Should trees have legal standing? That’s the question USC law professor Christopher Stone asked 50 years ago, when he proposed giving legal rights to nature. It was a radical notion back then, but today it’s catching on as a way to protect the environment amid climate change, deforestation, and urban development.
In his argument, Stone noted that other non-human entities had legal rights — such as corporations, universities, trusts, and governments — and he compared this to the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and giving children rights. This caught the attention of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who agreed with Stone (but the majority of the high court did not agree). That’s all according to Katie Surma, who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News.
She says the roots of this movement stem from Indigenous people, and advocates believe typical environmental law still allows pollution to happen. “We just regulate the extent and the pace of that pollution. And they say that those laws are great, they've done some good things, but we're in this ecological crisis right now. … And they say this rights of nature framework is the way forward because it would not just elevate the standing of nature under the law, but it would also change people's consciousness … that they would start to see [the natural world] as a fellow form of being — instead of property that we own. And when we look at something as property, we can destroy that property.”
These provisions are upheld by at least six tribal nations, some U.S. states (California, Oregon, Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), and some countries (Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Uganda, and others), notes Surma.
The movement is driven locally in many parts of the U.S., she says. “This is bottom-up. It's local communities wanting to take back control over their immediate environment because they see state lawmakers as being too close to industry, that they're looking out for the interests of industry and not for local communities who have to deal with pollution upfront.”
She adds, “The rights of nature movement is very closely tied to … the human right to a clean environment.”
This issue is currently going on in a legal case in Orange County, Florida, which passed a charter amendment in 2020 that recognized the rights of waterways there. One developer sought a permit to fill in wetlands and create more housing, so the waterways took legal action that blocked the permit, Surma explains.
She cites another example: Two people in Ecuador filed a lawsuit against a local government that was developing an area near a river, which was damaged because excavation material fell into it. A court ordered the government to restore the river to its unharmed state.
Critics say this idea would stop land development, and it clashes against the importance of individual property rights, she notes.