Cities and towns around the United States are adopting laws and policies to recognize the human right to a healthy environment and the environment’s own right to be healthy. Nationwide, roughly three dozen communities have adopted local laws that protect the rights of nature, particularly from threats such as hydrofracking and mining. ELC's Earth Community map highlights many examples of such local laws. These communities have taken a stand for local well-being over the pressures of corporate legal and economic powers that desire only profit at the expense of people and the natural world.
Example: Santa Monica, California
Advised by Earth Law Center and community groups, the City Council of Santa Monica unanimously passed in 2013 a Sustainability Rights Ordinance, which recognizes that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish in the City of Santa Monica.” The Ordinance protects these rights from acts by “corporate entities,” which “do not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law that subordinate the community's rights to their private interests.” It further articulates the rights of Santa Monicans to self-governance, a healthy environment, and sustainable living. The city’s Sustainable City Plan sets out specific sustainability actions and goals consistent with the Ordinance concerning water, energy, food, transportation, waste control, and other matters. Currently, Santa Monica leaders are examining the role that the Sustainability Rights Ordinance can play in providing extra protection to the City’s aquifer.
Building Community Support for Nature's Rights
Local communities are also banding together regionally to raise awareness and take action for nature's rights. In early 2014, ELC co-founded the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance (BARoNA), to bring together communities in the San Francisco Bay Area to fight for rights of nature locally. BARoNA’s October 2014 Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal, held in Oakland, examined co-violations of human rights and nature’s rights caused by spills and accidents at the Chevron Refinery in nearby Richmond, California.
Local communities can fight the legal and economic system that prioritizes profit over the well-being of people and planet. Together we can create new economic systems that reward low-impact trade, locally-grown food, water use compatible with healthy river flows, close interaction with nature, and locally-owned businesses that enhance the well-being of human and natural neighbors. Ecological economists are demonstrating that such a society is indeed possible and desirable.
Communities around the world are making these changes now. The “local money,” Slow Food, Transition Town, sharing economy, and other movements provide important lessons that can help guide communities to live and legislate in harmony with nature. Recognition of the rights of nature will help advance these efforts to guide our economic decisions away from destruction and toward well-being.
- Linda Sheehan, "Implementing Rights of Nature through Sustainability Bills of Rights," New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law 13(1) (June 2015)
- Santa Monica Sustainability Bill of Rights Ordinance (April 2013) (ELC co-drafted)
- Video, “Sustainability Bill of Rights for Santa Monica,” Santa Monica City College, CA (Nov. 2011)
- Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance (co-organizer)
- Bay Area Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal (Oct. 2014): Summary Video (co-organizer and Prosecutor)
- Bay Area Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal (Oct. 2014): Full Day’s Video and Summaries
- Santa Monica City Council Resolution calling for the Sustainability Rights Ordinance (Jan. 24, 2012)
- Santa Monica Sustainable City Plan (Jan. 2014)
- City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Home Rule Charter, Title 6, Art. 1, Ch. 618, "Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling Ordinance" (Nov. 2010) (includes model rights of nature language)
- Transition Network