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Rights for Nature: In PA's Coal Region, A Radical Approach to Conservation Takes Root

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In the Schuylkill Region's Tamaqua Borough, located roughly halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the heart of Pennsylvania's Coal Region, an idea which has long lingered on the far fringes of the environmental movement has apparently taken root. In September, 2006, the borough became the first U.S. municipality to recognize legal rights for nature.

More than 100 communities in the traditionally conservative region have followed suit, passing ordinances stripping corporations of long-held legal rights, and bestowing them instead on ecosystems and natural communities.

Designed to ban corporations from engaging in the land application of sewage sludge, the ordinance establishes that any resident of Tamaqua "can bring lawsuits to vindicate not only their own civil rights, but also the newly-mandated rights of Nature." Damages recovered in this way must be used to restore the ecosystems and natural communities affected.

The legality of the method is already being tested. In Pennsylvania, the attorney general has initiated five suits against municipalities so far on the grounds that such ordinances are illegal and unconstitutional. For now, however, the approach appears to be providing voters with a way to take collective action to protect the environment, without taking on the mantle of radical activist, or holier-than-thou do-gooder.

While the success of the Tamaqua ordinance and others like it may seem startling, particularly in the heart of small-town Pennsylvania, the idea of granting rights to non-human entities is hardly unprecedented. Under U.S. law, corporations have long been viewed as "persons" with constitutionally recognized rights much the same as natural citizens. In other words, corporations are entitled to civic rights such as free expression and equal protection under the law. In practice, it means that when their actions are challenged by citizens or communities -as was the case in Tamaqua - corporations can claim that these personal rights are being infringed upon.

While laws like the Tamaqua ordinance do strip ecologically undesirable companies of their rights to be treated as people, they don't do away with the "personhood" convention altogether. In fact, laws that grant rights to the natural world come closer to treating all of nature - including humans - not unlike a vast corporation made up of multiple components working together in order to prosper.

From this perspective, seeking legal rights for nature appears pragmatic: just witness how corporations have flourished enjoying the same legal status. Ben Price, Program Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELF), a non-profit law firm in PA which assisted Tamaqua and other PA municipalities, calls the Tamaqua ordinance "an extraordinary -but logical- step" to counter a legal system which treats natural systems first and foremost as 'property.'

At first glance it seems counterintuitive that such a seemingly radical approach to ecological conservation has sprung up in small-town PA - initiated and defended by voters who famously "cling to guns or religion" - but perhaps it shouldn't.

Religious groups in the United States and around the world have steadily adopted pro-environment positions, declaring a moral imperative to protect the environment and urging swift popular and legislative action. From this perspective, passing laws that prioritize nature appear as a logical step for communities that place a high value on commitment to religious ideals.

Much has been made of the 'greening of Evangelicals;' despite opposition from some of their colleagues, since 2006 more than 250 prominent evangelical leaders have signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, calling on Christians to work together to care for the planet, and on policy makers to chart a bold new course. The Vatican, of course, has included 'causing environmental blight' in an updated version of the Seven Deadly Sins and the first Center for Earth Jurisprudence in a U.S. law school is sponsored jointly by two Catholic Universities.

Faith driven environmental action may be gaining steam. Recent polls show strong backing for environmental protection across religious groups, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and others. Results like these indicate that many religious voters have shifted their primary focus from hot-button cultural issues like abortion to broader concerns such as the environment and the economy, which increasing numbers of Americans recognize as inextricably linked.

In this sense, laws that recognize rights for nature are merely making official a shift in moral sensibilities that has already taken place among religious voters and others.

Codifying that shift in legal terms, however, might in fact have the effect of shifting the focus of the debate away from morality; at least in the shallow sense used by Dick Cheney when he famously disparaged energy conservation as "a sign of personal virtue, but not a sufficient basis for sound, comprehensive energy policy."

In effect, laws that grant legal rights to nature may mitigate the emphasis on individual activism that has buoyed, but also bedeviled the environmental movement. In an era of plodding regulatory expansion, pressing economic concerns, and widespread 'Green Fatigue,' this is no small feat.

Whether in its current form or a new variation, expect the Rights of Nature approach to continue cropping up.

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