on this site. I have to say that the program had a profound impact on my thinking about the meaning of sustainability and I am grateful to Thomas Linzey, Ben Price, and the other staff members for a weekend of education about the roots of U.S. culture.

Among the many notions I took away from that class, the two that have stayed with me is that corporations once had to serve the public’s interest. If it failed to do that, its charter could be revoked. The other one is the idea that nature, in some way, has rights, that can codified, at least locally, and now I learn, throughout a country. According to CELDF, a few months ago, Ecuador in September considered a new constitution that provides to the country’s “tropical forests, islands, rivers, and air” similar rights to humans. Clearly we need to continue to think about how to do this, but my view is that what CELDF is doing may be some of the most important work on the planet today.

I thought of CELDF as I have read excerpts from Tom Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. I enjoy Friedman’s writings on a number of issues, and this book is no exception. But, I was hoping for something else, and I found it, but not until the very last page where he describes a eulogy delivered by Amory Lovins at Donella Meadow’s memorial service:

A biologist, perhaps E.O. Wilson, noted that bees, ants, and termites, through not very smart individually, display high intelligence collectively-and then he added, “People seem just the opposite.” Dana was no exception. She was one of those promising specimens that are turning up more and more often in the search for intelligent life on earth-one of those much higher primates whose love, logic, radical stubborness, courage, and passion awaken the rest of us to our ability and our responsibility to save the world…She wrote three years ago, “By nature I’m an optimist; to me all glasses are half-full,” yet she didn’t shrink from reporting bad news, always blended with encouragement about how to do better. She treated the future as choice, not fate, and she defined with luminous clarity how to do (as one sometimes must) what is necessary. She shared Rene Dubos’s view that despair is a sin, so when asked if we have enough time to prevent catastrophe, she’d always say that we have exactly enough time-starting now. Two years ago, when emailing an unusually somber column about events that made her weep, she appended the following note as counterpoint: “A CEO was having to babysit for his young daughter. He was trying to read the paper but was totally frustrated by the constant interruptions. When he came across a full page of the NASA photo of the Earth from space, he got a brilliant idea. He ripped it up into small pieces and told his child to try to put it back together. He then settled in for what he expected to be a good half-hour of peace and quiet. But only a few minutes had gone by before the child appeared at his side with a big grin on her face. “You’ve finished already?” he asked. “Yep,” she replied. “So how did you do it?” “Well, I saw there was a picture of a person on the other side, so when I put the person together, the Earth got put together too….”.

Friedman then says:

There is so much to admire in that eulogy: the conviction that the future is our choice, not our fate, that when you put people together you put the planet together, that there is nothing in the universe quite as powerful as six billion minds wrapping around one problem…

Great. I totally agree. But, at least for me, there is another message here. That literally behind a whole earth is a whole person, and I don’t believe we will ever be whole until we acknowledge our total physical and moral interdependence with nature and bring that awareness into every dimension of human endeavor, including governance, through the work of organizations like CELDF, and through economics, as we are trying to begin.

- Michael Collins

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