By Joseph Bonasia, Florida Rights of Nature Network
“Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God,” Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home. Floridians who live a faith-based life and often call Florida “paradise” would agree. They appreciate the vital spiritual component in our relationship to the natural world.
Because Christian communities throughout the world celebrate Sept. 1 through Oct. 4 as the Season of Creation, now is a perfect moment to examine this relationship.
“Human life,” Pope Francis writes, “is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.” Yet, the planet is in a state of environmental crisis.
Here in Florida, ecosystems are in crisis, too. Florida ranked first in a recent report for the highest total acres of lakes too polluted for swimming or healthy aquatic life. Eighty percent of Florida’s 1,000 artesian springs are impaired. Manatees died in tragic numbers in 2021, mostly because pollution has killed the seagrass they feed upon. About 9,000 miles of streams and rivers designated for recreation are impaired with fecal bacteria. Red tides and blue-green algae blooms pose constant threats to our health and tourist economy.
Clearly, as Laudato Si’ details, there is a great need for individuals and communities of faith to play a significant role in saving the planet and Florida’s waterways.
Pope Francis advocates “an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith.” Through this lens, he describes what our relationship with the natural world once was and what it is today.
“Men and women have constantly intervened in nature,” he writes, “but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast…[T]he relationship has become confrontational.”
To society, nature is merely a bank of resources to serve human purposes, to be bent to our will through our technologies, and through extraction and exploitation to fuel our economy. We act as though we have a right to “absolute domination” over nature and can disregard nature’s laws and limitations.
Somehow, we don’t believe that nature—soil water, mountains, and everything else natural that is a caress of God—should have any rights.
But “A true right of the environment does exist,” the pope told the United Nations, “because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect.”
If individually and spiritually we recognize that nature has rights, our legal system does not (although it recognizes many rights of corporations). Nor, other than in a few states and a few jurisdictions such as Orange County, Florida, does it even recognize the right of citizens to clean and healthy waters.
In Laudato Si’, the pope asserts, “a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable.”
Ensuring the protection of ecosystems is the aim of efforts to pass a “Right to Clean and Heathy Waters” Constitutional Amendment in Florida. It stipulates that this right is fundamental and takes precedence over the permitted rights of polluters to degrade Florida waters.
Legally recognizing the fundamental right of citizens to healthy waters would better enable us to do what Pope Francis insists we must do: respect and live within nature’s laws and limitations, because an ecological spirituality demands we be better than “masters, consumers [and] ruthless exploiters” of the natural world. With this right, when our state fails to protect Florida’s waters, we can hold it accountable in court.
The “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” isn’t a rights of nature law. It’s a right tonature law. But it helps tremendously in building the legal framework Pope Francis says is indispensable if we are to honor our relationship to the natural world.
And because everything is connected, honoring our relationship to the natural world is simultaneously honoring our relationship to our neighbor and to future generations. Pope Francis calls this “integral ecology.” The environment “is part of a logic of receptivity” between people and between generations and an “integral ecology is marked by this broader vision.”
Season of Creation activities remind individuals and communities of faith that they have a key role in healing our relationship with the natural world. Advocating for a Right to Clean and Healthy Waters and signing and getting others to sign the petition at FloridaRightToCleanWater.org is caring for creation, as our spiritual convictions compel us to do.
Joseph Bonasia is Chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network and founding member of the SWFL RESET Center.
“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.