Environment

Like Humans, Earth Deserves Protection Under the Law

[Written for and with collaboration from Earth Law Center]

The taxonomic classification for humans, Homo sapiens, can be translated roughly from Latin to mean “wise man.” As the wisest of hominids, we humans excel at analyzing and conceptualizing the world around us. While this remarkable ability to understand both ourselves and the interworkings of the world around us has led to our unprecedented success as a species, it has also led to a dangerous divide. Human beings are members of a select group of organisms with the mental capacity to ponder metaphysical concepts such as state of being, identity, and the nature of reality. While it’s difficult to measure the metaphysical capacities of other animals, many expect our close relatives, the great apes, as well as some marine mammals such as dolphins to possess at least a rudimentary version of this ability. Yet Homo sapiens has gone above and beyond to use its self-awareness for creation and proliferation.

Our ability to manipulate our surroundings is tied, perhaps fatally, to our ability to divest ourselves from it. We use terms such as “the environment” and “nature” to describe everything other than ourselves and our creations. We view this other as something to be used to our advantage, something to dominate and exploit. Only more recently has nature become a romanticized other—something exotic and beautiful we ought to protect. While this mental division between man and nature seems a terrible flaw in our evolution as a species, it can also be viewed as a direct and unavoidable externality of our intellect. To see ourselves is to prioritize ourselves. It’s not outlandish to proclaim that humans wouldn’t exist as we are today without our penchant for putting ourselves on a pedestal.

Luckily, it’s recently become apparent to a large fraction of the human species that we are, in fact, part of our environment. While this is something many indigenous peoples have arguably known for millennia, it’s a recent revelation to the industrial, “civilized” world. It’s tempting to argue a return to these indigenous roots is in order. Perhaps we must fall back to our nomadic foraging ways to plug ourselves back into the global biome and reduce our impact to that of a less “wise” species. And yet, the solutions to human problems have almost never come from our past but from continuing to move forward. While our current global crisis affects all life on Earth, it’s still a human problem. Problems human ingenuity creates require human ingenuity to fix.

The history of modern agricultural humans is punctuated with periods of progress and periods of relapse or stagnation. After the transition from a nomadic species to an agricultural one, human societies underwent a series of experiments in civilization structure and culture. Social evolution has not necessarily followed a steady path, but the reduction of violence and increase of personal freedom that has accompanied human population growth is unmistakable.

In parts of the world where personal freedom appears highest for the most people, we see societies scaffolded onto a framework of democracy based on rules to protect rights. These rules are known commonly as laws. Since its inception, the law has not just enabled, but forced social evolution through logical argument based on fact and observable truth. While the assumption that certain groups of people are subordinate by nature allowed legal slavery to continue in a civilized world, this flawed assumption eventually fell prey to legal argument, regardless of the attitudes of the general populace. Law is unequivocally our greatest tool for change.

Cormac Cullinan, environmental attorney and author of Wild Law, refers to laws as the “DNA of society.”[1] Much like our genes form the genetic blueprint of our bodies, our laws form the structural blueprint of society. Laws allow humanity to undergo massive structural shifts without violence and revolt. Yet, rarely does this type of social change happen spontaneously. Oppressed individuals must speak out for their situation to gain attention. Thus it’s no coincidence that some of the most marginalized groups tend to be the quietest. It is imperative that our legal framework allow the voiceless to gain allies against abuse.

In Christopher D. Stone’s Should Trees Have Standing?, a collection of essays that was likely the first to suggest nature may need legal rights, he argues that extending rights to certain parties has always been “unthinkable.”[2] Reaching back into human history, children and women were once considered a man’s property. Far more recently, African people were considered property of white men. In both cases, the party with rights could not imagine extending these rights to their property. It would be madness to allow a woman or child to object to being beaten, or a slave to own land. Yet in both cases, these assumptions dissolved under the weight of facts. Facts that indicated children, women, and slaves maintain the same capacity for human experience white men do.

Like so many times in the past, our current legal framework must be revised based on new evidence in order to enact necessary change. Our dealings with the world around us have become so unregulated and toxic that our own pollution threatens our existence as a species. In If Nature had Rights, Cullinan laments that “Climate change is an obvious and dram symptom of the failure of human government to regulate human behavior in a manner that takes account of the fact that human welfare is directly dependent on the health of our planet and cannot be achieved at its expense.”[3] Though the list of environmental offenses occurring before and/or contributing to climate change is extensive, notice has only been taken due to its direct threat to human existence. Our inability to tie most environmental damage directly to human suffering or loss may lead to one of the greatest catastrophic events for mankind the world has ever seen.

It’s in this way that arguing for environmental action on the behest of human suffering is limited. Currently, a team of lawyers is attempting to sue the United States federal government on behalf of children.[4] The lawsuit claims that the government’s inaction regarding climate change is actively spoiling the future quality of life and financial prospects for these children. While the claims made in the lawsuit are surely true, many speculate on the case’s ability to stay in court due to its unconventional approach and tenuous prediction of future events. It’s the second case of its kind to be tried; the first was dismissed in 2011. Even in the event of success, the federal government may end up settling the issue like so many offending persons and corporations: paying up. If the lawyers for these children are arguing on the basis of lost opportunities, be they financial or otherwise, our current system’s answer may be to throw money in their direction to make up for the loss, not necessarily to fix the problem.

We see this again and again with American corporations. Polluters just choose to pay for the damages, either in the form of government fines or payouts to victims. The cost of paying to pollute is too often cheaper than changing the system responsible for the pollution. A devastating example of this cost-benefit decision was the case of the Enbridge oil spill. In 2010, a ruptured pipeline spilled more than one million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Prior to the spill, Enbridge had failed to repair some 300 defects in the pipeline [5], likely assuming the risk of a rupture was worth taking over the expense of repairing the 41 year old piece of equipment. Though it’s clear in these cases higher penalties for polluting would encourage this behavior to change, it’s an unsustainable solution. Constantly needing to shift the legal requisite for payouts regarding pollution in response to factors like the total evaluation of externalities, as well as just inflation or the success of the offending corporation make this approach weak.

Instead, we must look to change the way we argue for environmental action. Rather than enumerating lost opportunities or putting a price tag on natural entities, we must believe there is a better mechanism to care for the ecosystem that supports us. This mechanism does not need to shatter the fabric of society, or take us back to our nomadic roots. It simply needs to modify the basic legal framework we already have to align with the reality of facts to grant rights to the “unimaginable.”

Stone also makes the important point in Trees that the law does not exist solely for those who can use it to argue on their own behalf. In fact, the law exists in part specifically to represent those who cannot speak. Stone points out that infants, animals, and corporations do not have voices, yet all have been given rights under the law. If we are to make any progress in fighting in the interest of the environment, we must first give the environment the right to have an objective interest. While people can argue endlessly over whether it’s financially more beneficial to preserve a river or pollute in the name of enterprise, the interest of the river will always remain the same.

Furthermore, the interest of a river to flow or a forest to remain diverse and unspoiled is directly tied to our own rights to exist on this planet. Cullinan does well to remind his audiences that human rights are not inherent. Rather, the Universal Declaration of Rights adopted by the United Nations after World War II was the first internationally-accepted document to set standards for basic human decency and existence. The most fundamental principle of this document is the right to life. All other human rights—thought, movement, religion—cannot exist without the means for staying alive and free from the most basic wants. Yet our current social and legal system encourages the destruction of the ecosystems that generate the resources that support us. As the courts allow industry to foul the water we drink and strip the top soil in which we grow our food, our ability to exist free of basic want on this planet diminishes. More and more the capacity to eek out a living is reserved only for those who have figured out how to capitalize on others. By giving rights only to humans and considering all we rely on as property, we ensure our own destruction.

Moving forward in our social evolution as a species calls for a paradigm shift. As environmental law firms struggle to gain traction for their causes, it becomes more and more apparent what we need are not just changed laws, but changed assumptions. The assumptions behind anthropocentric law have built humanity a house while completely neglecting the neighborhood. We stand now in front of a tremendous opportunity to compose the building blocks for a better society. The physical DNA of our species has given us the intelligence to organize and modify our world. The social DNA of our species must give us the ability to protect ourselves within this world, as a part of this world.

 


1.      See talks by Cormac Cullinan from the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Bolivia and the 2012 Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

2.      See “Introduction: The Unthinkable” and “The Rightlessness of Natural Objects at Common Law” in Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.

3.      Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion Magazine.

4.      Landmark U.S. Federal Climate Lawsuit championed by nonprofit Our Children’s Trust.

5.      “Report: Hundreds of defects in Enbridge oil pipeline.” Mlive.com. August 28th, 2010. http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2010/08/report_hundreds_of_defects_in.html

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Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

Finally some positive news! Here’s to hoping San Diego’s actions spread like wildlife in a drought-ridden state. (too soon?)

San Diego is the first major American city to make a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. Thank the city’s mayor for working to enact such an ambitious energy plan.

Source: Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

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Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

I’ve started writing for ForceChange! ForceChance is a political activism site that works to enact positive change in animal welfare, environmental, human rights, and social causes. Although my focus will typically be environmental and animal welfare issues, I’m open to covering just about anything. So if you have a cause you would like to see a petition created for, please send me a message (you can find my contact info in the “About” section of this site) and I would be happy to attempt to cover it!

Below is my first petition. Sign to support the protection of fragile desert ecosystems!

Utah

Valuable conservation areas neighboring national parks in Utah are at risk of losing protection. These areas provide habitat to vulnerable species such as the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise. Urge the Bureau of Land Management to place conservation above land use and protect these fragile desert ecosystems.

Source: Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

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Loon Lacrimosa: North Manitou Island

Although seemingly irrelevant, the title of my blog actually has meaning to me beyond just an oh-so clever play on the common name for a Michigan bird. When I was about four years old, my parents purchased a small cottage in Mecosta, Michigan. Mecosta is a city most would consider within the catchall distinction of podunk nowhere. The “city” consisted of two bars, a gas station, and a combination laundromat and video rental store. Yes they were attached. Yes we used both of them. Anyway, the cottage was on a tiny but pristine body of water appropriately named “Pretty Lake”. My family had this cottage until they made the difficult decision to sell it during my freshman year of college, so about fourteen years. Thus the majority of my childhood summers were spent swimming, playing outside, getting bit by mosquitoes, and most importantly, pestering wildlife in every possible way. I am under the impression my career pathway (if you can even call it that at this point…maybe “life focus” would be a better choice) was hugely influenced by the amount of time I spent outdoors looking at, listening to, and wrangling wildlife during my youth. One of the more illusive creatures that could be found intermittently on Pretty Lake was the common loon (Gavia immer). The loon’s unmistakable, haunting call is as much as part of Michigan lore as drowsy mother bears and cryptozoological dog men. If you haven’t heard a loon’s call, take a second to Youtube that shit right now. I’ll wait here.

Perhaps this bizarre, eerie sound is the origin of the second dictionary definition for the word loon: a crazy or simple-minded person.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, loons are also just gorgeous birds. Breeding adults boast striking plumage of black and white and fiery red eyes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say loons are my spirit animal, especially since I’m not generally a bird person, but I’m a pretty big fan of these guys. Unfortunately loons, like many other threatened species, are dying in droves at the indirect hand of man. The mechanism is complicated, so much so that it requires an entire DNR poster in state parks and national lakeshores to explain it. The simplified version is this: humans introduced two non-native species to the Great Lakes and inland lakes of Michigan, zebra mussels and round gobies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering tiny organisms out of the water they live in. Zebra mussels are so good at being zebra mussels that they have actually begun over-filtering Michigan waters, creating clarity levels that are not natural for these ecosystems. The clear waters allow for increased light penetration, which allows for increased algal growth. The algae grows at such a rate that it creates mats in which algae becomes smothered, dies, and begins to decompose within the mat. The rotting algae is a prime breeding ground for the Botulism toxin, a bacterium that causes a dangerous disease by the same name. This is where the second exotic, the round goby, comes in. Gobies swim among the algae beds, eating worms and other small organisms that have consumed the rotting algae, and they thus contract the Botulism bacteria. When loons and other shorebirds eat gobies containing the toxin, they contract Botulism and die.*

Recently I went on a short backpacking trip on North Manitou Island, one of the two “cubs” off the shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (if you don’t know the Native American tale about Sleeping Bear, it’s worth checking out). I had a fantastic time exploring the island and was met with breathtaking beauty at every turn. That is, until I encountered at least seven dead or dying loons in a row along the southwestern shore. I say dead or dying because two of the loons I encountered were still alive, suffering from what appeared to be paralysis and “limberneck”**. This was extremely difficult for me to see, especially since I knew there was nothing I could do to help the suffering birds. The enthrallment of backpacking in rustic, backwoods beauty became painful, lingering guilt for the damage our species is causing to the others we share this planet with. My boyfriend and I hiked back to our camp feeling sad, angry, and defeated. Even here, what felt like a million miles away from civilization, we could not escape blatant signs of ecological degradation. I was having flashbacks to Playa Llorona in Costa Rica.

Although this may seem like a downer of a post (probably because it is) I feel it’s important to talk about these experiences. If every person was forced to walk pass a suffering animal on a beautiful beach, knowing full well its suffering was caused by the actions of man, the world might look a little different. In the words of Gretchen Wyler, “we must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” I want people, especially those who spend time enjoying natural resources, to understand our actions do cause real, observable consequences. It may seem a hopeless plight for loons and other species affected by invasives (such as ash trees, a species I work with every day). After all, the invaders are already here. What can we possibly do at this point? Yet it is always advisable to educate yourself. It amazes me how often people come upon our research in state and metro parks and have no knowledge of emerald ash borer or have even noticed ubiquitous death of ash trees across the state. These are people who have chosen to spend their day hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying a natural area, yet they are completely out of touch with forest health.

When you see something strange, like thousands of dead trees in an otherwise healthy stand or several dead birds along a pristine shore, ask yourself why and then go find the information. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our ecosystems at this point is just to give a damn. To have a sense of stewardship for the lands we inhabit. And not to turn a blind eye to the environment five days out of the week only to enjoy the fruits of nature, conversationalists and wildlife managers on the weekends. The Internet is a powerful tool and no one needs a degree in environmental science to be a steward. If you’re interested in learning more about the species I mentioned or how the average person can prevent or inhibit the spread of invasive species, check out the links I’ve shared below.

* http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/great-lakes-loons-dying-in-record-numbers-from-botulism-outbreak-spurred-by-ecological-disturbance/

** http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26493–,00.html

Learn about invasive species:

Zebra mussels: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_zebra_mussel.php

Round goby: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/fish_round_goby.php

Emerald ash borer: http://na.fs.fed.us/fhp/eab/

Stopping invasives: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html

On a brighter note, here are some nice shots from the trip:

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My Beef With Humanity

Have a Coke

I took the above photo while hiking on the most breathtakingly gorgeous beach I’ve ever seen, Playa Llorona in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

This seemingly lonely Coke bottle was actually found just meters from a giant trash heap on the beach that contained a myriad of man-made items, chiefly plastics. If you’d like to see the photos I took of this scene click here and click through to the right. Although our guides weren’t entirely certain of the origin of all the trash, they were nearly positive it was not a dump, as the national park is miles away from any residential areas. What was apparently going on was ocean currents occurring a certain way that a lot of the crap that gets put into the ocean, in Costa Rica or elsewhere, ended up here. I even hypothesized that some of the trash may have migrated there from the great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Needless to say, I found the scene disturbing. I continued the rest of my hike with a lump in my throat and a feeling of dark hopelessness creeping up my spine. Here I was what felt like a lightyear from civilization, taking a 10 hour hike…*ahem* I’ll say that again, a TEN HOUR hike out into the wilderness to see a corner of the earth not yet subject to human “progress”. What do I find? Trash. And it wasn’t just in the heap. I saw discarded containers every so often as we walked. I saw small fragments of plastic among oystercatcher (a bird similar to a sandpiper) eggs. I saw man-made debris just feet from a sea turtle nest. To say I was shocked would be dishonest because I have long known how far the problem of human wastefulness has stretched. However to be physically confronted with it was something I was just not emotionally prepared for.

So this is my beef with humanity. Waste. Not just any waste, but casual, pervasive, even encouraged waste. In our industrial era we have “progressed” so far yet taken care of so few of the problems that come with growth. Our culture of consumerism constantly encourages new purchases, while offering limited to no constructive options for what to do with the old “stuff”. To use the words of the director at the lodge I volunteered at, “I buy something, I enjoy the contents of this package, this thing I have purchased. But when I am done with the packaging or the item it becomes society’s problem, not mine”. Here is the underlying problem. Every thing that is produced, every thing that is purchased has externalities. These go all the way from enabling childhood labor to fossil fuel depletion (in the case of plastics for example) to the creation of trash when the item is no longer needed. Currently, these externalities are factored into neither the cost nor the decision to buy such a product, for most people at least. Because there is no personal ill effect of this waste, people go on purchasing until their heart’s content (hint: which is never) and there are oceanic garbage islands the size of large states.

Now I’m no idiot. I do not expect people to see images of trash heaps and lonely Coke bottles on beaches and suddenly develop a bleeding heart like mine and vow to overhaul their lifestyle. Not only is this a lot to ask of an animal, considering we are more or less programmed to think in terms of our own personal success, not that of our surrounding environment, but it’s also just not a practical means of changing an entire culture. The problem is not necessarily that people suck and I hate them (this is still up for debate), it’s that the evolution of our culture has completely ran away with the idea that material wealth equals success and happiness.

On a separate outing during my volunteer time in Costa Rica, I visited a coworker’s home. He was, by American standards, quite poor. His house consisted of two small bedrooms and an open-air front room and his shower was a bucket of water with a bowl to dip inside and pour over your head. He is also one of the most genuinely pleasant and seemingly happy people I have ever met. I say seemingly happy because I believe it would be inappropriate for me to decide whether someone is truly happy or not, but this guy sure acted like it. To avoid sounding cliché, I’ll assume you get the picture here. No, most people who live in abject poverty are probably not happy. But I tend to believe that once a certain standard of living is attained, more wealth and more stuff isn’t really going to do that much for your actual well-being.

The bottom line here is something big needs to change in the next few decades about how we as human beings view happiness and our place in the world. Before it’s too late. To me, finding a plastic graveyard on Playa Llorona convinced me for some time it’s already too late. In the interest of preserving my own will to live however I reserve a bit of hope that we may still have a chance to turn this around. I’m starting with my own life because really that’s all I can do right now. How will you be a drop in the bucket for positive cultural change?

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