A Bill of Rights For Lake Ontario and Her Sisters?
A very old idea is being revived with a 21st century twist. A thousand years ago the notion that spirits resided in beautiful places and natural features like waterfalls, springs, and great trees was widespread. Today the notion that “personhood” could be an attribute of a lake or a mountain is being introduced again-this time to protect the legal 'rights' of natural features from exploitation and damage by outside corporate interests.
Under our existing western law, nature is considered “property”. The regulations of the Clean Air and Water Acts and other regulations legalize pollution as a standard way of doing business by setting the the amount of chemical pollution or radiation releases that are lawful. But all around us are signs this old way of doing business is no longer sustainable. The very climate itself is changing even as freshwater ecosystems like that of Lake Ontario are among the most stressed and endangered of any natural system on earth.
Increasingly, a coalition of indigenous traditional peoples, legal scholars, and western environmental activists are calling for recognition of the rights of natural features and limits on relentlessly self centered human activity.
Water has always been seen as having rights by the people who lived here for thousands of years before European colonization. Now courts in Europe, Ecuador, New Zealand and in some U.S. communities are beginning to recognize the rights of rivers and forests. If a corporation can be considered a person and donate accordingly to presidential campaigns, why shouldn't a lake enjoy some of the protections of personhood.
We are much in need of new ways of thinking. Ideas like the ancient practices of the Commons are being adapted in North America. The Great Lakes Charter is one such effort to promote a different broader approach to water 'management'.
An outfit called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)is working for the recognition of the 'rights of nature' in the U.S . Often those rights go hand in hand with local self governing and 'home rule'. Here in New York “home rule” triumphed over multinational energy companies that claimed only the state could regulate fracking. Other communities are being told they can't regulate polluting factory farms. Some are beginning to challenge the Farm Bureau and other corporate interests under the Community Rights Movement.
Our legal system grants landowners the right to damage the environment, even though the impact is carried by the entire community. Its been called the privatization of profits and the socialization of ecological “debt” leaving all of us to bear the costs of polluted water and eroded poisoned lands.
Back in 1776 the American colonists rebelled against a distant monarch telling them what they could do. Today, increasing numbers of liberal and conservative voters alike are saying NO to International Trade Agreements that over ride local authority that may protect jobs or the environment.
CELDF's website quotes a statement by Thomas Jefferson that sounds very contemporary to today's eco activists and Citizen United opponents of unlimited Corporate rights to life liberty and the pursuit of profits. “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
CELDF's website goes on to state movements always begin at the local level. It took 400 local and state laws before the 19th amendment was passed granting women the right to vote. The website also quotes Bucky Fuller who said to change something you need to develop a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Not surprisingly Pennsylvannia, endlessly fracked by the gas industry, is one area where the “community rights” movement is gaining strength.
That's precisely why the Great Lakes Charter, the “commoning” movement, open source everything, and the effort to recognize that Water and Air and Ecosystems have “rights” under the law is so interesting.
Is it time to declare a Bill Of Rights for the Five Great Lakes? Our region was to a great extent the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America and also contributed greatly to the modern rise frame work for environmental regulation of that industry through the Clean Water Act. Can we now mid wife the birth of a new revolution in thinking on behalf of Nature?