Local Communities Take the Lead on Addressing Environmental Issues

Figure 1 Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

Figure 1 Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

By Haley Soboslay

In the face of national inaction towards climate change, local leaders have stepped up to provide solutions. From states taking action to protect coral reefs (Hawaii banning 2 sunscreen ingredients) to local towns passing Rights of Nature ordinances, has grassroots activism expanded to a new level? From Capannori, Italy to Santa Monica, CA - many examples serve as inspiring models for other communities who want to be part of the solution.

National governments aren’t protecting the environment

A perfect example of national government inaction starts with the Paris Agreement. In 2016, the Paris Agreement was signed and put into effect, however, few countries are doing what the Paris Agreement lays out. Under the agreement, 195 countries pledged to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions to try to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius.

The Climate Action Tracker has monitored the progress of 32 countries in meeting the Paris accord goals. Sadly, they found that most major polluters are making few, if any, efforts to meet their goals. Most countries have failed to even write up a plan to cut emissions let alone take action. Of the 32 countries tracked, just seven countries have made commitments or efforts to achieve the goal of the Paris accord. 

 It is important, however, to acknowledge the countries that have taken action including Morocco, Gambia, India, and Britain. Morocco launched large-scale renewable energy projects to reach their goals. They have commissioned the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world and have also cut back on fossil-fuel subsidies. Gambia has committed to a massive reforestation project. This plan will help to stop environmental erosion and degradation. India has also focused on a renewable energy program. They have committed to cease the production of new coal-fired plants and have strengthened promotion of electric vehicles. Britain is in fact struggling to meet emissions goals, but they do get an honorable mention for being the only country to design a way to track how well the country is meeting its Paris Agreement commitments.

Figure 2 Camels in Merzouga, Morocco. Photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash

Figure 2 Camels in Merzouga, Morocco. Photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash

These countries show that efforts at a national level can be effective, however, these efforts are sadly few and far between. Overall, national governments are not doing their part in protecting the environment.

Local governments step up to protect Nature

So, how are cities and states taking independent action to answer the questions of environmental crisis?

Figure 3 The earth hero

Figure 3 The earth hero

These actions are spurring other action, adding momentum, raising awareness at a local level in the face of federal inaction. Let’s look at the banning of single use plastics and plastic straws. The movement of banning single use plastics and straws has spread rapidly across the United States and around the world. Vancouver, Scotland, and Taiwan have all banned plastic straws and Taiwan has also banned single use plastics by the year 2030. Twelve states in the United States are tackling this issue by enacting plastic bag bans and fees and in some cities plastic straws have been banned. Other numerous states are in the process of enacting similar bans and fees throughout the United States.

Also, numerous individual businesses, nonprofits, and schools have opted to ban straws in the United States and around the world. In Tirana, Albania the mayor and citizens organized 100,000 trees to be planted. The mayor stated that this would be the beginning of a new era of environmental care for the city. This is a perfect example of how civic concrete actions and positive energy can help to combat the environmental crisis. 

Hawaii recently banned two sunscreen ingredients, effective 2021. This ban includes the sale, offer of sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription from a licensed health care provider. Both ingredients have been found to be harmful to coral reefs. When the sunscreen is washed off a beachgoer’s skin and into the water; it can cause bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and ultimately death in coral. 

 In Capannori, Italy locals were at the center of a waste removal revolution. In 1997, local activists defeated a proposal for an incineration plant that was set to be built in town. Instead, they chose an alternative waste tax which rewards residents for reducing non-recyclable waste with an aim of reaching zero waste. The town monitored and tracked household waste to understand habits resulting in waste tariffs levied in certain villages to reduce the amount of total waste. These examples demonstrate the power of local communities to not only take action, but tailor those actions to the unique situation of their environs. 

Societal evolution has always started locally

When it comes to rights-based movements local activists seem to be at the heart of them. From women's suffrage to the abolition of slavery, most actions started locally which lead to changing laws which then spread to states and provinces with national government (at least in the US) often being the last to join the movement. Think about the successful campaigns for gay marriage, women's suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. 

The legalization of gay marriage serves as a great example of a major rights-based movement that started locally. The fight for marriage equality began locally when a non-profit group called Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders started a suit against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on behalf of seven gay and lesbian couples who had been denied marriage licenses.

At this time, no other state had legalized marriage and the battle seemed to be an uphill one, however, by 2004 the state had ruled that barring same-sex couples from marrying violates the Massachusetts Constitution. This made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. This set a precedent for other states. In 2008, Connecticut became the second state to achieve marriage equality. Next, came Vermont and Iowa the next year, then New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Washington, and by 2015 it became legal at the federal level. In this way, the legalization of same-sex marriage began locally and worked Its way up to becoming legal at the federal level many years later.

Figure 4 Map of world homosexuality laws. Dark green means gay marriage is legal.

Figure 4 Map of world homosexuality laws. Dark green means gay marriage is legal.

The women's suffrage movement started locally almost a century before women gained rights in the eyes of the constitution. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, however, the movement started almost a century earlier by local activists and reformers.

In fact, the women's suffrage movement began decades before the Civil War. At this time in the United States reform groups were being created all across the United States and women played important roles in most of them including temperance leagues, religious movements, moral-reform societies, anti-slavery organizations, etc.

At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 It was discussed that women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities. Overtime, the movement went through highs and lows but ultimately gained momentum and by 1910 Individual states began to grant women the right to vote. By 1920, all women would have the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment, but it all started at a local level with reform groups and conventions. 

The abolition of slavery follows a similar pattern. Americans soon realized after the Constitution In 1776 that slavery was a hypocrisy to the document. This inspired Vermont to abolish slavery in its state constitution in 1777. By 1804, all Northern states had abolished slavery. Freed slaves residing in these states became determined to fight for those enslaved in other parts of the country.  Their support of the Underground Railroad was vital in helping thousands of slaves to escape before slavery was abolished nationally.

The unrest in the United States was a catalyst to the start of the Civil War. Ultimately, by the end of the war in 1865, the 13th amendment would be ratified signaling the end of slavery in America. Again, this shows how actions started locally and eventually spread to national laws. Ultimately, history shows that change starts local and a local action should be shown to be effective when It comes to an environmental solution as well.

Earth Law an innovative part of the environmental solution

Earth Law Center (ELC) believes that Rights of Nature is the next major rights-based movement in the US and the world.

Earth Law is the idea that ecosystems have the right to exist, thrive, and evolve—and that Nature should be able to defend its rights in court, just like people can. Current laws around the world only protect Nature for the benefit of people and corporations, however, Earth Law suggests that Nature be given the same rights as humans. Courts then assess monetary awards by looking at restoring the environment back to its natural state as opposed to the current view which assess awards based on the environmental damage that must violate a person's own rights because the environment has no rights of its own.

By giving nature Its own rights, we are acknowledging the deeply connected relationship between humans and Nature. Both humans and Nature are dependent on one another. Earth Law acknowledges that in order for humans to thrive, Nature must be protected and if it is not, we will all suffer greatly. There are many examples from around the world that can be looked at to see Earth Law In action.

Figure 5 Santa Monica Beach. Korvenna

Figure 5 Santa Monica Beach. Korvenna

Santa Monica, California was the first city on the West Coast to implement a rights of nature ordinance. This ordinance was created to enforce Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Plan, rights to clean air, water and soil, and the rights of nature above corporate entities’ privileges and powers. This ordinance helps to join efforts by groups within the city to protect the health and well-being of Nature within their city.

Crestone, Colorado offers a great example of Earth Law in action. In 2018, the Town of Crestone’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution recognizing the rights of nature. Crestone’s mayor, government, and the community all worked collaboratively to make this happen. Once the mayor and others in the community started considering Earth Law as a way to strengthen the protection of Crestone’s natural environment, Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney from ELC, was invited to speak at a local rights of nature event. The event allowed the community to ask questions, discuss what Earth Law might mean to them and how this would support their efforts to protect their local aquifer. After this event, a genuine interest in protecting nature began to spread throughout the community. The resolution which passed two weeks later refers to humans as being environmental stewards and also commits to recognizing the rights of nature in Crestone.

Colima, Mexico became the first state/province in North America to recognize the Rights of Nature. In June 2019, the state of Colima, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment recognizing the Rights of Nature. ELC helped research and draft the final language. The decision adds momentum to current ELC initiatives in Mexico to seek recognition of the rights of rivers at the national level in Mexico as well as for the Magdalena, Atoyac and San Pedro Mezquital Rivers. 

The Kofan people of Sinangoe in the Ecuadorian Amazon won a landmark legal battle to protect the headwaters of the Aguarico River in 2018. This river is one of Ecuador’s largest and most important rivers. This is a win for not only indigenous nations across the Amazon but also for land defenders worldwide and will continue to be an inspiration for others seeking Rights of Nature.

For communities who would like to learn more about what an Earth Law initiative could look like in their town, this Community Toolkit is available for free download.

Conclusion 

What we have learned from these examples in particular is how important community involvement is. Collaboration is at the heart of rights of nature resolutions. We have also learned that with knowledge comes power. When residents had ample information, they could make an informed decision. When it comes to the environmental crisis we face today - knowledge, commitment, and passion provide a way forward to address these issues. 

Local governments protect the environment in ways that national governments have not. Throughout history we have seen that societal evolution has often started locally and the environmental movement follows this pattern.

Local action has shown that human communities often protect national communities and that when national inaction is the norm, local level action helps drive the evolution of rights recognition and that’s what we need today. 

Empowering nature empowers communities: when advocates see themselves as rights defenders rather than responsible stewards of nature for human ends, the stakes are raised, and the relationships between people and the environment is transformed. You can join the movement to effect a radical change in how we view and interact with the natural world.