The seminar I attended was presented as part of the MSE Speaker Series; Legal Rights for Grassroots Environmentalism. Representatives from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) of Pennsylvania, USA gave a summary of their work and the capitalist government system which suppresses community level attempts at protecting natural resources. The CELDF mainly provided legal support to communities that want to protect some aspect of their natural environment (an aquifer, a forest, a population of wolves) or to keep their community free from projects that are potentially harmful for humans and environments (power plants, waste treatment plants, etc.).
One downfall of the CELDF’s early work is that it did not provide permanent results and/or conservation. The general pattern was this; A corporation submits a proposal to tap an aquifer that supports a community (its drinking water and agricultural irrigation) in order to sell the resource in the bottled water industry. The CELDF comes in, finds technical errors in the corporation’s proposal, thus having it be rejected. The community is extremely happy with their success until a few months later when the same corporation returns with a revised proposal that is not flawless (since the CELDF had edited it so thoroughly for them) and the aquifer is subsequently drained. I realize that the CELDF was simply working within the legal system towards a noble cause, which is all fine and good. The aspect I found highly questionable was the CELDF’s general reaction to this trend, which was more along the lines of, “that is awful and we feel really bad for that community,” rather than, “here is what we are doing to follow through with that community’s goal for environmental protection.” Currently, the CELDF has evolved and is working with communities to write and pass municipal laws that protect natural resources from overuse by large corporations. However, the same trend of success followed by immediate failure is very much possible, since the federal government has the power to preempt any municipal laws, and most certainly does when economic development is at stake. While I believe that the CELDF’s work is an important step in the fight to legalize the protection of nature and natural functions, it worries me that it will be the concerned communities, and nature itself, who will be the first and most numerous victims in this battle.
I strongly believe in the process of “bottom-up development” or grassroots movements that gain the power to influence policy and procedure at highly levels (be they legal, social, political or economic). The CELDF is an empowering body in this sense; CELDF has set up and run countless ‘Democracy Workshops’ throughout Pennsylvania, the USA and just recently at McGill University. These workshops are used to inform the general public of their rights within a democratic government, and to explain the obstacles to obtaining those rights in a country like the USA, where democracy is skewed and at the beck and call of the capitalist market economy. This is, I believe, an incredible tool, because the more informed a person, a community, a country is, the more policies, conventions and laws will be educated and representative. This relates to what we discussed in our last seminar meeting; how much do we need to know about any given subject? I would argue that when it comes to the political system governing your country, you ought to be well informed. Of course, you will not have the time and energy to become an expert about each issue (social, environmental, economic, etc) that arises, but when something you do care about and know about is at stake, you will be able to mobilize in an effective way to protect that something within your country’s political system.
Given the capitalist politics dominant in the world today, the question then arises, should we work within the current system or overhaul the whole thing in favor of a new, more social and environmental oriented system? Ecuador may make history on this account in the next few weeks; Ecuadorians will soon vote on a new Constitution that includes advanced human rights and rights to nature. Assigning rights to nature, as the CELDF members explained, is a natural progression from assigning rights to black persons and women, who were only ‘property’ before their rights were recognized, in the same way that the environment is today. However, this opens up an argument that assigning rights to nature devalues human life by placing the right and value of survival of a wildflower on par with the survival of a human being. I argue that that does not have to be the case, nor can it be as simple as an ‘eye for an eye.’ The right of nature and natural processes to survive can thrive alongside human rights; assigning rights to women did precede a devaluing or die-off of the male population. In fact, valuing nature and allowing it to survive will support human life by protecting the natural resources on which we survive.
This seminar, especially the focus on environmental ethics as they pertain to environmental law and conservation, reminded me Aldo Leopold’s, ‘Sand County Almanac.’ Leopold, an environmentalist and wildlife management professor at the University of Wisconsin (1933 until his death), wrote that, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The guiding ethic, and potential law, of the Ecuadorian Constitution bears a striking resemblance to Leopold’s ethic; nature has the right to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes of evolution.” I am interested to see what the actual policy implications of assigning right to nature will be. Especially in a development country like Ecuador, where there is vast biodiversity and vast socioeconomic divides, policy may be difficult to enforce across all levels of human and natural wealth. What would it mean if assigning rights to nature was successful? What would it means if was not, or if it was simply forgotten like so many other good policies? Would failure be drastically more damaging to the environment in a developing vs. developed country? These are questions that I am unsure of, but eager to see how their answers unfold; I hope we can discuss some of these in our seminar on Monday.