How Can Earth Law Save Florida?

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By Liz Drayer, Clearwater, Florida


Our state of sunshine nurtures an abundance of plants and animals, wetlands and prairie, rivers and white sandy beach. Owls nest in pine trees and panthers still prowl the cypress swamp. But this subtropical Eden faces threats from concrete canyons and strip mall sprawl. We pave over tortoise burrows, raze palmettos to make way for chemical-fed par four playgrounds. More bodies crowd in every day, demanding condos and diesel to power their toys.


During the last century, Florida lost millions of acres of forest and wetlands to development. As a result, today dozens of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, coral and other creatures crowd the state’s list of endangered species.

Florida’s crystal-clear springs once drew dignitaries and day trippers seeking cures for their ailments. But the once boiling waters now stagnate, polluted by salt and nitrates, fueling toxic blooms that threaten our health, instead of protecting it.

From the Panhandle to the Keys, growth and booming tourism continue to claim natural areas. Estimates predict the state’s population will double during the next fifty years, putting millions more rural acres at risk. Wildlife and humans will compete for shrinking land and water, and the wildlife will surely lose out. Across the state, lagoons, bays and estuaries are collapsing from chronic pollution and crippled drainage, made worse by alternating drought and El Nino downpours. Ecosystem decline threatens sea grass, fisheries, recreation and local economies. Experts estimate wading birds in the Everglades have declined by 90 percent. Invasive plants and animals have forced out native species. Oil companies threaten to drill in the Gulf on a regular basis. So far public outcry and leadership has thwarted their plans, but for how long?


How can we save the nature we have left and revive what we’ve lost? Enter Earth Law, granting legal rights to the Everglades, sea oats and sparrows. No less than the Supreme Court’s Justice William O. Douglas proposed giving rights to nature over forty years ago. Earth Law can help us save crocodiles from extinction, reduce disease, buy time for sinking coastal communities. It can help tourism grow when we beautify beaches and parks, fueling the economy for future generations. How can Earth Law transform Florida?

Jenny From the Block Representing Flipper. Earth Law gives nature the right to flourish and lets citizens enforce that right in court. Imagine sea turtle nests threatened by a new high-rise hotel. A turtle lover could petition the court to stop hotel construction. To persuade the judge, the turtle lover could show that the hotel’s artificial lighting will make it hard for hatchlings leaving the nest to find the sea. She can show how seawalls and sandbags that protect upland construction will degrade turtle habitat. She could argue the litter and tar from hotel operations will pollute frontal zones where baby sea turtles live. Top that off with some photos (courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservation League of Singer Island) showing the threat simple lounge chairs pose to our native reptiles, and she’s built a strong case. Does all this involve time and effort on her part? Sure, but many facts she needs to argue her case appear online, published by government agencies who should be protecting these creatures in the first place.

Take the case of a new subdivision in East Palatka which brings Hummers and Harleys demanding more parking. Let Palatkans stand up for the live oaks in the bulldozer’s path. Who better to speak for those stately emblems of the south, hardy in hurricanes, granting sweet shade through the sweaty summer? Natives know some of these trees are so large you can see them from space, and the USS Constitution was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” because her live oak hull survived cannon fire.

Neighbors of the oaks can describe their joy watching sapsuckers, turkeys and bears feasting on the trees’ sweet acorns. Just what would those creatures eat in the new parking lot, inquiring minds will demand. They’ll fret for the threatened scrub jay which nests in live oaks, and for the birds which use the moss to build their nests. Why, people will ask, should we trade these delights for more traffic and exhaust fumes?

SLAPP Them Back. What if meanie developers punish citizen advocates with baseless lawsuits meant to silence them? Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPS) have defanged community rights in the past. Earth Law can make them illegal, as many jurisdictions already have done. Over half of US states have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes, including California and Texas, and an effort to pass federal anti-SLAPP legislation is underway.

Show Me the Money. Few average Joes have the cash for lawyers and litigation. To encourage citizens to speak up for nature in court, Earth Law can shift the burden of proving a project won’t do any harm onto those proposing it. Make phosphate mine owners pay for consultants to prove their runoff won’t turn Tampa Bay to green slime. If costs are still too high for individual litigants, they can band together or partner with nonprofits, aided by leverage gained when industry shoulders its share of the costs. At least one US crowdfunding site supports environmental lawsuits, and more are sure to pop up as this method of financing citizen rights grows in popularity.

Oh No You Didn’t. Ideally, granting nature’s rights to ecosystems can help protect them before they’re imperiled. Say your local Earth Law ordinance guarantees residents rights to clean water, clean air and sustainable food. Use this guarantee to prod the city council to plant urban forests. Join with your neighborhood association, and show that trees clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, filter pollutants from water and recharge underground aquifers. Trees that produce fruit and nuts can provide food to the community. 

What if your best efforts can’t protect the eagles and armadillos? Earth Law can empower courts to enjoin harmful acts and order restoration. Boneheaded boaters keep mowing down manatees in the Gulf? Ban motorized vehicles from the creatures’ favorite hangouts, and designate safe zones for boating that won’t harm wildlife. Don’t let developers foul the state’s irreplaceable springs, then cut and run. Make them clean up the mess.

Special Victim Earth. Many polluters treat fines they incur for harming ecosystems as a cost of doing business. To get their attention, Earth Law can expand criminal penalties for the worst wrongs, and make corporate officials think twice before pumping carcinogens through your faucet. The US EPA does impose criminal penalties for certain violations, taking into consideration the defendant’s knowledge and negligence. Still, civil actions are far more common than criminal ones. Earth Law can stiffen the penalties and increase prosecutions. A growing number of countries, including Australia and Canada, impose long prison terms for abusing animals. The case for criminalizing nature abuse may be even stronger; we depend on a clean and healthy environment for our own survival.


But it Won’t Be a Walk in Suwannee State Park. Florida’s still a long way from giving rights to rivers and reptiles. Several countries have tried it, as have dozens of US communities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Santa Monica, California. Efforts are ongoing to enshrine nature rights in the constitutions of Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Ohio. Still, nature rights laws have been challenged in court, and thorny issues still need sorting out. Where do rights of whooping cranes end and rights of orange growers begin? How will rights for nature fit in with the maze of laws on the books? There’s little doubt these new rights will be used in ways we don’t foresee. But none of these hurdles should stop us. If we need to amend the US constitution to safeguard natural systems once and for all, we’ll make it happen. When millions of us demand change, once-distant goals move ever closer.

No Pain, No Green. We won’t escape short-term dislocations as we replace dirty businesses with sustainable ones. But we can weather them. Remember the industry doomsayers back in the seventies when we passed clean air and water laws. Business adapted, and will adapt again.


Status Quo Equals Suicide. Runaway population growth, overconsumption, and a host of human bad habits threaten not just Florida, but the planet we depend on to survive. Either we save the earth now, or our species is doomed. But if we force a sea change, benefits abound. It’s not too late to fix the damage we’ve done, but we’ve got to get going. What sounds like mission impossible now needs strong leaders and grass roots support. We can win rights for nature, and someday they’ll seem as normal as women voting in elections. Can it be we’ve enjoyed this right for less than a century? Yes, it can. What’s radical one day becomes the routine and we don’t question it. Someday, Floridians will look back at how we abused our great state, and wonder what their clueless ancestors could have been thinking.