Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

A Plea for the Rights of the Living Earth

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“I pledge myself to preserve and protect America’s fertile soils, her mighty forests and rivers, her wildlife and minerals, for on these her greatness was established and her strength depends.” Rachel Carson [1]

Earth as we have known it faces dramatic and escalating changes wrought by the ignorance and carelessness of human exploitation. In the early days of human civilization, when humans were small tribal bands moving among other predators and omnivores, their impact was kept in balance as part of the ecosystems they occupied. As the population grew and humans added technologies for manipulating and shaping the natural world through large scale agriculture then through roads, cities and industry, the impact has grown to the point where now modern people do not perceive themselves automatically as part of the natural world. This separation from nature combined with a sense of entitlement to exploit, own and use the resources of the Earth for profits has sent the impact of human civilization spinning beyond the threshold of balance of natural systems.

 

Today’s economy rests on using fossil resources- oil, natural gas and coal – for fuel and petrochemical feedstocks. Fossil resource use is manifest in global warming and global pollution, from the accumulation of petrochemical products in the environment and the products of fossil fuel combustion in the atmosphere.[2] Our fossil dependent civilization now faces life or death situations across the planet as the inherent limits of tolerance for living conditions are breached. A quarter of the globe now faces desert conditions from prolonged drought; bleaching of 40% of the world’s coral reefs from ocean acidification and warmer temperatures; melting and collapse of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets; and average global carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million, levels not seen for thousands of years.[3]

 

The governments of all the countries in the world have pledged to address the peril of climate change, except for the United States of America under the Trump Administration. The isolation from our peers and the destructive effect of his policies undermine the natural capital of our nation and amplify the effect of our civilization on climate change and global pollution. Our life support system is under direct attack. Since taking office, the Trump Administration has rescinded or repealed 60 environmental, public health and worker safety protections in the name of eliminating ‘burdensome regulations.”[4] Millions of people now are exposed to risks of water contamination, air pollution, and the destruction of national lands and offshore areas from expanded oil, gas and coal development under relaxed environmental reviews. This is the road to an impoverished and unhealthy nation ruled by a cruel and oblivious elite. This is not the America my immigrant grandparents shed blood, sweat and tears to build.

 

This situation is more tragic because the solutions are all around us, technologies and systems proven to provide the base for a thriving economy abound – renewable energy systems, regenerative agriculture, green chemistry and a circular supply chain.[5] We are facing a moral and ethical crisis, not a technology challenge. The splintered factions of the environmental and social justice movements must coalesce and stand together to restore a system of checks and balances that contain the rampant greed of unfettered economic exploitation.  Capitalism unbalanced by social and environmental constraints becomes a tyranny, thriving on the exploitation of the natural resources of the Earth and discounting the intrinsic value of all living things, including people. Continuing on this course will end in a planet hurtling through space devoid of the lush regenerative life we have known.

 

The People’s Climate Congress held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010 adopted a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth signed by 288 nations and adopted at COP21 in Paris as part of the Paris Climate Accord. The first declaration is “For the right to life and to exist.”[6] The Earth provides everything we need to live and thrive as functions of the interactions among the living systems and mineral structure of the planet.  Robert Costanza and his colleagues have recently updated the twenty- year study of the value of ecosystem services in an article which concludes that the substantial contributions of ecosystem services to the sustainable wellbeing of humans and the rest of nature should be at the core of the fundamental change needed in economic theory and practice if we are to achieve a societal transformation to a sustainable and desirable future.[7]

We can achieve a sustainable society where economic enterprise is balanced with environmental health and social and cultural values. This goal rests on recognizing the intrinsic value of the life support systems of the living Earth. We have established in law that corporations have the same rights as “persons” under the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments; the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and the Contract Clause and Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[8] Yet, we do not recognize the components of our living Earth as having intrinsic rights under the law. In a few places in America, this concept of Nature having legal rights is beginning to be challenged in the courts.  First is the lawsuit Juliana et. al. vs. the United States filed by the Children’s Trust on behalf of 21 teenagers in Oregon who claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in “a dangerous destabilizing climate system” that threatens the survival of future generations. The plaintiffs argue that their fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property have been violated. They also argue that the government violated the public trust doctrine, a legal concept grounded in ancient law that holds the government is responsible for protecting public resources, such as land and water—or in this case, the climate system—for public use.[9]

A new lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, Colorado is asking a judge to treat the Colorado River as a person rather than property, therefore recognizing its right “to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve.” It makes the argument that if corporations in the U.S. can be granted the same rights as people, shouldn’t rivers be allowed that status as well? [10]The same issue lies at the heart of the of the Indigenous Peoples challenge to the Keystone XL Pipeline, who argue that the pipeline would endanger the water supply and the river system in the event of a leak. Initially denied pending further environmental studies to evaluate the effects on the watershed and water supply, the Keystone XL Pipeline is now returned to production by Trump actions rescinding the requirement for a more thorough environmental review.[11] The 1,179-pipeline extension was projected to move 830,000 barrels of sands oil per day, and is at the center of this battle over land rights of private U.S. citizens, Native Americans, and the U.S. government in its role as guardian of the public interest.

The most alarming aspect of these lawsuits and many others piling up across the country is that the government is supposed to protect the public interest and the people, not corporations! The perversion of our Constitution to serve multinational corporations with no concern whatsoever for the people of this country, or indeed of ANY country, over the preservation of the public health and welfare is a total perversion of America.  We must take back the true values of America, a government of the people, by the people and for the people, or we will perish from this Earth. If corporations are persons, how much more valid is the claim that the rivers, forests, grasslands, wetlands, and estuaries should have the rights of persons? I call for the adoption of the Universal Rights of Mother Earth as a Constitutional Amendment to balance Citizens United.  We will otherwise destroy our life support system in the pursuit of unfettered economic greed.

Written for the Sierra Club Allegheny Group Newsletter. January 21, 2018

References

[1] Patricia m. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. 2017. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 43

[2] National Climate Assessment. http://www.noaa.gov/media-release/arctic-saw-2nd-warmest-year-smallest-winter-sea-ice-coverage-on-record-in-2017Nature. http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/overview/overview#intro-section-2

[3] NOAA;  https://www.nature.com/articles/nature25026 Accessed January 16, 2018.

[4] Nada Popovitch, Livia Albeck-Ripka, and Kendra Pierre-Louis. “60 Environmental Rules on the way out under Trump.” The New York Times. Updated, December 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/05/climate/trump-environment-rules-reversed.html Accessed January 20, 2018

[5] Patricia m. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. 2017. University of Pittsburgh Press.

[6] See the preamble and the ten rights of Mother Earth in Patricia DeMarco. 2017. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press.) p. 25-26.)

[7] Robert Costanza, Rudolph deGroot, Leon Braat, Ida Kubeziewski,Lorenzo Fioramonte, Paul Sutton, Steve Farber, Monica Grasso. “ Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go?” Ecosystem Services 28(2017) 1-16. http://www.robertcostanza.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2017_J_Costanza-et-al.-20yrs.-EcoServices.pdf Accessed January 15, 2018.  See also my interview with Robert Costanza on The New American Economy Radio https://theunionedge.com/twenty-years-ecosystem-services/

[8] Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission ruling of corporations as persons http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/08-205.html Accessed January 15, 2018.

[9] Juliana et. Al. vs the United States Government. https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/ Accessed January 20,2018.

[10] Angela K. Evans. “Rights of Nature Lawsuit Seeks personhood for the Colorado River.” Boulder Weekly. September 28, 2017. http://www.boulderweekly.com/news/rights-nature-lawsuit-seeks-personhood-colorado-river/ Accessed January 19, 2018.

[11] Robert. Diotalev and Susan Burhoe. “Native American Lands and the Keystone Pipeline Expansion: A Legal Analysis.” Indigenous Policy Journal. Vol XXVII, No.2. (Summer 2016)  http://www.indigenouspolicy.org/index.php/ipj/article/viewFile/265/403 accessed January 19, 2018

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