By Joseph Bonasia, Florida Rights of Nature Network
After 50 Earth Days, it is evident that regulatory environmental law is failing us and the Earth, and that it is time to legally recognize the Rights of Nature for nature’s sake and ours.
In A Toxic Inconvenience, Nicholas Penniman IV, Floridian and chair emeritus of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, writes that during the past 50 years red tides in Florida have “increased in coverage, frequency, and duration.” From 1878 to 1994, there were 64 months of red tide; from 1994 to 2018, there were 184 months.
He notes that under Florida’s Air and Water Pollution Control Act, the state has issued to industry and agriculture 23,000 pollution permits.
He writes that 2,440 of the 4,393 waterways in Florida have been declared “impaired,” 50,000 tons of phosphorus sit at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, and “mismanagement of natural resources has turned one of the building blocks of life [blue-green algae] into a potential monster.”
The book documents the inability of a regulatory system, highly subject to corporate influencers and changing political winds, to protect us and the ecosystems we depend upon.
Globally, the situation is even worse. In 1992, the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” stated humans and the natural world are on a “collision course,” and “fundamental changes” are needed if we are to sustain life as we know it on the planet.
In 2017, they issued a second warning as circumstances had grown even more dire in the absence of such change. We now teeter on the brink of ecological calamity.
Our 50-year old regulatory approach has failed because it presumes that humans are separate from and superior to nature. This is why in the eyes of the law nature is mere property. It has no intrinsic value, only in how it serves human interests.
Thus, we rip open the ground mining for coal and metals; blast the seas with seismic air guns searching for oil; insult the soil with egregious amounts of fertilizer; overfish the seas; clear-cut forests; push species toward extinction; and overheat the planet to the point of disaster.
But we are not separate from and superior to nature.
Everything is awe-inspiringly connected and interdependent. Science affirms what our hearts, arts, and spiritual disciplines know. In a telling example, microbiologists have discovered that nine out of every 10 cells and 99% of the DNA in our bodies don’t belong to us, but to microbial species.
Our good health depends upon them and their survival depends upon us. We are walking communities of coevolved and interdependent species, and we are to the Earth as our microbiota are to us. The Earth’s health depends upon us and our survival depends upon the health of the Earth.
Because all members have rights and responsibilities within a community, ecosystems have the rights to exist, flourish, and evolve naturally. Rights are stronger than regulations, offering the highest protection under law, which is why women and people of color have fought so long and hard for their rights.
In 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance recognizing the Rights of Nature. Today, fracking wells crowd around the city, but within its borders not a single fracking site exists. That is the efficacy of Rights of Nature (RON) laws, and that is what scares the powers that be in Florida, and why they buried in the Clean Waterways Act a provision preempting local governments from codifying RON principles as did Pittsburgh.
As the 50th Earth Day approaches on April 22, we much acknowledge that 50 years of failure is long enough. Legally recognizing the Rights of Nature is the fundamental change we need now.
Joseph Bonasia is the Southwest Florida Regional Director of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, Inc.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.