We often talk about the rights of women, immigrants, and animals. Yet the rights of future generations are rarely mentioned, despite the fact that their very ability to exist is threatened by our actions today. Perhaps, if the needs and rights of future people were legally recognized, it might give us the impetus to stop projects that threaten the climate and the survival of future peoples.
That was the thought that led Carolyn Raffensperger, a lawyer and executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, to call for women across the country to join her at the Women’s Congress for Future Generations in Moab, Utah. Raffensperger and her co-organizers chose to invite women (although men were also invited) because, as producer Christy Williams-Dunton said, they “are the first environment for every [living] thing that comes through.” This gives women a sense of responsibility for the nurturing of life, she added. And because women’s voices have been largely left out of political discussions, our contribution might add insight lacking in current policies.
Meanwhile, event organizers chose Moab as the setting because, as the home of sacred sites endangered by both fracking and the mining of tar sands, it heightened our sense of urgency. Plus, Moab’s gorgeous red-rock desert and breathtaking formations like Delicate Arch—which a group of us hiked to under the light of the full moon—seemed an inspirational place for discussion on how to protect nature.
The plan, announced via email and the conference website, was to get together and brainstorm the things we’d need to do in order to ensure a livable future for the generations to come. Because the well-being of ecosystem and future people require some sort of legal framework in order to demand respect, it was decided that we would use the language of “rights” to do this, a strategy that has been successfully employed by groups like the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. We would outline the rights of humans, animals, plants—even rivers—and then hammer our ideas into a Declaration of Rights for Future Generations. It wouldn't be the first time such a document had been produced—the United Nations wrote one in 1997, Adbusters magazine published one in 2008, and Jacques Cousteau's "Bill of Rights for Future Generations" has gathered nine million signatures. Ours, however, would be the first to emerge from a conversation among women.
Such a broad expansion of legal rights might sound like a flower child’s fantasy, but it’s grounded in hard science. Every schoolchild learns that ecosystems are interdependent. Yet our society continues to behave as though humans can survive the destruction of forests, the pollution of groundwater, and the warming of the climate. We need to take a hard look at our legal system—the code that defines which behaviors are and aren’t OK—and revise its systems of rights so that it protects whole ecosystems and all the species within them, from the top of the food chain to the bottom.
The rights of ecosystems and the rights of future generations are inherently connected. Future generations will depend on the ecosystems we are caring for today, and, because they will be our descendents, considering their point of view helps us see what's at stake in the protection of those ecosystems.
However, they lack a political voice, which Raffensperger calls one of the critical civil rights issues of our time. Such rights are just one of the ideas the women gathered in Moab came up with in several days of debate and conversation. I’ve collected the five most revolutionary ones here.
1. Recognize nature’s inherent right to exist
Existing legal structures view nature as a commodity or, at best, a “service provider,” rather than as a community of living entities. We must accept that nature has the right to exist for its own sake.
Laws recognizing the rights of nature are already emerging. Rights of nature have taken root in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, and in local ordinances in more than 100 communities across the United States, especially those dealing with fracking. Such laws recognize nature as more than a resource, and acknowledge that ecosystems and species have the right to exist for their own sake, not only for the sake of humans. By helping whole ecosystems to thrive, these laws ultimately ensure a healthier world for all.
2. Reserve political rights for living beings, not corporations
Corporations’ rights too often trump those of humans, let alone other living beings. Our declaration holds that corporations’ privileges should be limited and able to be revoked if they violate the rights of present and future communities. Rather than being liable to their shareholders alone, corporations would be liable to all whom their actions affect. Oversight agencies, accountable only to the people, could revoke a corporation’s charter if they deem its actions irresponsible.
Rather than allowing corporations to buy and sell nature at whim, land, water, and ecosystems will be held as the commons, a concept that even Western culture has accepted until the relatively recent commodification of nature for industrial use. In other words, a community wouldn’t own a river, but could use it in a sustainable way. No person or company would have the right to pollute water or use it at the expense of others. Other species would also share rights to the water.
3. Build economies that benefit the world they inhabit
The women of the conference agreed that economic activity must benefit, not destroy, the natural world. In most workplaces today, economic activity has become estranged from environmental consciousness. A healthy system of governance must recognize that the value placed on human activity must take into consideration the long-term effects of that activity on future generations.
Practices such as tar sands mining and fracking—which are profitable only because of invisible clean-up costs future generations will have to pay—would be outlawed if those generations’ rights were part of the law. Careful organic farming is a good example of the kind of industries that would replace them, as organic farms actually improve the quality of their soil and usually preserve woodlots that help encourage biodiversity.
4. Practice restorative justice
Restorative justice must be used to prevent and address environmental destruction. In the context of environmental justice, this practice would involve the perpetrator of an ecological crime in the remediation process. It also recognizes the root causes of the injustice and considers the crime’s effect on the community as a whole, rather than on an individual victim.
In the case of ecocide—destruction of an ecosystem—the perpetrator would work to remediate the ecosystem. We decided that restorative justice provides the most effective way of remediating environmental destruction because it changes the perpetrator’s worldview and cultivates recognition of the interdependence between humans and the rest of nature. New institutions, such as guardians of nature and guardians of future generations, will allow for the enforcement of such rights.
5. Organize through radical inclusion
The topic of radical inclusion permeated discussion throughout drafting of the declaration. As women taking a greater role within our political and legal system, how do we keep ourselves from claiming power at the expense of other groups of people? Furthermore, how do we ensure that the rights we choose reflect the needs and wants of all humans and future generations as accurately as possible?
Only through diversity of participation—that is, radical inclusiveness—in the drafting of the declaration could we accomplish this, and many of us felt that the conference could have benefited from more diversity, especially in terms of class and race. Organizer Hénia Belalia explains that her plan to address that problem, saying, “Our intention is to carry this work forward in a way that honors bringing more voices, a growing diversity of opinions and experiences, to the process.”
Being radically inclusive about the rights of other living beings and ecosystems involves using the platinum rule, which holds that we must treat other beings as they want to be treated, one woman said during the drafting of the declaration. This ensures that we consider other living beings and nature as equals, rather than as existing for our own use.
An old idea whose time has come (again)
What's So Special
We take it for granted that humans have rights. Now, there’s growing interest in rights for nature and animals.
Many Indigenous cultures have lived by these principles for thousands of years, and some have shared similar declarations with the world. The Bemidji Statement on Seventh Generation Guardianship, drafted in 2006, brings together the wisdom of peoples from across North America.
The Women’s Congress Declaration, however, aims to synthesize an even broader range of voices—including indigenous ones—to create a strong foundation for bringing such rights into law.
In voicing the rights that are intrinsic to a living planet, our declaration can serve as a guide to dramatic social change. It calls not merely for tweaks in the existing legal system, but to a paradigm shift that recognizes nature’s own inherent rights and calls for a halt to unbridled corporate power over nature. Whether we must implement our own power structures alongside the existing ones, or attempt to transform them, this declaration stands as a potent tool for change.
Millennium Development Rights would provide accountability for governments, corporations, and others who deny those rights.
A historic new ordinance bans natural gas drilling while elevating the rights of nature over the “rights” associated with corporate personhood.
Why cancer survivor Heidi Hutner, and others, are convening the Women’s Congress for Future Generations to make the earth safe again for our children.