The idea that the Ganges River in India or the Amazon Basin in Brazil should have "legal personhood" – and thus be able to defend its interests in court – was considered zany only ten or fifteen years ago, at least in Europe and North America. Now this once-fringe legal concept is going mainstream. Legislatures or courts in twelve countries have recognized the "rights of nature" at the state, local, and/or national levels in a dozen nations. In the United States alone, some three dozen communities –from Pittsburgh and Toledo to Orange County, Florida (population 1.5 million people) – have enacted such laws, often with overwhelming public support. Ecuador now has a constitutional provision recognizing the rights of nature.
It's somewhat surprising that unorthodox legal concept has taken root and developed so quickly. After all, western jurisprudence generally privileges private property rights over nature, humanity over plants and wildlife, and individual rights over collective rights. So how have conventional systems of law come to accept the daring idea that natural systems are alive and deserving of legal protection?
A lot can be learned from the impressive legal work of Thomas Linzey, a fiercely creative attorney who has not only pioneered the rights of nature, but developed legal doctrines for "community rights" and more recently, "self-owned land." (More about both of those in a moment.)
Linzey, based in Spokane, Washington, is Senior Legal Counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, where he has been a leading champion of community empowerment and the rights of nature for more than twenty years. Previously, at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Linzey had argued for "community rights" as a legal response to corporate abuses such as fracking and water pollution.
In Episode #40 of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast, I quizzed Linzey about his legal hacks that attempt to protect ecosystems and communities in novel ways.