By Jim Olson
The citizens of Toledo, Ohio, desperate to end the continuing plague of toxic algal blooms covering the western one-third of Lake Erie, in February 2019 passed by referendum a municipal ordinance that enacted the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights.” The Bill of Rights holds that “Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The State of Ohio, joined at the hip by big agricultural corporations, challenged the ordinance in the courts and, for the moment, put an end to this new municipal law that sought to create rights of nature.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of a larger stage: The rapidly increasing worldwide movement to recognize nature as a being or “person,” has become a rallying cry to address the growing irrefutable evidence of the connection between systemic threats to water and the environment, and human and cultural survival.
Actor and producer Mark Ruffalo’s compelling documentary on the rights of nature movement, Invisible Hand, illustrates the gravity of the systemic threats to earth and water on which health and all life depends.
Like the movement to shift our perception that in the 1970s resulted in the rights of citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the air, water, and environment, Ruffalo’s film dramatizes the declaration of the rights of nature itself, concluding that nature, its rivers, lakes, and biotic systems must be protected by government as living beings. Indeed, if government fails to fulfill its duty to protect nature as it would any person, then, in the same way people can bring lawsuits to protect themselves and the environment, natural living ecosystems, such as Lake Erie, under some type of guardianship can, too.
The recognition of rights of nature or a body of water attracts more and more support worldwide because it is something ordinary people and communities facing serious threats to water from climate change and government indifference can understand and support. It establishes a scaffolding for humans to shift the way we see nature in the first place—a shift from a “property” or physical orientation to one that embraces relationship to a tree, lake, or a river. This is not new for many indigenous people around the world who see nature as not apart, but beings in relation to themselves. But it is new to those more accustomed to seeing everything autonomously, each object bouncing back and forth as separate, unrelated pith balls in a Newtonian world.
Yet while a change like the Lake Erie Bill of Rights calls for more humility and fundamental respect toward nature, from a purely legal or legal policy standpoint, it doesn’t change the basic reality that if government fails to protect nature as a “person” or “natural object,” a person has to step in as an appointed guardian to speak for this new “person.” In most countries, and all of the states or provinces in North America, the only way to do this is for people to march to the state or provincial capitol or file lawsuits on behalf of nature in the courts.
In the 1970s, the states and federal government passed laws giving citizens the legal “standing” to file lawsuits to protect their use and dependence on the environment. The rights of nature movement, if enacted as in New Zealand and attempted for Lake Erie, whether by constitutional amendment or a new law, would grant legal “standing” to the lake, river, forest, or watershed itself. But if this happens, and it should, does it change the fact that citizens, that is human beings, must still insist on that protection by filing lawsuits based on legal standing as they have done since the 1970s?
Toledo’s Lake Erie Bill of Rights clearly created the right, or standing, for citizens to go after the state, but it didn’t establish a remedy. The court ruled the city didn’t have the power to pass a law to protect Lake Erie because it is the state that holds Lake Erie for the benefit of citizens, and only it could pass laws to protect it. Clearly, then, legal standing is not enough.
I suppose a state can pass a new law that grants legal rights to a lake or river, and that because of this, a person could file a lawsuit, perhaps as appointed guardian, in the name of a natural living feature like Lake Erie. And, I suppose, too, that a court would be compelled to grant standing to the lake or river that has been or is threatened with harm, and protect the water and ecosystem that is part of this “person,” as authorized by the new law. Is this different from what people do now? People have been filing lawsuits to protect nature for the last 50 years. But here we are in 2020, facing the cataclysmic demise of the earth and its water—the fading blue planet we’ve seen from outer space during this same 50 years—despite being armed with laws and the right to sue when government and corporations pollute, impair, or destroy anatural systems.
However, this does not mean from a cultural, educational, and advocacy viewpoint, the rights of nature are not important. I think they are. Here’s why.
The Importance of the Rights of Nature and Its Link to the Public Trust Doctrine
First, with the recognition of rights of nature, as noted above, people experience a relationship between themselves and nature, both connected and worthy of protection as “beings” or a life form. When this happens, people are more likely to protect that relationship when it is harmed or threatened with harm, and expect the law to recognize it as the status quo of a viable and sustainable being. Courts or legislatures are more likely to be receptive and understand this, too, and therefore articulate new laws or pass constitutional provisions that declare rights, protection, and enforcement of the violation of the duty to protect or sustain these rights of nature. Perhaps equally important, if not more so, people will become more likely to see nature, ontologically speaking, as beingness. In this way, people can bring civil actions to insist that those new “rights of nature” by a local initiative or law are protected, and the burden is shifted to those who threaten or or alter these rights of nature or being to prove that there is no likely harm to water and nature..
Second, as people search our existing laws, particularly the common law associated with common property of a special character like oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, and their tributary groundwater, they will discover there already exists a legal protection of our relationship to nature as if nature is a being. It’s called the public trust doctrine. The doctrine applies to watersheds and the waters that flow through and define them. Under the public trust doctrine, government has a high, solemn, and perpetual duty to protect these special commons and the public’s use of them from impairment, subordination, or alienation for private control. This trust establishes a legal relationship, just like a trust created with a bank as trustee, among the trustee, beneficiaries, and the commons in nature like water, which establishes a three-way relationship. If the government breaches or fails its duty as trustee to protect the rights or beingness of nature, citizens as legal beneficiaries have a legal right, standing, and claim or civil action against government as trustee to protect both the commons, the natural beingness, and the people and species who depend on it.
Like “rights of nature,” the public trust doctrine calls for respect of the beingness or personhood of nature, and at the same time protects a citizen’s right to bring an action to protect this personhood and the essential protected use of water or ecosystems, such as fishing, drinking water, sustenance, and health.
Citizens have successfully protected water and other special natural commons through numerous public trust cases for more than 100 years. The most visible examples are the beachwalking cases, e.g. National Audubon v Los Angeles Superior Court (“Mono Lake” case), Illinois Central Railroad v Illinois (the Great Lakes are held in public trust), and Glass v Goeckle in Michigan or the Gunderson v Indiana cases (the right of the public to beach access to navigable waters). The children’s trust and other public trust cases, like Juliana v U.S., also seek to address the systemic effects of human behavior, like the diversion of a river, the conversion of a lake to a private industrial complex, or the ruin of a rainforest, and the massive, myriad irreparable harms and disease caused by climate change to the public trust in our waters and the ecosystems, watersheds, and people who depend on them.
Michigan a Forerunner with the MEPA
In Michigan, for example, the Legislature in 1970 established the right of citizens to bring claims against those who pollute, impair, or destroy the air, water, and natural resources or the public trust in those resources. (To trace Michigan’s related history, see The MEPA Turns 50). So, there is the right, standing, and the claim by statute, and as described above, under the common law of public trust. Because these claims already exist, the declaration of the rights of Lake Erie or nature are an inspiration and aspiration, the public trust doctrine or statutes like the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”) provide the standing, claim, and remedy for damages or court orders to stop the conduct causing or contributing to the harm. The Environmental Law and Policy Center filed suit under the Clean Water Act and forced the U.S. EPA and State of Ohio to declare the open waters and shore waters of Lake Erie “impaired.” As a complement to an often long process to establish enforceable phosphorus limits, known as total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), the public trust doctrine and the MEPA provide immediate claim for impairment of Lake Erie based on these findings that Lake Erie is impaired.
If the connection between the rights and respect toward nature and the public trust in water underlying nature is recognized, and if they are married to each other, viewed as inseparable, then the rights of nature and the public trust doctrine become the umbrella, the backstop, the overarching framework to protect nature and humans as persons or beingness, as a whole. Under public trust law, people and natural beings don’t have to wait for a state or nation to enact a constitutional amendment or new law declaring “rights of nature,” people and nature’s commons don’t have to wait another 4 or 5 years for governments to adopt a phosphorous standard to end the destruction of western Lake Erie. They can bring a lawsuit, and ask the court to protect Lake Erie as a being or body of the trust, and the rights that they enjoy and depend on for drinking water, fish, economy, and sustenance of life.
In short, the rights of nature or rights of Lake Erie are the flags to rally around, and the public trust doctrine is the legal framework and set of principles to halt the undisputed impairment from toxic algal blooms of Lake Erie to protect the rights of nature. People and nature don’t have to suffer the continuing destruction of Lake Erie, they, as persons, have a right and remedy that saves Lake Erie:
It’s time for Mark Ruffalo to produce his next film, a sequel and love story— “The Marriage between the Rights of Nature and the Public Trust Doctrine!”