Humans have rights. But what about nature? Does nature have rights of its own? A global movement with a foothold in Florida is saying yes.
Under this philosophy, nature would gain legal personhood. It may sound weird until you realize that other decidedly non-human entities such as trusts and corporations already have personhood under Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United. In fact, giving nature rights might save us from ourselves.
We understand that we need to recalibrate our relationship to nature. Disney World sits atop a vanished marsh drained for parking lots and rollercoasters. Lake Okeechobee, asphyxiated by rampant algae, has become a dump for farmers’ fertilizer and pesticide runoff. And just last year, a huge outbreak of Red Tide devastated marine life in Tampa Bay.
Rights of nature is not some outlandish idea. Ecuador has redrafted its constitution to include articles giving nature, not just the right to exist, but to ensure that its “maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structures, functions and evolutionary processes” are respected. In 2011, a suit was brought on behalf of the rights entitled to the Vilcabamba River, which had been inundated with debris from a local construction project. For the first time, a court ruled in favor of a river.
Perhaps Florida could be an example for the United States to follow, using policy innovation to showcase its values as a haven for biodiversity rather than tax breaks. Implementing rights for nature would entitle Florida’s ecosystem to a higher grade of protection and provide legal grounds for pollution enforcement. Often, harm goes unpunished because it depends on the infringement on another human’s rights, but rights for nature would allow ecosystems themselves to be the victim.
Not all values are economic. Not all investments are monetary. To invest in our natural world is a strategic decision in our future wellbeing in a climate-challenged world. Million-dollar carbon sequestration techniques pale in comparison to the benefits offered by miles and miles of trees that are entitled to grow.
There is comfort in knowing something continues to exist. I might never see an endangered Florida panther. I fear for their survival, and I feel relief in knowing that they still exist. You can’t put a dollar value on my feelings or relationships with the Earth. Some things can be important for being beautiful. Some things can be important because of the love they inspire in others.
Some Floridians are trying. In 2020, 89% of Orange County voters approved the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights, which granted waterways in the county the right to “exist, flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem.” The charter, despite overwhelming support from voters in a county almost equally represented by both parties, was preempted by the Clean Waterways Act (SB 712). That misleadingly titled bill prohibited rights-of-nature governance, stating: “The bill prohibits local governments from providing legal rights to any plant, animal, body of water or other part of the natural environment.” That means the only way to sustain momentum for rights of nature in Florida would be to propose a Green Amendment to the state’s constitution that would specifically authorize its existence.
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Perhaps it’s easy to mock the rights of nature, but critics should think a bit harder about the value of the concept. At its core, it encourages ecosystems’ ability to flourish, to be given peace from development and left to grow. Florida can’t continue at its current rate of ecological destruction. We must rethink our relationship to nature. And that could start with giving it the rights it is due.
Renata Happle is a junior at Barnard College of Columbia University, an Arthur Liman Public Interest Summer Fellow at Yale Law School and an intern at Earth Law Center. She grew up in the Tampa Bay area.