A call for environmental rights, not just advocacy

Opinion by Alex Durham
May 13, 2019, 1:08 p.m.

Coming to California has been a serious step up in environmental progressivism from Georgia. Being on a campus like Stanford’s has only increased this progressivism, and coming into this quarter I felt like a green machine in terms of environmental awareness. My PWR class this quarter, entitled “Who speaks for nature? Rhetorics of environmentalism and justice,” has been the metaphorical icing on the cake that has been my environmental evolution.

My evolution has had a plethora benefits, one of those being a better grasp of the social, and recently, legal standing of the environment. At Stanford the social standing of the environment is of the utmost importance, with the majority of campus being aware of their role in the environment and understanding how important the size of their carbon footprint is. Something my PWR class has given me, though, is access to new arguments about environmental rights and justice, one of which is that the environment should be given fundamental legal rights.

While this seems a bit odd at first thought, there is more to the argument than you might think. I first came across this argument in a discussion in class, and then again in an article my professor recommended to me called “Should trees have standing?: Law, morality, and the environment.” The argument consists of a complex mixture of legal jargon and environmental progressivism, despite being written in 1972. It gave me a completely new angle from which to look at the environment. On top of advocating for stronger environmental policy and for people to pay more attention to how they treat the environment, why don’t we also advocate for the environment to have its own rights?

What drew me to this initially is the idea that, in the state of our world now, the only option to ensure that we do not make climate change worse would be to somehow give the environment a chance to defend itself. While that’s impossible to do in a practical sense, it could be possible in a legal sense. If the environment, or more specifically natural entities (i.e. trees, creeks, forests, etc.), were given legal rights, then this would give the natural entities the ability to pursue lawsuits against corporations that encroach on their territory, embark on a project that could cause detrimental harm to them, and a slew of other situations which are presently almost impossible to defend in legal settings.

I say “almost impossible” because, right now, the only way a natural entity can be defended in court is if an environmental group or other third party brings the suit against the party harming the natural entity. The problem with this situation, however, is that the court has not looked favorably for third-party suits on the behalf of natural entities in the past. One example is Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation (NWF), where the NWF sued the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the premise that the 1,250 land use designations the BLM made were an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law. In the ruling, the court held that the plaintiffs did not even have the ability to challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s land withdrawals (which the plaintiffs were suing to stop) in court on the basis that they had to be in the vicinity of where the harm would occur. In this situation, plaintiffs failed to challenge the encroachment on the environment’s space because they could not prove that they themselves would come to any harm because of it. If the environment had legal rights, though, then it would be clear what the harm would be — a violation of the land’s rights — and the cause could have been pursued in court.

There are several other cases that deal with environmental groups or people filing suits on behalf of and in the name of a natural entity and, more often than not, the court does not side with the third-party filing the suit. The cases, however, where the court has treated the natural entity as a plaintiff in a lawsuit give me a spark of hope. While it still may be too late for the planet, giving the environment the ability to fight for its protection could be paramount in protecting it from further destruction.

Contact Alex Durham at alex ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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