Published by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (www.celdf.org)
Wild Law: the New Jurisprudence
“Every component of the Earth Community has three rights:
—The Right To Be
—The Right to Habitat,
—The Right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the earth community.”
-- Thomas Berry
Wild Law, the acknowledgement in law and governance that nature and all its elements have rights, is a concept whose time has come, and you'll likely be hearing more about it from now on. Remember how suddenly the Iron Curtain came down, despite how solidly it had been in place for almost 50 years? And remember how the entrenched apartheid system in South Africa ended so abruptly? Many people struggled for decades, but when the world was finally ready for a paradigm shift, it happened quickly.
With global warming waking up even those previously in deep denial about the dire state of the environment, the embrace of wild law may be the next paradigm shift.
The Law of the Wild
Wild law recognizes the rights of rivers to flow unimpeded, the rights of mountains to remain intact instead of having their tops blown off for coal mining, the rights of old growth forests to remain unlogged, and the rights of all humans, animals, birds, insects amphibians and other beings to a habitat that supports their existence. Wild law requires that decisions made by communities, governing bodies, courts or other social or cultural authority adhere to, rather than violate, these rights. Wild Law does not place humans above other members of the "Earth Community," as visionary Thomas Berry puts it. It is ecocentric (Earth-centered) rather than anthropocentric (human-centered). If we make the paradigm shift, we will enter what Berry calls the "Ecozoic Era," taking our rightful place in the Earth Community instead of attempting to rule it.
Wild Law is a framework for the reform of our current approach to law and governance which currently accords corporations the right to pillage and plunder, destroying human habitats as well as that of other beings, sending species after species into extinction. It's bad enough that humans abuse the Earth, but we have allowed corporations to gain "personhood," meaning they have the same rights as individuals. This enables them to override communities that try to stop pollution of their air, soil and water by a factory farm, for example. Corporations can claim the attempt to keep them out violates their civil rights - the community is forced by courts and state and federal government to comply. So, humans, too, have lost their rights, along with those of all of nature. South African attorney and former anti-apartheid activist Cormac Culliinan coined the term "Wild Law" and authored a book by that name to serve as a text for a new movement. Four recent developments in the field give hope that the paradigm shift may be closer than we think: the establishment of a Wild Law center inside a U.S. law school; the first Wild Law conference in the U.S.; a web of Wild Law communities around the world; and the first actual wild law enacted in the U.S. In April 2007, the first Wild Law conference took place at the first Wild Law center, the Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ). CEJ, which opened in 2006, is cosponsored by two Catholic universities, Barry and St. Thomas, in Miami, Florida. The Gaia Foundation held a similar conference in South Africa and the UK two years earlier.
Landmark Law Passes
On September 19, 2006, the Tamaqua Borough Council in Pennsylvania became the first U.S. municipality to strip corporations of rights and recognize the rights of nature. The council passed an ordinance prohibiting corporations from applying sewage sludge in the borough. Four other communities in the state have since passed similar ordinances denying corporations personhood. The municipalities were able to do this with the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit law firm in Pennsylvania. CELDF's cofounder attorney Thomas Linzey now receives calls from around the country from communities facing unwanted incursions by corporations. The first thing he helps them figure out is how to regain control of their local government and what ordinances are necessary to keep out toxic waste incinerators, sewage sludge, factory farms, cell phone towers or other environmental hazards.
CELDF's project director, Ben Price said of the landmark Tamaqua ordinance, that the council took "an extraordinary - but logical - step. Western law treats rivers, mountains, forests and other natural systems as ‘property' with no rights that governments or corporations must respect. This results in the destruction of ecosystems, backed by law, public policy, and the power of government. The people of Tamaqua acted in the grand tradition of the Abolitionists, who launched a peoples' movement in the 1830s to end the legal but immoral treatment of slaves as property and to establish forever their rights as people entitled to fundamental and inalienable rights. Now, nature's inalienable rights are beginning to be restored.
100 Communities Follow
100 communities in Pennsylvania have since passed ordinances to keep corporations out that they don't want. The state responded by passing legislation allowing the attorney general to sue municipalities to overturn such ordinances on the ground that they are illegal and unconstitutional. Five suits have been initiated so far. "People have had the veil ripped away from their eyes," says Linzey. "They're saying, ‘We thought the state was here to help us.'" Unless a courageous judge refuses to uphold the law, the citizens won't find help in the courtroom either. The problem stems from an 1886 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted corporations "personhood," with rights that go with that, including due process and equal protection. With the mega-resources that corporations have at their disposal, any legal battle is ridiculously one-sided. Corporation argue that people that try to stop them from entering a community are interfering with their "personal" right to conduct business. The upshot is that as long as corporations are legally viewed as "persons," there is no recourse against them. That's why CELDF is helping municipalities write ordinances that strip corporations of personhood and even, in some cases, to rewrite their local constitutions to override state and federal government. So far, five years after the first Pennsylvania towns stood up to the factory farms and sewage sludge corporations, not one new factory farm or "one teaspoon of sludge" has gone into the 100 communities. The fight is far from over, however. The lawsuits are winding their way through the judicial system, but the townspeople in this traditionally conservative region of the state vow they will not submit, even to judges' rulings. They now see we don't live in a democracy, says Linzey, and have learned it's up to them to take back their right to govern themselves.
It was difficult at first for people to believe that a clear majority vote in their community could be overridden by outside interests and that the government wasn't on their side. Linzey has seen the same disbelief in people in Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Alaska where CELDF has helped communities engaged in similar battles. CELDF started the Daniel Pennock Democracy School along with Richard Grossman - writer and historian and cofounder of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. Named for a 17-year old resident of Bucks County, PA., who died after exposure to land-applied sewage sludge, the school offers 3-day trainings to provide people with the historical background, analysis of the regulatory system, and other information they need to oppose corporate control of their communities. In just two years the schools have graduated 2000 people. This year, the number of trainings will rise from a dozen to 150, with about 15-20 people each.
A New Kind of Activism
CELDF originally represented groups across Pennsylvania in permit appeals in the environmental regulatory process. Linzey now calls this process the "regulatory chute" because it funnels people into arguing over "parts per million or paper vs plastic or how many odors are going to be released or how much of the river will be polluted" instead of working to prevent business from polluting at all. After five years, Linzey was frustrated with the process and how little it accomplished. He saw that adherence to the regulatory model is the reason that 40 years of environmental activism in the U.S. has failed to stop degradation of the environment. He changed tactics from regulatory-based to community-based organizing.
++++ Democracy School schedule: http://www.celdf.org/
This article is adapted from Wild Law: The Rights of the Earth and Bringing Democracy Back to America, which appeared in the Long Island Natural Pages, a division of The Natural Pages.