The Vermont Worker’s Center recently spearheaded the successful campaign for universal health insurance in Vermont. They focused on health care as a fundamental human right, so when at the 11th hour legislators attempted to tack on an amendment to the Vermont health care bill that would deny undocumented workers health coverage, the Worker’s Center refused to accept the bill. The amendment was successfully removed, and the bill passed late last year with the human rights principles of equity and universality prevailing. Now, the VWC is expanding on their healthcare campaign, and formulating a People’s Agenda based on meeting people’s fundamental needs: education, jobs, transportation, living wages, housing. And the environment. “We’d like to incorporate rights of nature or the Human Right to a Healthy Environment into our new campaign,” they told me, “Can you help us think about that?”
New terrain for me. I started doing some research. “Rights of nature” affirms that natural communities have the “right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate their natural cycles”—within a legal framework, this means that people can “step into the shoes” of a river, or a wetlands, or a forest, etc. and enforce these rights. Long have we considered ecosystems as existing within the realm of human property rights, which gives free rein to activities and development that degrade and/or destroy natural communities. With the help of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, communities all across the US have passed resolutions recognizing rights of nature. In 2010, Pittsburgh, PA passed an ordinance banning natural gas extraction within city; the ordinance revoked corporate “personhood” rights and asserted the right of Pittsburgh human communities to self-governance, as well as the rights of nature,
Section 4.2: Rights of Natural Communities. Natural communities and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers, and other water systems, possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the City of Pittsburgh. Residents of the City shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights on behalf of those natural communities and ecosystems.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in their constitution,
Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.
And in 2010, 35,000 people gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, Bolivian president Evo Morales’ pointed response to the Copenhagen climate conference, which failed to set legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions or provide substantial climate aid for developing countries. The People’s Agreement issued as a result of the WPCCC rejects capitalism as the root not only of climate injustice but of man’s separation from nature. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth recognizes Mother Earth as the source of life. Article 1 describes the Inherent Rights of Mother Earth, including the right to exist, to water as a source of life, to continue life cycles without human disruption, and the right to be free from genetic contamination. Article 2 outlines the Obligations of human beings to Mother Earth, including that human pursuits for wellbeing also contribute to the wellbeing of Mother Earth, establishing laws and precautionary measures to defend her rights, holding violators responsible for restoring damages, and promoting economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth and her rights.
The growing climate justice movement, from which the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth emerged, places the burden of blame for climate change squarely on the shoulders of industrial capitalism. One of the slogans that issued from the Copenhagen 15 protests in 2009 was “Change the system, not the climate.” The impact of climate change is falling disproportionately on the backs of poor and marginalized countries and communities around the world. A series of NY Times profiles from 2007 on the impacts of climate change—current and projected—examines this growing “climate divide”: those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (ie…wealthy countries in mid-latitutdes) not only face the least amount of risk from climate change, but they are far better able and prepared to deal with the climate impacts they will get. So while the Dutch are building houses that will be able to “float” up to 18’ to weather predicted flooding and sea level rise, in countries like Malawi 9 out of 10 people are subsistence farmers who now face tremendous droughts, land degradation, and fast-dwindling forests and fish stocks. Climate justice activists make the connections between capitalism, climate change, and poverty very explicit.
Occupy Wall Street has called attention to the inequity—as in injustice—of the widening gap between rich and poor, and is demanding reforms in capitalism to make the rich pay their “fair share”. Recent studies indicate that wealthy people in industrialized countries generate far more emissions than poor ones. The US and Europe are together responsible for over two thirds of the atmospheric buildup of CO2 since industrialization in the mid-19th century. And despite commitments at Copenhagen and Cancun to “voluntarily” reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a report issued recently by the World Meteorological Organization shows that carbon dioxide levels rose by 2.3 parts per million between 2009 and 2010 – a faster yearly rate of increase than the past decade’s average of 2.0 ppm, exceeding the worst-case scenarios predicted a decade ago. Poor and developing countries (Bolivia has been the most vocal) are demanding that those responsible for global warming pay their share of the climate debt they’ve saddled the rest of the world with.
We’ve gotten the impacts of climate change here in the US too, of course: increasing wildfires, prolonged droughts and water shortages, and more intense storms. While focused on their campaigns for human and worker’s rights in Vermont, the VWC also has strong allies in the climate justice movement, and stands in solidarity with the the social movements in the Global South that are fighting capitalism and globalization and calling for international recognition for rights of nature. In Vermont, as in the rest of the world, the poor are suffering disproportionately from the effects of climate change, as a VWC statement after Irene points out:
“The force of this storm, like the unusual flooding in late Spring, was likely the result of a man-made crisis: climate change. Our efforts to rebuild must include organizing to change our energy policy and stand up against corporations that profit from polluting our planet and destroying our environment. We must stand up for our human right to a healthy environment…
…In many of our communities, mobile home parks have taken the brunt of the damage. Mobile home parks are often built on flood plains rather than prime real estate—large communities of fragile homes unable to withstand the damage of a flood, located right in the path of danger. These communities are often marginalized and forgotten before and during times of crisis.”
Poor people in Vermont are not just connected to poor people all over the world in their vulnerability to climate change. Human rights to a safe and decent place to live, and to clean water and air, are jeaopordized; and the human rights principles of equity and universality are violated. The indigenous communities across the world whose lands and livelihoods are threatened (and have been destroyed) by massive water, resource extraction, and energy projects are telling their stories. Vermonters have their own story to tell about climate justice—and also a story to tell about forging solutions like participatory and accountable government, community renewable energy and conservation projects, and cooperation, resilience and mutual aid after Irene.
The “environment”—or “nature”, or everything that is around us and that we live within—is the source of life, giving us the water, air, and sunlight that powers existence. Securing and affirming our human rights in order to lead lives of dignity is meaningless if we degrade our environment so that it cannot meet our needs. Our human communities are inextricably linked to the natural systems and communities that we share this planet with, and the resources that they provide. Is a “healthy environment” one of our human rights? Do natural communities and ecosystems have rights, as humans do, by the very act of being? And how can people recognize and assert their “environmental rights”, or the “rights of nature” itself? Can we even adequately define or agree on what the environment or nature is, and is not, and how it ought to be “treated”? Does climate justice mean a human right to a healthy environment, or recognition of rights for Mother Earth?
I don’t know how to think and talk about human rights and the rights of nature as integrated, intricately linked, and essentially inseparable. How can we think and talk about the places that we live, and express the multitudinous relationships that comprise our human and natural communities? My intuition tells me that there’s a (probably simple) solution, and that it has to do with listening. Listening to our stories—about the places that we know, the people we know, about our own small place in the world, our human communities and how we fit within our natural communities. About the bonds and relationships that, above all, connect us.
It still feels like home here. Add that to the growing list of places!