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  • The Standing of TreesWhy nature needs legal rights
  • Mari Margil (bio)

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There was a time, not too long ago, when environmental degradation was measured in bald eagles. Or giant pandas. Or polar bears. The dwindling numbers and possible extinction of what environmentalists call "charismatic megafauna" captured the public's imagination and provided majestic indicators that humans and nature were not in harmony. [End Page 8]

In recent years, attention has turned to smaller creatures. Researchers are racing to determine the causes of honeybee colony collapse. Wasp and moth populations are under stress, and bats are disappearing. As the rate of species decline accelerates, it's the pollinators and other unsung heroes that are gaining fame—the ones that are neither cuddly nor cute but are essential to maintaining the fabric of the natural world. With 2016 confirmed as the warmest year in recorded history (the third record-breaking year in a row), that fabric is wearing thin. Entire ecosystems are at risk. A recent New York Times headline declared, "Large Sections of Australia's Great Reef Are Now Dead." Massive bleaching and die-off of coral reefs worldwide threaten the habitat of upward of 8 million species.

As if all of that weren't worrying enough, this precarious moment has been met in the U.S. with the election of a president who called climate change a Chinese hoax. Rather than take a leading role in the fight to save the planet, the administration of Donald Trump seems intent on running the other way, going so far as to appoint Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt filed a litany of lawsuits against the EPA while serving as Oklahoma's attorney general and told CNBC in March he doesn't believe carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming. Within their first 100 days, Trump, Pruitt, and their allies in Congress moved to roll back the Obama administration's carbon restrictions, expand offshore drilling, and open up more federal lands and parts of the Arctic to further oil and gas exploration. And decisions made last year to halt progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL—two pipeline projects designed to expedite extraction of some of North America's most carbon-rich oil—have been reversed.

But waiting out the next four years hoping for a change in national leadership is not an option. We must push for nothing less than a transformation in the legal systems that govern humankind's relationship with the earth. Right now, a growing global movement is trying to shift both law and culture to recognize the legal rights of nature. This is essential to get us away from systems that treat the natural world as if it exists solely for human exploitation.


In the 2016 general election, voters in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 43 percentage points. Yet 10 years earlier, the Schuykill borough of Tamaqua, in the heart of eastern Pennsylvania coal country, made environmental history.

Residents had learned that it was impossible to protect the environment in Tamaqua under existing laws. To safeguard their community, they needed to change how the law considered nature, from treating it as property to understanding it as holding rights. In 2006, the Tamaqua Borough Council passed a law recognizing the legal rights of nature.

This was the first such statute not only in Pennsylvania or the United States, but in the world. Over the next decade, dozens of communities in 10 U.S. states would enact similar rights-of-nature laws, and now the trend is spreading across the globe. Ecuador enshrined the rights of nature in its national constitution in 2008. Bolivia passed its Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. In New Zealand, the indigenous Tūhoe people and the central government finalized a legal settlement in 2014 that secured "legal recognition in its own right" for the Te Urewera ecosystem—a former national park of more than 770 square miles. Earlier this year, the New Zealand Parliament with [End Page 9] the Whanganui Iwi people codified the legal status...


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