What do we mean by community?
Article 1, Section 3 of the Virginia constitution mentions community: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community;…” The document is referring to the humans who make up the Commonwealth. We would like to expand the definition of community to both natural and human communities; to all beings who live in relationship to each other. If we extract from a finite system faster than its capacity to regenerate, something has to give. The premise of this work is that both human and natural communities are interconnected. We need to change the way we look at things so that both communities are taken into consideration when making decisions of impact.
What are Community Rights?
Communities across the country are finding that they don’t have the right to make critical decisions for themselves – such as the right to say “no” to aerial spraying or pipeline construction, and the right to say “yes” to sustainable energy and healthy local food systems. Changing laws to include Community Rights provisions means that people who live in the community would have the right to make the decisions that affect their well-being and the future they envision.
The Community Rights movement in the United States is a response to the corruption of our democracy. Community Rights include, but are not limited to:
- Environmental rights, such as the right to clean air, pure water, and healthy soil,
- Nature’s rights, such as the right of ecosystems to flourish and evolve,
- Worker rights, such as the right to living wages and equal pay for equal work and,
- Democratic rights, such as the right of local community self-government, and the right to free and fair elections.
Why do we need a Community Rights Movement?
Community Rights transcend the environmental issues that catalyzed the movement. It helps gain economic, social, and environmental justice for all in their community.
In a time of depletion of natural resources and increasingly risky resource development and extraction, there is a critical need for laws governing local decisions about sustainability issues affecting energy production, land development, water use and food systems. The current structure of law in the United States allows corporations to have more power than communities in deciding what happens to these resources within the community.
As corporations prioritize maximizing profit, the best interests of the local community and its environment are valued as less important than corporate exploitation of natural resources. Authentic local self-governance empowers communities to protect their health, economies, and local environment from corporate threats stemming from practices that elevate profit over community well-being.
How does a community lose its voice?
The Box of Allowable Activism, below, depicts how communities are boxed in by a legal system designed to protect corporate interests and limit their rights to local self-government.
When we see how the system actually works, we can change our approach and find our voice.
- State and Federal Preemption – means the state legislature can remove authority from the community to govern or pass a local law on a particular issue.
- Nature as Property – Nature is considered mere property under the law. Anyone with a title to property has the legal right to harm it. Our legal system grants landowners the right to damage the environment, even though the impact is carried by the entire community.
- Corporate Privilege – often referred to as ‘corporate rights and personhood,’ means that corporations claim ‘rights’ to protections of free speech (1st Amendment), protections from search and seizure (4th Amendment), due process and lost future profits (5th Amendment), and equal protection (14th Amendment). In our current ‘fixed’ system, these corporate ‘rights’ supersede the actual rights of the collective community.
- The Regulatory Fallacy – Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Minerals Management Agency – do not actually protect us. Rather, they regulate the amount of harm that is inflicted on our communities.
What is the goal of Community Rights?
Community Rights work gets to the root of the problem we have as a local community: our democracy problem. Our well-being is contingent on our ability to dismantle unjust laws and systems that bestow corporate personhood, and reinstate our democratic right to local decision making. The goal is for local citizens to be able to exercise their right to make decisions affecting their community’s well-being.
Communities can step forward to determine a future of their own making: a future that is not determined by an out-of-area corporation, but rather by the people who live there. The right to do this is articulated in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution of Virginia.
Our work is local, connected to a nationwide movement that has mounted community rights ordinances in over 200 communities in nine states: protecting them from a range of corporate threats, from fracking to industrial agricultural harms. This network is developing a foundation to build economic, political and social change at local, state, and ultimately, federal levels. Like movements before us, we recognize that it will take all of us working together to succeed. Then, those levels of government must declare, constitutionally, that the right to local self-government exists to protect the rights of communities and real persons, not corporations.
Has this ever been done before?
Yes, it has!
Historically, we can look back to the abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists who refused to obey unjust laws and worked to enact just laws. The revolutionary work of changing government has been done by persons who were considered slaves during the civil rights struggle and by suffragists who sought the right to vote as persons. Suffragists challenged existing laws over 460 times, passing local and state laws recognizing women’s right to vote, which went against federal law. Work to end child labor and to create an 8-hour day for workers also followed patterns of resistance used by civil rights workers.
What is meant by the Rights of Nature?
Nature is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings, including humans. At the present time, most humans see themselves as outside of Nature and separate from it. Because of this, we have allowed our laws to develop in a way that gives us (and in turn, corporations) permission to exploit, destroy, extract, and pollute by treating Nature as property rather than as part of ourselves.
A fundamental paradigm shift is needed in order to recognize our interdependence with Nature, and respect our need to live in harmony with the natural world. This means securing the highest legal protection and the highest societal value on Nature through the recognition of rights. This is where Community Rights legislation comes in. When communities can make local decisions, they can protect the ecosystems that support their existence without interference of corporate priorities. A Rights of Nature timeline available here.
What does ‘giving Nature rights’ mean?
Legally recognizing the Rights of Nature is not about ‘conferring rights’ on Nature, but giving legal recognition to what is already there. Human behavior will change with the recognition that the natural world has a right to exist.
The cultural and legal system that is dominant in western industrialized nations today treats plants, animals and entire ecosystems as expendable objects. Our current legal system allows humans to destroy ecosystems in the name of material ‘development’ and only grants rights to humans and human-created constructs such as corporations and nation-states.
Legally recognizing the Rights of Nature, in simple terms, does two things. First it pro-actively changes the way humans interact with and impact the non-human world; and second, it changes the way citizens can defend and restore Nature.
Why challenge the idea that Nature is ‘property’?
Under the current system of law in western and industrialized nations, Nature is legally treated as human property. Something that is considered property confers upon the property owner the right to damage or destroy it. Thus, those who ‘own’ wetlands, forests, and other ecosystems and natural communities, are often permitted to use them however they wish. This continues environmental destruction.
Laws recognizing the Rights of Nature change the status of ecosystems and natural communities to that of being rights-bearing entities. As such, they have rights that can be enforced by people, governments, and communities on behalf of Nature.
Rights of Nature laws prohibit human activities that would interfere with the ability and rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist and flourish. These laws transform the status of Nature from being regarded as property, to being rights-bearing
In fact, these laws change the status of property law. Rights of Nature laws eliminate the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that depend upon that property for their existence. They do not stop development; rather, they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems, allowing us to rethink what we can demand from our finite planet.
Under Rights of Nature laws:
- Nature is empowered to defend and enforce its own rights.
- People are empowered to defend and enforce the Rights of Nature.
- Governments are required to implement, defend, and enforce the Rights of Nature.
How are Rights of Nature laws different from current environmental laws?
Current environmental regulatory structures are mostly about ‘permitting’ human-centered, material development, at the cost of allowing harm to occur to the natural world. For example, our current anthropocentric legal system allows short-sighted fracking, mining, clear cutting and factory farming to destroy the ecosystems we all depend on. The regulatory system actually legalizes allowable pollution instead of eliminating or stopping the harmful activities.
Laws recognizing the Rights of Nature are different, they are ecocentric. They establish a principle of rights for natural communities to exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve, requiring governments to uphold those rights-based laws. Rights of Nature laws require humans to consider, defend, and speak on behalf of the natural world. Communities that have enacted Rights of Nature laws are empowered – indeed, they have a duty – to reject governmental actions permitting unwanted and damaging development which would violate Nature’s rights to exist and thrive. Without the ability to defend themselves, ecosystems are being destroyed. Rights of Nature laws enable people and communities to protect and enforce the rights of ecosystems.
How do I learn more?
Contact us. We’d love to talk about possibilities for your community!