On this episode, we explore what’s known as the ‘rights of nature.’ It’s part of a broader concept called ‘community rights’ … but this is just the beginning of the conversation. For now, we’re focusing on what ‘rights of nature’ means, both in philosophical terms and — more importantly — what it could mean for real-world action against some of the Wilmington-area’s most pressing environmental concerns.
At the core of the issue is a question: who and what can have rights? When the United States was founded, not everyone had equal rights, or rights at all. It took centuries, but those rights were slowly extended to the descendants of African slaves, women, members of the queer community, and those with disabilities. At the same time, the same rights were also extended to corporations — the result of a long, strange, story that dates back a century before Citizens United. (Stay tuned for a deep dive into that story.)
But what about nature? Can a river, a forest, or the environment, in general, have rights?
In some ways, nature already has some rights. Certain endangered animals are protected under federal law and some land is preserved and protected from development. Or take the famous example of DDT, the pesticide banned not for its effects on people but for its impact on Bald Eagle eggs. But these protections are always subject to upheaval. Animals can be taken off the protected list. Protected land can be fracked, mined, and developed when laws change. These rights aren’t ‘inalienable.’
Many of the protections on the environment have to do with people. Limits on pollution, deforestation, and development are often framed on their human impact. Understandably, the laws are geared towards protecting people, not nature itself, but they can leave gaps open for polluters.
This brings in another problem: regulatory agencies don’t protect the environment, they permit pollution — literally, they issue permits, allowing polluters, most often industrial corporate polluters, to release chemicals into the air, water, and soil.
Permits issued by these agencies, like the EPA and North Carolina’s DEQ, only ban the release of substances that have undergone exhaustive study to demonstrate their potential dangers. In other words, polluters don’t have to prove what they’re releasing into the environment is safe — it’s up to the government to prove it’s unsafe, a process that puts the onus, and the expense, on increasingly understaffed, underfunded agencies.
But all of this could look different. The same legal history that led to corporations having rights could also set the stage for the ‘rights of nature.’ The Cape Fear River, for example, could have rights. Is that any stranger than the Pepsi Corporation having rights?
But, of course, to change things people need to act — and there’s essentially no playbook on what, exactly, it looks like to pursue the rights of nature.
The first step is starting the conversation. So we get into it, taking a deep dive with Evan Folds, supervisor of the New Hanover Soil and Water District.