- An environmental movement that recognises legal rights for nature has been embraced by conservative rural communities across the US.
- Business Insider spoke to the man who helped Pittsburgh enact the strategy to keep fracking out of the city.
- The idea of rights of nature began with indigenous communities, who have recognised rights for nature for thousands of years.
When President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement in June, he declared it was because he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
But Pittsburgh didn’t vote for Trump, and many in the city didn’t agree with his decision to pull out of the global accord. In fact, Pittsburghers have embraced the environmental movement head-on in their efforts to keep the city clean following the heavy pollution left behind from the heyday of the steel industry.
One of those efforts is a growing movement that some call radical, known as “rights of nature.” It awards natural ecosystems legal rights in an effort to preserve the environment and protect human health.
Pittsburgh took up the mantle in an effort to keep hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, out of the city in 2010.
The Pittsburgh City Council passed the measure in a unanimous vote, and Ben Price, National Organising Director from the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund (CELDF), who introduced the campaign to the city, told Business Insider that at every neighbourhood meeting he attended, he didn’t meet a single resident who was against the idea.
“When there were concerns expressed,” Price said, “it was more in the line of ‘Well yeah that’s controversial, and I hope you don’t let that get in your way, because we really need this.'”
But Democratic-leaning cities like Pittsburgh aren’t the only places embracing this idea. Price has found that awarding rights of nature is actually more popular in rural, conservative towns. Tamaqua, Pennsylvania — tucked in a county where 70% of voters picked Trump — was the first community in the US to pass it in 2006.
Tamaqua took up the cause to keep companies from dumping sewage sludge and dredged minerals from the Hudson and Delaware rivers into open pit mines. The township successfully passed a “community bill of rights” giving nature civil rights, and making it unlawful for corporations to “interfere with the existence and flourishing of natural communities or ecosystems, or to cause damage” to them within the township.
In November of 2010, Pittsburgh followed.
‘Our only chance’
In 2010, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, now the city’s mayor, sent out an email to everyone he could think of — environmental groups, zoning and land use experts, environmental lawyers — to ask for advice on how to protect residents from fracking. Mayor Peduto wasn’t available for comment.
The practice had taken off in Pennsylvania by then and was inching closer to the city. One Catholic church had already signed lease agreements to allow an oil company to drill for natural gas beneath their cemetery, which “got everyone up in arms,” Price said. “So it wasn’t a moot point.”
Price was one of the people on that large email chain.
Peduto and his constituents were concerned about the impact of fracking on their drinking water, air quality, and soil. “A lot of damage had been done to each, and … denied by the industry and politically denied by [the state] environmental agency,” Price said.
While the fracking boom has allowed the US to wean off coal (which pollutes more), studies have shown that fracking can dislodge methane, oil, or gas from the ground, which can then seep into and pollute drinking water sources, particularly when the drilling wells aren’t properly cemented. A December 2016 EPA report found evidence that fracking has contributed to drinking water contamination “in all stages of the process.”
Twenty-three different environmental groups and legal experts replied to the email thread offering their expert advice. Price said the other suggestions all assumed that fracking was the inevitable outcome, because Pennsylvania state law allowed fracking.
In Pennsylvania, state law says municipalities aren’t allowed to regulate the oil and gas industry any more strictly than the state is. So, if the state says fracking is ok, cities can’t overrule that. This led to zoning experts to suggest containing fracking to certain areas in order to protect the rest of the city, and environmental groups to suggest laws to strengthen industry safety and regulations. But to Price, it wasn’t enough.
“I watched to see what kind of suggestions were put forward, and all of them coloured within the lines,” Price said. “After seeing that was going to be the tenor of response from the environmental communities, I suggested our approach, which is a community rights strategy.”
So Price wrote back to Peduto, and told the councilman that “the only way to protect the community as a whole from fracking [is] to not allow fracking to occur.”
CELDF’s strategy was to declare a right to clean air, water, and soil for all the citizens of Pennsylvania. Under this rights of nature strategy, to allow fracking would threaten that right, so the city would have ban it.
The approach took environmental protection out of a regulatory realm — which allowed fracking to occur but under certain rules — and moved it to a legal realm — which argued fracking violated their legal rights to clean air and water and should therefore be banned.
“When I proposed that there was pretty much silence from everyone else in the conversation,” Price said.
After speaking with Price, Peduto wrote back to everyone on the thread on June 29, 2010, according to a copy obtained by Business Insider:
“The mission of the attorneys is not to try to minimise impact through zoning laws — that is a losing battle. The idea is to establish municipal authority and rights. [CELDF is] working with 120 local governments in PA presently and although controversial — it would be our only chance to prohibit gas drilling in Pittsburgh. The mission of this group is to create a unique way to stop all drilling within the city’s borders — nothing short. If anyone disagrees with this approach — and it is OK to disagree — please let me know now. It is imperative that we have a strong and unified base as we take this battle on and work to succeed.”
A way to empower the community
Rights of nature dates back thousands of years ago with indigenous groups, many of whom had always considered nature to have rights.
During the early 20th Century, the priest Thomas Berry worked to spread the work of rights of nature through his teachings. Nowadays, when most people cite where to learn about the topic, they bring up “Should Trees Have Standing,” first written as an essay in 1972 and later published as a book by law professor Christopher Stone after he got into an argument about the topic with his students.
“The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.”
The movement has gone global with countries like Ecuador and Bolivia constitutionalizing rights of nature, and legal battles won in New Zealand and India protecting them locally. The Green Party of England and Wales adopted rights of nature as an official party policy in 2016.
Price explained that by recognising enforceable legal rights for ecosystems, “any member of the community would have standing before the court of law to enforce those rights,” if, for example, a future city council decided not to. Should that happen, “the community could stand in as agents for the ecosystem and enforce it,” similar to how an adult could stand in as an agent for an abused child in the court of law.
The process empowered the people of Pittsburgh, Price said, to protect themselves and their environment even if the local government refused to.
For the people, by the people
Ultimately it wasn’t Price’s “silver tongue” that won over the council members, but the organising in the community that demanded the rights of nature law be passed.
Price attended many city council meetings over the months it took to pass the community bill of rights, where the lines of residents waiting to speak in support of the topic stretched out the door.
Pittsburghers had spent decades turning the city from the dark smoggy pictures of its past, to a bright, new, environmentally friendly destination, and they saw the threat of fracking as a step backwards from that.
City Council Doug president Shields said in the 2016 documentary “We The People 2.0” that after learning about CELDF’s community rights approach, “a light bulb switched on.”
“As part of the City Council, I thought our zoning code would be a solution. But then I realised no matter how stringent our restrictions, Pittsburgh would still be fracked, because zoning doesn’t let us say ‘no’ to any harmful activity. It simply tells us where it will go,” Shields recalled.
Shields met with each of his other council members behind the scenes, and Price met with each of them privately, pushing the issue. Even the most opposed council member ultimately came around because his voters wanted it.
The ordinance banning fracking and awarding rights to nature won a unanimous vote, and has been law since November 2010.
“We not only banned fracking, but we asserted our right to self-government,” Shields said in the documentary. “We asserted nature’s rights, and our obligation to protect the ecosystems that sustain us.”
Pushback in progressive communities
Pittsburgh had followed in the footsteps of many conservative small towns when passing its rights of nature doctrine.
Price said he actually hears more pushback from liberal communities than conservative ones.
“I know that sounds odd,” he said. “What we hear is, ‘If we do that we’ll be accused of being hippy tree huggers.’ It’s a defensive. It’s a very difficult obstacle to overcome in some of the progressive communities.”
To name a few, Santa Monica, California; the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin; Licking Township, Pennsylvania; Mountain Lake Park, Maryland; Halifax, Virginia; Barnstead; New Hampshire; and Shapleigh, Maine have all passed rights of nature laws since 2006.
Price’s organisation is now helping Grant Township in Pennsylvania fight for rights of nature legislation to block fracking injection wells on their land. The town has been working on a community bill of rights since 2014, when teacher Judy Wanchisn contacted CELDF, Rolling Stone reported. To her and her neighbours, it doesn’t seem like a partisan issue.
“It didn’t matter if they were Democrats or Republicans,” Wanchisn told Rolling Stone. “People didn’t want anyone messing around with their water. They understand, ‘You poison my water and I don’t have a home.'”
CELDF will keep helping communities assert their own rights by legally recognising nature’s rights, and Price expects the movement to keep growing.
“The position that we take on nature is that nature has always had these rights,” he said. “Nature has always deserved this kind of protection and allocation of its importance to the highest level in our legal system, just as women always had the equal right with men to participate in government and voting. They were simply being denied that right all along.”