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What’s So Special About Humans?

We take for granted that humans have rights. Courts say corporations do, too. Now, there’s growing interest in rights for Nature and animals.

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PEEK INSIDE THE SPRING 2011 ISSUE OF YES! MAGAZINE

When the first abolitionists declared that slaves should be freed, their opponents argued that blacks were the property of their owners and giving them rights would cripple the American economy. The arguments were different when the suffragists demanded rights for women, but the predictions were the same: The economy, and perhaps civilization itself, would crumble if their rights were recognized.

Today, similar claims are being made about a new effort to expand rights. But the recipients of these rights are not human beings—they’re animals and ecosystems. Advocates from Pennsylvania to Bolivia are using ancient traditions, new scientific research, and a growing body of legal scholarship to argue that society can and should recognize these rights.

Sentience, self-awareness, and autonomy: Whales and dolphins have been shown to possess them, along with a few other animals such as great apes and elephants.

Ecuador’s new constitution formally recognizes the rights of nature, and more than 100 municipalities in the United States have enacted ordinances giving citizens the ability to file lawsuits on behalf of natural resources and ecosystems. Meanwhile, in 2008, activists in Spain came within a hair’s breadth of gaining legal recognition for the rights of great apes, and an international coalition of scientists and philosophers is urging policymakers worldwide to recognize a draft declaration of rights for whales and dolphins.

Proponents of rights for nonhumans acknowledge that they are raising complicated issues. How many trees, for instance, can be taken from a forest before the logging constitutes an impediment to the ecosystem’s right to “flourish”? The details won’t be entirely clear until they are worked out in court over decades.

But one thing is certain—granting rights to animals and ecosystems would mean big changes in property law. While U.S. animal-cruelty laws have protected certain animals from abuse since the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, those laws still maintain that animals are property. And just try telling a corporation that local communities should have a say in what the company does with its land. Granting rights to animals and ecosystems would transform them into something resembling people in the eyes of the law, with huge impacts on how communities and corporations interact with nature.

Letting Communities Decide

Dolphin protest photo by Deborah Bassett

Photo by Deborah Bassett.

The idea that nature should have legal standing has been around since at least 1972, when law professor Chris Stone wrote a pioneering article about it. For more than 20 years the idea remained pure theory, until a Pennsylvania environmental group decided to use it as a way of balancing out the overwhelming weight of corporate rights.

Since 1995, Thomas Linzey and his colleagues at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) have been helping rural and blue-collar communities fight corporate drilling and mining permits that threatened to contaminate their land and water. Corporations wanted to use rural Pennsylvania as a “sacrifice zone” of toxic industrial practices like drilling for natural gas and dumping toxic sludge, says Mari Margil, CELDF’s associate director.

But each time a community won in court, the corporation involved would resubmit the permit and eventually come out on top. The law was tipped in favor of corporations because it treated them as people whose rights to do what they wanted with their property trumped the rights of communities to enjoy clean land and water. One way to change that, CELDF realized, was to convince local governments—and, eventually, the courts—that local ecosystems had rights of their own.

“The people who adopt these pioneering kinds of laws are not what you would call environmentalists or activists,” Margil says. “They’re people who want to protect their community.”

Tom Gerhard, for instance, is a 54-year-old truck driver and the chair of the board of supervisors for Packer Township. He heard about these ordinances after a supervisor from a nearby town saw pallets of sewage sludge on a farm in Packer. She told Gerhard how her own community had banned the sludge, and he was on the phone with members of CELDF a few days later.

The decision to pass an ordinance was simple, Gerhard says, because the sludge could contaminate the Still Creek reservoir, an important source of drinking water for Packer Township.

The sludge “contains pharmaceutical supplies, human waste, basically anything you might put in your drain,” Gerhard says. And even though the corporation that brought it from New Jersey markets the sludge as fertilizer, it didn’t sell it to the farmer—it paid him to take it.

Packer Township passed an ordinance in June 2008 that banned application of sludge and recognized the rights of nature. Gerhard soon heard from the state’s Attorney General, who threatened to sue the Township for interfering with “normal agricultural operations.” While other towns backed down under pressure, Packer stood firm and has been sludge-free ever since.

“We’re the first township in Pennsylvania to beat the Attorney General in round one,” Gerhard says, the pride clear in his voice. “Without clean air or water, we don’t survive.”

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