Sustainability

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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Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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Poverty, Independence, and Simple Living: How my life is changing in 2015.

The conclusion to yet another earthly rotation about the sun has everyone busy making grandiose “New Year’s Resolutions”. While I recognize the inanity of making weighty promises to yourself just because you drank a lot of champagne and put up a brand new puppy calendar, I can’t help but notice this is the second year in a row in which the new year actually marks one or more important changes in my life. Last year it was pretty obvious: two days before the ball dropped I hopped on a plane for Costa Rica and didn’t return to the states (or the “civilized” world) for nearly 3 months. This year’s changes are a tad more subtle but in my mind, equally worth noting:

Epic 2015 change #1: I have no car. To my close friends who may be reading, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as I’ve been preparing for this for months. Although my “decision” to go car-less isn’t so much a decisions as it is a budget necessity (*hint* that means I’m really poor), I recognize it wouldn’t be possible if some aspects of my life were different. Which leads me to my next thing…

Epic 2015 change #2: I’m moving into my own place. Yes, my dream of living alone with my cat like a miserable spinster is finally coming true. Before you start wondering how someone making $1 above minimum wage could possibly afford to live alone, let me tell you some things about my new digs. First, my rent will be my only large expense. As I stated above, I have NO CAR. That means no car payment, no insurance payment, no gas money, etc etc. In addition, my only utility costs will be electricity and wifi. Even still, my rent needed to be cheap so that I can continue to save at least some of my money. Lucky for me, I was fortunate enough to find what I’m referring to as a “micro-studio” in East Lansing, just down the road from where I work!

So what exactly do I mean by micro-studio? Well, my soon-to-be apartment complex is essentially a converted motel. There are 30 units, all “studios” but basically motel rooms converted into apartments by adding an oven/stove and normal sized refrigerator. The studios are probably around 240 square feet (I’m not exactly sure, because I didn’t really care what the square footage was once I saw the place in person). Does this sound awful to you? It may have to me several years ago but current me says it’s a dream come true. Rather than going on a pages-long rant explaining why I feel this way, I’ll try to do this BuzzFeed style (that’s what the kids like these days, right?) and create an eye-catching list! Oo! Ah!

5 Reasons Why I’m Excited To Have a Tiny Studio Apartment

  1. It is mine and mine alone.

In a perfect world full of rainbows, unicorns, and free slurpee re-fills, I could afford a slightly nicer, larger apartment. However, in this reality I am a broke recent college grad. My high-anxiety, perfectionist nature makes it difficult for me to find satisfaction living with virtually anyone. In almost every housing situation I’ve experienced in the past several years, I have found myself unhappy for at least part of the time. That’s not to say I’ve never had good roommates, I have. But I have never stopped wanting to live alone since the concept of doing so entered my mind.

With almost every other one-bedroom or studio apartment in the East Lansing/Lansing area running upwards of $600/month, I always assumed I’d have to stick to the roommate model. Well, I suppose I will still have a roommate…but she’s fluffy and poops in a box.

  1. It will help me experience life without a car.

Since I turned 16 I have had almost constant access to a car. Being a spoiled suburban white kid whose dad works for one of the big three auto companies, I’ve never had a problem getting from one place to another. Although I’ve always been concerned about fuel efficiency and ozone action days, recently I’ve wanted to do more. In my mind, individual car ownership does not have a big place in an efficient, sustainable future version of our society. Although I recognize the necessity of owning a car if you live in the country or urban sprawl with no reliable public transportation, I do not for “city folk” such as myself. I think improved public transit along with car and ride-sharing services such as Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft are the future. I also believe in the health and well-being benefits associated with having a more physically engaging commute (walking to a bus stop, biking to work, etc.). I think if you truly believe in something, you better be willing to take the plunge and do it yourself. Thus, although my decision to go car-less may be predominantly a financial one, it has the added bonus of fulfilling a personal goal.

  1. I love independence.

I am beyond lucky to have the greatest family, friends, and boyfriend in the world, all of whom I have leaned on many times in my life. I do not expect to ever reach a point where I won’t need to lean on someone occasionally; humans are social animals after all. But I like the idea of being responsible for as much of my own living situation as I can be.

  1. I hate stuff.

This is a rather recent development in my life that was truly solidified when I lived out of a small duffel bag for 3 months in Costa Rica and barely missed a damn thing. “Stuff” is horrible. We, as human beings, need certain things to survive. Beyond those things, we “need” certain other things to lead healthy, successful, happy lives. Beyond that, we accumulate stuff. Almost everyone is guilty of it including me. It almost seems as if stuff appears out of nowhere, suddenly occupying space on your bookshelves, crammed into cabinets in your bathroom, or taking up precious space in your garage. I hate stuff partially because of my aforementioned high-anxiety, perfectionist personality. Clutter gives me anxiety and the more stuff you have, the more clutter you inevitably live with.

However, it goes way beyond that. I truly believe the more stuff I have, the less happy I am. There are certain exceptions to this rule of course. There are things I own and would purchase again and again that I most certainly do not need. These are things such as books, electronic devices, musical instruments, and outdoor and art supplies, which I perceive as enriching my life. Most other forms of stuff however I see as vampiric in nature. Stuff lures you in when it’s shiny and new, promising a break from the monotony of daily life at the low low price of $19.99. It then grows old and loses luster. As it drains your paycheck it also drains your ability to appreciate what is actually important in life, and instead feeds into an insatiable need for the next cool thing. To me, unnecessary stuff in my living space is a constant reminder of my failures to spend my money, time, and energy enjoying experiences instead of buying into our culture of consumption. With a small living space it is virtually impossible to accumulate stuff. If something comes in, something else must go out. I have already donated several boxes worth of clothes and other items and my intention is to continue to slim my possessions down to the things I need or otherwise cherish.

  1. This is still a pampered life.

Even with my meager paycheck, I recognize that I am still living leaps and bounds above the standard for most people that inhabit this earth. I believe if we could all learn to live with a little less, the tremendous inequality displayed across the world might start to dissipate.

So that’s it for me. These changes aren’t so much “resolutions” as they are ambitious plans that may or may not go the way I envision. I do have resolutions but those are always personal things I keep to myself. I encourage people to make lifestyle goals and resolutions all the time, not just at the end of a calendar year. Thinking of ways you can improve your own life, as well as the world around you is refreshing and gives us hope for the future. Implementing these ideas in the real world is empowering. What will you do differently this year?

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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?

Categories: About me, Environment, Humanity, Sustainability, Waste | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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