In summer from 2014, Markie Miller discovered that she had been drinking poisonous coffee. Miller lives in Toledo, Ohio, where runoff of fertilizer from farms had caused blooms of toxic cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, its water supply. The city issued an alert at 2 a.m., but by the time Miller saw it, it had already sipped its morning java. “I’m like, shit, what did I just expose myself to?” ” she says.
The warning not to drink or wash in tap water lasted for two days, but the anger did not subside quickly. Miller began meeting with other residents to figure out how to protect their water. But what to do? There are no great options for individual citizens to take legal action when a lake has been wrecked.
You could sue a polluter (for polluting) or a government agency (for neglecting regulatory obligations), but even if you were successful, the damage would be too low to be a deterrent. You could set up a class action lawsuit against injured residents, but it’s a cumbersome and uncertain process. The real and miserable problem, of course, was that the lake itself was polluted â and individuals cannot sue for it. In the eyes of the law, they have no “representation”.
It was then that an activist raised an idea: what if the lake itself had relief? What if the citizens of Toledo passed a law giving it legal rights?
So, working with advice from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, residents drafted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and convinced 60% of Toledo to vote for it. In the spring of 2019, it became law. Now, whenever the lake is polluted, a city resident can sue on its behalf.
The idea of ââgiving nature a personality has slowly gained followers. Environmentalists have pushed governments and courts to grant rights to lakes, hills, rivers, and even individual species of plants. The New Zealand parliament has granted legal rights to the Whanganui River, while Colombia has made the PÃ¡ramo de Pisba region in the Andes, threatened for years by mining, a âsubject of rightsâ. About three dozen cities across the United States are passing Toledo-style bills, and the Florida Democratic Party lists the rights of nature in its party platform.
Sounds like a plot device ripped from a sci-fi novel by Ursula Le Guin, right? Bodies of water throw him before the judge: âYour honor, the river is opposed to this line of questioning! But it’s not as weird as it sounds. In 1972, jurist Christopher Stone wrote an article titled “Should Trees Be Upright?” in which he pointed out that courts have long recognized entities that have rights but require someone to sue on their behalf, from corporations to ships to children.
In addition, the concept that nature has a distinct identity of its own is thousands of years old. Almost all indigenous cultures have such a tradition. Indeed, indigenous groups have been at the forefront of this legal movement: it was the Maori of New Zealand who defended the rights of the Whanganui and who now serve as legal guardians for the river. In 2018, the White Earth Band of the Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota granted legal rights to wild rice in their tribal courts. Rice “is part of our stories of migration and creation,” notes Frank Bibeau, tribal member and lawyer.
As intrigued as I am by the idea of ââmountains suing mining companies, I’m not sure the rights of nature will stand up in US courts. Businesses are against it. An Ohio farm has taken legal action to overturn the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, claiming, among other things, that cities are not legally allowed to create new types of crime and that the bill goes beyond the framework of Toledo. (There are âmany layers of problems,â as Yvonne Lesicko, vice president of public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, tells me.) The governor of Ohio signed a budget bill with an amendment that seems aim to invalidate the law of Toledo. Even some Indigenous thinkers are not keen on the idea, arguing that these new laws could infringe their treaty rights. And there is also pride here. How do humans know what nature wants or if it cares about the survival of humans?
Still, I think the approach is worth trying. The climate crisis is fully on the main stage, with the California fire and the Florida drowning. If we are to anticipate the worst to come, we need innovation not only in technology – cleaner energy, resilient cities, genetically modified crops that need less fertilizer – but in law, the rules that define our behavior.