The Rights Of Man Versus The Rights Of Nature

For most of history, people saw themselves as dependent on their surroundings, and rivers and mountains had the last word. Illustration by Marion Fayolle

Florida is on my mind today. Yesterday I listened to some excellent reporting on this podcast episode and was surprised to learn that some consider the political climate in the state environmentally-friendly. Surprising because the entire reporting emphasized what sounded like anti-regulatory business-friendly fervor. And after reading this article by one of my favorite writers, I think the state will be on my mind for the indefinite future (late in the article she writes “Start taking Stone seriously and it’s hard to stop;” so far she is correct):

A Lake in Florida Suing to Protect Itself

Lake Mary Jane, in central Florida, could be harmed by development. A first-of-its-kind lawsuit asks whether nature should have legal rights.

Lake Mary Jane is shallow—twelve feet deep at most—but she’s well connected. She makes her home in central Florida, in an area that was once given over to wetlands. To the north, she is linked to a marsh, and to the west a canal ties her to Lake Hart. To the south, through more canals, Mary Jane feeds into a chain of lakes that run into Lake Kissimmee, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. Were Lake Okeechobee not encircled by dikes, the water that flows through Mary Jane would keep pouring south until it glided across the Everglades and out to sea.

Mary Jane has an irregular shape that, on a map, looks a bit like a woman’s head in profile. Where the back of the woman’s head would be, there’s a park fitted out with a playground and picnic tables. Where the face would be, there are scattered houses, with long docks that teeter over the water. People who live along Mary Jane like to go boating and swimming and watch the wildlife. Toward the park side of the lake sits an islet, known as Bird Island, that’s favored by nesting egrets and wood storks.

Like most of the rest of central Florida, Mary Jane is under pressure from development. Orange County, which encompasses the lake, the city of Orlando, and much of Disney World, is one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida, and Florida is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. A development planned for a site just north of Mary Jane would convert nineteen hundred acres of wetlands, pine flatlands, and cypress forest into homes, lawns, and office buildings.

In an effort to protect herself, Mary Jane is suing. The lake has filed a case in Florida state court, together with Lake Hart, the Crosby Island Marsh, and two boggy streams. According to legal papers submitted in February, the development would “adversely impact the lakes and marsh who are parties to this action,” causing injuries that are “concrete, distinct, and palpable.”

A number of animals have preceded Mary Jane to court, including Happy, an elephant who lives at the Bronx Zoo, and Justice, an Appaloosa cross whose owner, in Oregon, neglected him. There have also been several cases brought by entire species; for instance, the palila, a critically endangered bird, successfully sued Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources for allowing feral goats to graze on its last remaining bit of habitat. (The palila “wings its way into federal court in its own right,” Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, wrote in a decision that granted the species relief.)

Still, Mary Jane’s case is a first. Never before has an inanimate slice of nature tried to defend its rights in an American courtroom. Depending on your perspective, the lake’s case is either borderline delusional or way overdue.

“It is long past time to recognize that we are dependent on nature, and the continued destruction of nature needs to stop,” Mari Margil, the executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said in a statement celebrating the lawsuit.

“Your local lake or river could sue you?” the Florida Chamber of Commerce said. “Not on our watch.”

The notion that “natural objects” like woods and streams should have rights was first put forward half a century ago, by Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California. Stone, who died last year, was a son of the crusading journalist I. F. Stone, and as a kid, in the nineteen-fifties, he sometimes helped put out his father’s newspaper, I. F. Stone’s Weekly. In the fall of 1971, the younger Stone was assigned to teach U.S.C.’s introductory course on property law, and in one class he delivered a lecture on how ownership rights had evolved over time. Near the end of the hour, sensing that his students’ minds were wandering, he decided to shake things up. What would happen, he asked, if the law were to further evolve to grant rights to, say, trees or even rocks? “This little thought experiment,” he later recalled, created an “uproar.”

Until that moment, Stone hadn’t considered this question. But, having tossed it out, he found himself intrigued. He set about writing a law-review article. In the article, “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Stone noted that rights are always socially constructed. In America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many groups—Blacks, Native Americans, women, children—were denied rights; then, as society, or what counted as society, changed, rights were slowly and painfully (and often incompletely) extended to them…

Read the whole article here.

3 thoughts on “The Rights Of Man Versus The Rights Of Nature

    • Sounds like you are closer to this story than we are, so your feedback is very much appreciated. And thank you for sharing your work on the same topic and same general vicinity. All the best from Costa Rica, Crist

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