Opinion: Rights of Nature Is the Logical Extension of the American Legal System

By Britt Gondolfi

Anyone who has seen the egregiously violent and inaccurate Disney film Pocahontas (1995) may have heard the Indigenous value that “every rock, tree, and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.” But does Nature also have a right to have her day in court?

The American legal system is primarily based on a straightforward moral theory: You break it, you buy it. A person or entity who has been legally wronged can sue the alleged perpetrator; the public benefits from these suits because they keep bad actors in check and allow victims to recover from their losses. The Rights of Nature movement has cleared the way for Nature to literally follow suit, seeking damages and relief for her undue losses. Business as usual has and will continue to cost us more of the natural world than we can afford to give. 

Critics complain that the Rights of Nature movement just opens the door for never-ending lawsuits and siphoning money from the companies that rely on altering the natural environment for profit. If people can sue in the name of the trees, that opens the door for people filing injunctions against every development they fear will permanently and tragically alter and harm the natural environment. These complaints encompass the entire point of the Rights of Nature movement. Speaking for the trees in legalese should be easier. Giving people the legal standing to file lawsuits and plenty of them in the name of nature is the name of the game. And when nature is harmed, demanding consistent repayment from those that cause the damage is how our civil court system creates justice. It is only fair that the current extracting economy should have to pay the price of losses taken by nature. Nature on her own cannot draft a petition, employ counsel, or have an assessment of damages done, but that should not impede her capacity to have her injuries assessed in a court of law.

Fairness aside, Rights of Nature laws are wildly unpopular in our American legal system. Cities that have taken a stand have been sued and attorneys who have brought forward cases have been threatened with sanctions. Despite the pushback from the American legal system, Tribal Communities are using their sovereign governments to assert that Nature has a right to thrive. 

Given that these communities are often on the frontlines of environmental devastation, from radioactive waste discharge sites, uranium-poisoned wells, flooded bayous, poisoned cancerous skies and more, it makes sense that Tribal Nations would take the risk of furthering the Rights of Nature movement. The stakes are higher when the violence is at your doorstep, and tribes that have legislative and judicial branches have the authority to pass laws and enforce them. 

With every environmental calamity, Nature cries for an advocate. Indigenous communities continue to be the first to answer that call, and Indigenous wisdom teaches that the only way to survive as a people is to ensure that Nature thrives. From controlled burns to tending the wild to managing diverse networks of clans in complex biospheres from swamps, deserts, to plains, to forests, Indigenous people have centuries of experience in preserving Nature’s abundance. For that reason, there is no better community in the United States to plead the Rights of Nature than this country’s First Peoples. When settlers first landed on this continent, they needed the indigenous inhabitants to teach them how to cultivate the land, navigate, and survive the new complex ecosystems. We now need to look to Indigenous wisdom to navigate how our laws will adapt to the ecosystem destruction we are witnessing in the 21st century. Needless to say, the EPA isn’t cutting it. 

Our political-legal system desperately needs to rethink itself, but it won’t without being provoked. The federal courts have clearly spoken, telling us that Nature cannot have what was so easily given to corporations: the right to be a plaintiff in court. This disdain for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in court might be one of the top reasons Tribal Governments should act in unison and stand in direct contradiction to the common law of this country. 

Tribal Governments along with Tribal Courts have the power to do something the United States Court system has cruelly refused to do. Tribal governments wanting to exercise sovereignty have the choice to follow the legal lead of the nation that has forced tribes into the status of being “domestic dependents” or use the governmental power they have to open the room of the courthouse for Mother Nature. 

Our legal system allows corporations and humans to make “prayers for relief” after suffering an injury. Nature prays too, we just aren’t listening. With every fire, flood, oil spill, deforestation, landfill spilling into the sea, and fracking waste seeping into natural aquifers, Nature prays for relief. The Rights of Nature movement is working to see that Nature can one day be a plaintiff and have her case heard. 

The line between harm to humanity and harm to Nature is non-existent. Despite our enormous capacity to create and destroy, we humans are not separate from our natural environment. If the mountains could speak, they would say that no quantum of money would fill the hollow voids the mines have left. If the species lost to habitat destruction could speak, they would say that no picture books will replace them. If the rivers could speak, they would cough up mountains of oil, waste, and trash and ask us what we expect to give our children to drink. If the Lakes could speak, they would say that the birds and fish are starving and the water is not safe for your children to swim in. If the trees could speak, they would say that they need legal standing and that we need them more than they need us.

Britt Gondolfi, born and raised in Southeast Louisiana, is a law student, community organizer, future state legislature candidate, and mother. Since 2017, Britt has worked with the Bioneers Intercultural Conversation Program facilitating programming for students from Atlanta and from Bogalusa and Houma, Louisiana. While in Law School, Britt has supported the Bioneers Rights of Nature initiative by researching the intersection of tribal sovereignty and federal Indian law and facilitating workshops on the Rights of Nature at the Ho-Chunk and Mashpee Wampanoag nations.

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