Battle-tested lobbyist wants to win legal rights for nature

By: Jeremy P. Jacobs
Published: 8-15-2013

Some say environmentalist Linda Sheehan went through a midlife crisis.

But she calls it an "awakening."

Sheehan -- by all accounts one of California's most effective environmental lobbyists -- had grown frustrated in 2010 after about 20 years of advocacy. The California Coastkeeper Alliance, where she was executive director, was meeting its goals, but waterways were still polluted.

"I felt that we were doing everything we needed to do and still seemed to be short of what we needed to achieve," Sheehan said in a recent interview. "We were getting advances, but we weren't winning the war."

So Sheehan turned her attention to reforming environmental laws. Now executive director of the Earth Law Center, a plucky Bay Area nonprofit with just three employees, including Sheehan's college-age daughter, Sheehan is calling for a paradigm shift in how laws -- and, thus, the courts -- view nature.

The nation's most important environmental laws, she argues, condone the degradation of natural resources and threats to public health by allowing polluters to continue discharging contaminants, albeit within permit limits. The laws view the environment as property, she contends, instead of taking a more holistic view. Nature, she argues, has inherent legal rights.

Welcome to the "rights of nature" movement, which Sheehan compares to earlier crusades to secure full rights of citizenship for African-Americans and women. Both groups, she notes, were once considered property.

At its most basic level, she said, the goal is to give the environment a chance to stick up for itself against polluters in court.