Watershed Rights Conference – FAQ’s

Watershed Rights Conference – FAQ’s

So…why is there no date or location set yet?

Put simply, because we don’t have enough data yet to determine either of those variables. One of the main goals of the conference is to have a broad impact–to spread the word about the rights of nature movement and why a rights-based approach is so critical to as many folks as possible. So with a humble nod to the Lean Startup approach, we’re launching the conference with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)–a webpage, a film, a rough agenda, and a commitment to make it happen. The hope is that the MVP generates enough interest and email signups that we can then gather data about where we’re drawing from the most, when would be the best time to host the conference, and what new rights of nature project(s) we might kick-off as a result.

OK, you want to have an impact–what kind of impact?

Good question. The other reason we’re gathering data about location is that in the experience of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the organization that will be leading the main training session, the most effective way to build momentuum is for a particular group of people in a particular location to be working to protect a particular area or prevent a specific form of pollution. Our hope is to spark at least one new local movement coming out of the conference, likely in the place where the event is ultimately hosted. Sure posts on social media are important, but our goal is to channel the excitement coming out of the conference into actual, local organizing that leads to the passage of a Rights of Nature law in a new town or county.

Who is your target audience?

While some conferences are for practitioners already in the know about a given topic, this gathering is meant not only for those folks but perhaps more importantly for people who aren’t involved in the rights of nature movement but who want to learn more. It’s really for anyone who cares about the natural world and is frustrated by the fact that the environment is in worse shape now than it was 40 years ago when the landmark federal legislation was passed.

Isn’t advocating legal rights for nonhuman entities a bridge too far? Aren’t we better off working existing channels to protect the environment?

Yeah, I was waiting for that question. There are probably a bajillion different ways of answering that objection, but for purposes of an FAQ let’s distill them into three different kinds answers: an emotional one; a philosophical one; and a technical (legal) one.

The emotional argument says that advocating for better environmental regulations–or better enforcement of the ones we already have–is akin to the early opponents of the abolitionist movement who argued that the better way to improve treatment of slaves wasn’t to abolish slavery but rather to enact better laws to protect slaves from excessively cruel treatment. Whether we want to admit it or not, we have enslaved the natural world to our current system of economics, justifying and legalizing the endless extraction of resources in the name of progress and production. From such a position of subjugation, the environment will never stand a chance against the forces behind our systems of politics and economics. So as long as we continue to allow the environment to be enslaved in this manner, we’re just polishing the brass on the Titanic. Environmental laws will remain mere window dressing that do little more than keep environmentalists busy pushing paper and canvassing for signatures. Indeed, as one commentator has ruefully acknowledged, “The only thing environmental laws regulate are environmentalists.”

The philosophical argument goes like this: the very asking of the question proves that granting rights to nature is absolutely necessary because the question itself belies the fact that we operate from a mindset of colonization. Our system of government, and the English Common Law on which it is based, evolved over centuries in such a way as to facilitate the production and concentration of economic wealth. More to the point, our system of laws developed to support the extraction of resources from the colony and send those resources back to the Mother Country. Actions that subjugated the local economy of the colonized region and elevated the economy of the colonizing country were legalized; anything that worked against the interests of the colonizing country was criminalized. Fast forward to 21st Century America, and it’s no wonder that environmentalists protesting some sort of resource extraction or ecosystem destruction are labeled criminals and charged with trespass (or worse). Accordingly, the only way to upend this system in which we have permanently colonized the natural world is to give Nature the rights of a citizen–to render Mother Earth ineligible to be exploited in this way. And the fact that we continue insisting that doing so isn’t necessary only reinforces the notion that this mindset of colonization is so firmly entrenched in our Western psyche that we don’t even see it.

And the technical (legal) argument(s) come down to the concept of “standing,” that is, the legal determination of when someone has a right to bring a lawsuit against another person and to seek the redress of his or her proverbial grievances. That Nature does NOT currently have standing is one of the most powerful tools working in favor of those who exploit the natural world. Every time a group of humans attempts to intercede on behalf of some aspect of the natural world that is being overly-hunted, bulldozed, or otherwise polluted, they have to turn themselves (and their legal argument) into a pretzel to show how they–the humans–are also being harmed by actions in question. So it is all too easy for the defendant polluter to have the case dismissed because the humans aren’t actually being harmed and so don’t have standing, and the aspect of Nature that IS very clearly being harmed doesn’t have standing either because it doesn’t have rights. And so the story repeats itself over and over again. Granting legal rights to Nature is the fundamental, essential step we must take before our legal system will ever treat Nature as something to be respected rather than systematically despoiled.

You say the concepts of the Rights of Nature and Community Rights are inherently linked–how?

Great question.

Conceptually they’re linked because each time the environment is despoiled, it’s happening in someone’s backyard–whether it’s sewage sludge being dumped on rural farmland in the Eastern U.S. or oil drilling and development happening in the traditional hunting grounds of Native Americans in Alaska. It’s a constant reminder that what befalls the environment befalls someone, somewhere. Our communities are inextricably linked to the land on which they are situated and the water on which they depend.

Legally-speaking, the rights of Nature and community rights are linked because the same system of laws that prevents us from passing meaningful environmental laws–laws that actually prevent pollution, not just manage it–also prevent local communities from having their laws respected by economic interests that want to exploit whatever resource is available in a particular locale. The Doctrine of Preemption (and other similar, judicially-made law) prevents local governments from doing anything that state and/or federal laws disapprove of.

And finally, the future of the environmental movement–a rights-based movement–starts at the local level. It starts with individuals acting within their community to pass laws recognizing the rights of Nature within the borders of their community. On the one hand, the concept of ascribing rights to Nature is a massive, heady, and highly theoretical issue. On the other hand, however, it is so much more pragmatic and immediate than raising money to fund lobbying efforts related to this, that, or the other environmental campaign. Indeed, the heart of a rights-based movement starts in each of our own backyards. All we need to do is take action in our own communities.

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