Life Can’t Wait: A New Legal Standing for the Earth with Darlene Lee

Aerial shot of a blue river curving through an evergreen forest

Note from Susan Eirich, PhD: Do Trees have standing? Does a River have rights? Despite decades of environmental laws, Earth’s health continues to decline. Is this any surprise if the environment has no voice in decision-making and cannot bring issues to court? This is changing. There is a growing movement that holds that nature has inherent rights that can be defended in courts. Two countries now have Rights of Nature in their constitutions. Over two dozen municipalities in the US have passed ordinances including rights of nature. 

Make sure to catch the Earthfire Radio episode of Susan’s conversation with Darlene Lee at the bottom of this post.

Earth Law sounded daunting to me when I first heard of it. Isn’t law complicated and difficult?

Then I realized that most of the freedoms we take for granted in lucky parts of the world come from legal wins begun by brave individuals who swam against the tide. Think of the slavery abolitionists, the campaigners for votes for women and the movement for equal marriage.

Law sounds daunting and complicated but it supports social change that we can all understand.

The same is true for Earth Law. In most of the world today, nature has the legal status of property. Earth Law holds that nature has inherent rights. Earth Law will enable the defense of the environment in court, for the benefit of nature and people.

Despite decades of environmental laws, Earth’s health continues to decline. Is this any surprise if the environment has no voice in decision-making and cannot bring issues to court?  Under the current legal framework, money outcomes typically take priority over environmental damage. Even when environmental issues are brought to court, people have to prove that the damage hurts them, since the environment has no rights itself.

Earth Law will enable people to defend nature in the courts for the sake of nature itself. Earth Law aims to protect the environment for all creatures.

Growing Global Movement in Earth Law Movement

Two countries now have rights of nature in their constitutions, Ecuador and Bolivia. In New Zealand the Whanganui became the first river in the world to gain legal rights recognition, followed shortly by the Atrato River in Colombia. Since then in New Zealand a national park and a mountain range have gained legal rights recognition. Mexico City has recently passed laws recognizing rights of nature and is about to formalize them, giving specific recognition to the rights of rivers.

The movement is gaining momentum. Over two dozen municipalities in the US have passed ordinances (local laws) including rights of nature, including Santa Monica. So many initiatives have sprung up around the world that keeping track can be challenging.

Earth Law Center works at the forefront of this movement. We drafted and passed the Santa Monica ordinance, provided legal content for the new Maritime Spatial Planning Bill in South Africa and are part of the consortium of organizations working to pass a rights of Rivers in Mexico City (which will then be petitioned to apply to the Magadalena River, the last free flowing river in Mexico City from an original 45 rivers).

We just launched a new initiative to secure rights recognition for the Ethiope River in Nigeria, which could be the first river in Africa to gain legal rights. ELC partners with local organizations to create new laws, governance plans and ordinances that include Earth Law and rights of nature. Could Earth Law be an idea whose time has come? We believe so.

Drawing From Indigenouse Nation World Views

Earth Law owes a debt to indigenous nation world views. These world views have long taught humanity that we are part of a complex whole and that we do not live outside and independent of nature. They warn us that nature’s connection to humans determines our continued health and well-being.

According to the Dalai Lama, “Today we understand that the future of humanity very much depends on our planet, and that the future of the planet very much depends on humanity. But this has not always been so clear to us. Until now, you see, Mother Earth has somehow tolerated sloppy house habits. But now human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage where Mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence. In many ways she is now telling us, ‘My children are behaving badly,’ she is warning us that there are limits to our actions.”[i]

There are thousands of indigenous cultures and although each one is different it’s useful to look at similarities in their attitudes towards nature. In Native American cultures shared ideas include:

  • Nature is something we live within and as a part of it.
  • Nature is the location of spirituality, both in individual beings (usually animals) and in a more general sense of the sacred. Nature’s spiritual value calls for reverence, respect and humility in our relationship with it.[ii]

Earth Law is a philosophy of law and human governance that is based on the idea that humans are only one part of a wider community of beings and that the welfare of each member of that community is dependent on the welfare of the Earth as a whole. It states that human societies will only be viable and flourish if they regulate themselves as part of this wider Earth community and do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental laws or principles that govern how the universe functions, which is the ‘Great Jurisprudence’.[iii]

Inspired by Early Environmentalists

In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century preservationists such as John Muir of the Sierra Club and Aldo Leopold of the Wilderness Society argued that natural spaces such as forests and rivers were not just raw materials for economic development, but also aesthetic resources.[iv]

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, marks the beginning of the modern American environmental movement. Silent Spring raised concerns that the unchecked growth of industry would threaten human health and destroy animal life. The title of the work referred to Carson’s fear that the continued destruction of the environment would eventually make the birds who sang outside her window extinct. Thus, Silent Spring conveyed the ecological message that humans were endangering their natural environment, and needed to find some way of protecting themselves from the hazards of industrial society.[v]

Codified by Environmental Lawyers and Writers

Christopher D. Stone’s Should Trees Have Standing first argued for rights of nature in 1972, saying, “I am quite seriously proposing that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment – indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.”[vi]

Cormac Cullinan, South African environmental lawyer, published Wild Law in 2002 in which he states:

“In the face of climate change and other enormous environmental challenges, our future as a species depends on those people who are creating the legal and political spaces within which our connection to the rest of our community here on Earth is recognized. The day will come when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize Earth’s climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold. We will only flourish by changing these systems and claiming our identity, as well as assuming our responsibilities, as members of the Earth community.”[vii]

Environmental lawyer David Boyd, author of Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Change the World, has said: “As a lawyer I tend to focus on the law, but what we really do need to do is transform our culture. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world. We have to begin to believe in ourselves as part of a community that we belong to.”[viii]

Work of the Earth Law Center

We focus on two areas. In the first, Earth Law Center connects and catalyzes local partnerships for practical ends: new laws that uphold the rights of nature and allow local community members to defend nature against harm. Earth Law Center’s initiatives sign new laws into existence, incorporate rights of nature into new governance or management plans and participate directly or indirectly in court cases.

In the second, Earth Law Center creates and provides lectures, courses and workshops to enhance existing environmental law education from high school to law school levels. This includes the planned publication of both a legal textbook and a theoretical case study.

Partner Orgs

Since 2009, the aim of the General Assembly of the United Nations, in adopting its five resolutions on ‘Harmony with Nature,’ has been to encourage a healthy relationship with nature that does not prioritize the human economy. In this healthy relationship, the fundamental basis for right and wrong action concerning the environment is grounded not solely in human concerns. Today Maria Mercedes Sanchez, a tireless advocate for rights of nature, leads the Harmony with Nature.[ix]

Earth Law Center is proud to be on the Steering Committee of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. The “Alliance” is a global network of organizations and individuals committed to the universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce Rights of Nature.  Rather than treating nature as property under the law, the time has come to recognize that natural communities have the right to exist, maintain and regenerate their vital cycles.

I hope you agree with me that Earth Law isn’t as daunting as you may have originally thought and that you feel you might considering supporting the cause?

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Picture of Darlene Lee

Darlene Lee

Darlene May Lee is a visionary leader with a track record of building sustainable and growing businesses, world-class teams, and strong stakeholder relationships at different levels of an organization. She previously spent 20+ years at marketing research agencies (Frank Small & Associates, Sofres, Taylor Nelson, NetValue, Ipsos, and Penn Schoen Berland) to deliver actionable insights for global clients. Ms. Lee has also had a lifelong commitment to social and environmental causes through her work with nonprofits, including as a Board Member for The American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan, Art in Action in Hong Kong, Project EATS in New York City and project team leader for New York Cares.










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