If Corporations Have Rights, Shouldn’t Nature Too?


Image: public-domain-image.com

By Alyssa Wethington and Helen Louis George

If Earth’s 4.6 billion years were scaled down to 46, humanity would be 4 hours old. In the one minute since the industrial revolution we’ve lost 50 percent of the world’s forests, [1] endangered 75 percent of coral reefs, and overfished 90 percent of fish stocks.[2] Clearly something is out of whack.

Despite increased efforts to protect the environment, the destruction continues. To restore balance, nature needs legal rights too. In some places it is already happening.

In America, the passing of the Biodiversity and Rights of Nature Ordinance in Santa Monica[3] means that local community residents and other stakeholders can directly sue to protect the municipality’s natural environment. Elsewhere in the world, courts have recognized legal rights for four major rivers; the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Ganges and Yamuna in India, and the Atrato in Colombia. Going forward, anyone who damages these entities (which now hold their own legal rights) will be treated in law as if they have injured a person.

What are rights for nature?

Rights of nature is a movement committed to securing legal rights for nature. It shares a perspective with the many indigenous cultures that believe all living things are interconnected. We are not separate to nature, we are part of it, connected to every living thing. Rights of nature seeks to expand justice until all life on Earth is protected by the law.

As with human rights, rights of nature holds that nature has intrinsic rights to exist, to thrive, and to evolve. Unlike the current environmental laws, rights of nature does not see nature as the property of humans or as existing only to satisfy human wants. Nature does not exist simply to be a resource for us, but has its own rhythms and needs. In a rights of nature legal system, we — the people — have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.[4]

What are rights for corporations?

Rights for non-humans exist already. Around the world, corporations maintain many of the rights assigned to individual people. In its most general sense, corporation refers to a group of people acting as a single entity for a designated purpose. It’s likely the Catholic Church was one of the first corporations[5]. Acting as a single entity to ensure resources remained in the Church rather than with individuals was crucial to its survival. The word corporation applies to everything from nonprofits to startups to giant multinationals.

Of course, we know a corporation is not really a person in the same way as a human. Corporations don’t take walks in the park or settle in with popcorn on movie night. They also don’t go to jail when they do something criminal. Yet in the eyes of the law, corporations enjoy many of the same rights and protections afforded to individuals  — including free speech and religious expression. In the U.S. in particular, this useful legal fiction of a corporation as a single legal person, has continually expanded. Over the past 200 years, and particularly in the last five, the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that not only are corporations people, but also that being people gives them the same constitutional rights as other Americans.[6]

A 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service details the constitutional protections afforded to corporations:

“Corporations have no Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. On the other hand, the courts have recognized or have assumed that corporations have a First Amendment right to free speech; a Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; a Fifth Amendment right to due process and protection against double jeopardy; Sixth Amendment rights to counsel, jury trial, speedy trial, and to confront accusers, and to subpoena witnesses; and Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines.”[7]

How are rights for nature and rights for corporations connected?

Let’s start by establishing that corporate activity requires natural resources: fuel for transport, raw materials for manufacture, energy to keep the lights on, at the minimum. Of course some industries use nature more intensively than others;  just 100 fossil fuel using companies produce 71 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.[8] In any case, in all these scenarios one party has rights (the corporation) while the other party does not (nature). As a result, one party consistently gets what it wants, while the other party suffers without possibility of defense or compensation.

So if corporations enjoy the rights, privileges, and protections granted to individuals under the Constitution, shouldn’t nature get the same rights too?

Experts argue that the 6th Mass Extinction has begun with animal species disappearing at an accelerating rate due to a combination of habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution. Experts also predict that virtually all fish stocks will be commercially depleted by 2048. Population growth and global agriculture cause some scientists to predict serious water shortages well before 2048. Although many remain optimistic that technology will save the day, humans haven’t figured out how to replenish many of the world’s depleted resources. Once fish go extinct, they’re gone forever.

Why the focus on corporations, you might ask. An environmental impact report from the United Nations analyzed the activities of the 3,000 biggest public companies in the world and found the estimated combined [environmental] damage was worth US$2.2 trillion every year.[9] More than 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the size, power, or influence of major corporations and the federal government.[10]  Worse still, these environmental damages cost the global economy an estimated US$4.7 trillion per year in health and social costs, lost ecosystem services, and pollution.[11]

How do we give nature a seat at the table?

To have a real chance at reversing the damage that’s been done nature needs rights too, alongside corporations. A balance of rights creates an opportunity for sustainable relationships. When a conflict arises between corporate interests and nature’s interests, the legal system can step in because both parties have legal rights. The courts can help resolve these conflicts since rights conflicts happen all the time.

Recognizing the intrinsic rights of nature will also help counter the trend of corporations suing governments for protecting people and nature. One example of this is Bayer Syngenta suing the European Union for its proposed ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to the deaths of millions of bees.

Nature’s rights benefit human rights. Where the environment is harmed, people suffer from disease, violence, and land loss. ELC has published two reports highlighting the deep connection between nature’s rights violations and human rights violations.[12]

What’s the evidence for there being a rights of nature movement?

The rights of nature movement saw its first big win in 2008, when Ecuador revised its constitution to include rights of nature, stating that nature, “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”[13] The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) worked with Ecuador to establish those rights of nature laws, and has been fighting since 1995 to help municipalities and townships achieve self-governance that includes rights of nature.[14]

Over 40 municipalities have partnered with CELDF to pass rights of nature laws. These include Grant Township in Pennsylvania. Their charter reinstates a ban on injection wells, contradicting a recent ruling from a federal judge that had overturned portions of earlier legislation. The people of Grant Township spoke loud and clear: they have rights, they will protect those rights, and nobody — not a corporation, not the state government, and not a federal judge — has the authority to tell them to accept toxic frack waste in their community.[15]

CELDF works on rights of nature initiatives in India, Nepal, Australia, Cameroon, Colombia and the United States.  

In 2011, Bolivia amended its Constitution to include rights of nature, followed by Mexico City in 2017. For a complete list of global initiatives around rights of nature, see the United Nations Harmony with Nature initiative’s updates from around the world: http://www.harmonywithnatureun.org/rightsofnature.html.

Earth Law Center has launched multiple initiatives to secure legal rights for rivers in Mexico, the Great Lakes, the Patagonian Sea, the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary in Uruguay, as well as in the municipality of San Francisco.

The Global Alliance for Rights of Nature hosts a Rights of Nature Tribunal in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017 to investigate cases of environmental destruction and violation of the rights of nature.

Nature's Rights in the UK has launched a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) — a democratic mechanism open to citizens of the EU — to propose to add the rights of nature to the EU legislative agenda.[16]

In the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon the Pachamama Alliance is working with indigenous tribes to permanently protect the Sacred Headwaters region. When this is achieved nearly 50 million acres of rainforest will be under indigenous management. The management will oversee the key social, economic, and political aspects of the area and place a complete ban on all industrial extractive activities.[17]

Show your support for nature

According to the World Economic Forum, climate change ranks within the top ten biggest global challenges.[18] Tackling climate change may seem daunting, but consider how much people have already changed the world. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and LGBT+ rights all come from people calling for change.

You have an opportunity to join the Earth Law movement:

  • share Earth Law news with your friends
  • join your local rights of nature groups
  • email info@earthlaw.org to learn about volunteering with Earth Law Center.

Write to your government representatives.

Here is a suggested message that you might like to send your government representatives.

Dear ______________

The law community has found a pragmatic solution to the environmental crisis. I would like you to learn about this great idea and support it today.

Earth Law will help ensure a future for your voters’ grandchildren by giving nature the same rights as people and corporations. You may have heard Earth Law described as “rights of nature.” In an Earth Law system of jurisprudence, nature will have a voice in the law courts.

  • There is no time to lose. Scientists predict that a quarter of mammals and 40 percent of amphibians may go extinct in the foreseeable future. This extinction rate is a thousand times the average across history.
  • The World Bank recently studied the potential impacts of a 4 degree centigrade increase (an increasingly likely scenario). It found it would create a “transition of the Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown inhuman experience.” The World Bank also warns of “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods.

What can you do in government to stabilize this unstable situation? You can tell your colleagues about Earth Law. By doing so, you will promote stability.

Earth Law is a practical solution that will protect communities by creating balance between corporations and nature. It will strengthen the economy by legislating for sustainability. It will safeguard the environment we all depend on.

Earth Law is not a new idea. It is a reality in parts of the United States and elsewhere.

The idea has been tried and tested by more than thirty US municipalities and Mexico City. All have included references to rights of nature in their laws. Earth Law is already enshrined in the national constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia.

You may have heard about Santa Monica, California. It recently adopted a Sustainability Rights Ordinance; in part to protect its Sustainable City Plan from destructive economic interference. The ordinance states that, “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish,” and provides citizens with enforcement authority to protect these rights.

  • Thanks to Earth Law, the people of Santa Monica possess rights to clear air; a sustainable food system that provides healthy, locally grown food; clean water from sustainable sources; marine waters safe for recreation; and a sustainable energy future based on renewable energy sources.
  • Santa Monica’s new law also states that “corporate entities … do not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law that subordinate the community’s rights to their private interests.”

Together we face an uncertain future but there is hope. Earth Law is a positive, forward thinking, and clear headed response to a crisis situation. Please learn more about it and do what you can to support it in government.

With thanks,


[1] http://greenpeaceusa.tumblr.com/post/93508666790/the-earth-is-46-billion-years-old-scaling-to-46

[2] https://www.ecowatch.com/one-third-of-commercial-fish-stocks-fished-at-unsustainable-levels-1910593830.html

[3] https://www.earthlawcenter.org/land-ordinances/

[4] http://therightsofnature.org/what-is-rights-of-nature/

[5] http://www.npr.org/2014/07/28/335288388/when-did-companies-become-people-excavating-the-legal-evolution

[6] https://consumerist.com/2014/09/12/how-corporations-got-the-same-rights-as-people-but-dont-ever-go-to-jail/

[7] https://consumerist.com/2014/09/12/how-corporations-got-the-same-rights-as-people-but-dont-ever-go-to-jail/

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/feb/18/worlds-top-firms-environmental-damage

[10] http://www.gallup.com/poll/159875/americans-similarly-dissatisfied-corporations-gov.aspx

[11] http://www.planetexperts.com/companies-pay-environmental-damage/

[12] https://www.earthlawcenter.org/co-violations- of-rights/?rq=Co- Violations

[13] https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/ecuador-constitution-grants-nature-rights/?mcubz=0

[14] https://celdf.org/community-rights/

[15] http://celdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Susquehanna-Fall-2015.pdf

[16] http://www.theecologist.org/essays/2988863/natures_rights_a_new_paradigm_for_environmental_protection.html

[17] https://www.pachamama.org/about/accomplishments

[18] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/what-are-the-10-biggest-global-challenges/