From Jeanne Nightingale, Conservation Committee:
July’s Educational Forum was devoted to the topic of Community Rights of Nature and presented by CROW (Citizens for Rights of the Ohio River Watershed). Speakers were Jim Schenk, Co-founder of Imago & Hilltop EcoCommunity, and Susan Vonderhaar, former contractor with USEPA & member of CROW.
CROW is a local group of citizens who have joined the Rights of Nature – a worldwide movement that is recasting the relationship between Law and the Earth. The forum was an invitation to the Sierra Club to explore this new creative solution for protecting our Ohio River Watershed – now when we need it most!
Calls to reconsider humanity’s relationship with nature are not new, but perhaps they are more urgent now than ever before. Faced with the multiple catastrophes of climate change, global biodiversity loss, and ecological degradation that threaten the viability of the Earth system, momentum is building for a radical rethink of how law conceives of — and ultimately sanctions the destruction of — the environment.
For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have modeled a relationship with the earth premised on interconnection with nature and respect for the inherent worth of the environment. The Land is the Law. But while conventional environmental law places some limits on how owners of environmental property and third parties may deal with nature, these are hard-won and limited restraints on an otherwise large freedom to exercise dominion and claim property rights over nature. Our U.S. legal system views life-supporting ecosystems as commercial assets allowing them to be increasingly abused and exploited for profit.
Moreover, growing industrial pressure on governments weakens regulatory protections, and corporations are steadily usurping the rights of local communities to defend their natural ecosystems. (Sierra Club activists confront this problem all the time!) Under our current system of law, natural resources such as rivers, mountains, flora, and fauna, have no legal standing in court. Consequently, the communities that dwell along our Ohio River have witnessed the source of their drinking water become the most polluted river in the country.
Within the current legal structure, our health as residents is put at risk whenever large-scale, industrial projects apply for permission to operate. Projects like fracking, commercial water extraction, mining, and the disposal of toxic waste such as radioactive fracking brine, all pollute the surrounding land and water and sabotage the health of our communities. There is no recourse under the current regulatory structure for a community to say “NO” to any such project.
Corporations are the primary force designing permit processes to support their work. Through influence on legislators, profit-driven corporations decide what is “safe”. While standards for environmental and community safety are included in permits, the standards lack transparency and do not guarantee the health of our communities. Therefore, permits legalize corporate harm, leaving Nature, including humans, vulnerable to serious consequences.