Greendeer and fellow environmental activists gather at US Rights of Nature Symposium

By Tim Wohlers

Environmentalists from around the world attended the 1st U.S. Rights of Nature Symposium in New Orleans last month, to discuss the future of environmental protection in the United States. 
“It’s a real privilege to share the stage with these speakers,” said Australia’s Michelle Maloney. 
The conference took place on Oct. 27, at Tulane Law School. 
Dean David Meyer welcomed everyone to the college, and explained why the setting of their conversation was so significant. 
“This is not only an important time to take up this topic,” Meyer said.  “But this is an important place for those conversations to happen.  Louisiana is a place of unsurpassed splendor in terms of the beauty and bounty of nature, but also unsurpassed in terms of the vulnerability of nature.” 
He cited the extensive coastal erosion that has afflicted the region, and the dramatic land loss that has resulted from it.  He said such things make the topic seem less abstract, and much more concrete in nature. 
He wished everyone success in the work that lay ahead. 
Moderating the day’s discussion were members of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a public-interest law firm that works with communities throughout the country in drafting environmental-protection laws. 
Associate Director Mari Margil introduced the speakers on the first discussion panel, which focused on the limitations of conventional environmental law. 
Executive Director Thomas Linzey broke the ice, reflecting on constraints of the legal system that he had encountered. 
“The first eight years of the work of our law firm consisted mostly of appealing on behalf of community groups wanting to stop a particular corporate project,” Linzey said. 
“And we were left powerless to stop them.  Those eight years led us to reexamine the work that we had been doing, and to question the way in which environmental protection is currently done in the United States.” 
Director for Environment at Wallace Global Fund, Richard Mott had similar experiences during litigation efforts in which he was involved in the 80s. 
“We were just limited by our tools,” Mott said.  “Many of the laws that we were working with predated an understanding of the enormity of the crisis.” 
Attorney Tammy Belinsky of the Environmental Law Group shared one of the day’s few success stories, but explained how hard it was to win the case.   
“This authority had been falsifying data for six years,” Belinsky said.  “And that’s what it took for us to be successful.” 
After the discussion, the panel held a quick Q&A session. 
An environmental-science professor at Viterbo University, Julie de la Terre provided some input.  She argued that the root of the problem is an economic system that commodifies natural resources. 
“What we’re really dealing with is unfettered capitalism,” de la Terre said.  “We can enact these laws and adjudicate, and do whatever we think we need to do.  But unless we can change the very bedrock of civilization…we’re still going to be ending up in these rooms every year.” 
Maloney agreed. 
“You can’t change the law without bumping into every other part of society,” Maloney said.  “You have to engage with economic activity.” 
Before lunch, keynote speaker Karenna Gore gave a moving speech that touched on many topics.  She addressed the nation’s obsession with material goods and the latest in technology, and talked about how placing so much value on those things has shaped us throughout our entire lives. 
The former vice president’s daughter said she believes that the demand for natural resources would go down if man could just alter his way of thinking.  
“If we change our definition of wealth,” Gore said, “it may be the biggest source of wealth creation in human history.” 
She insisted that now is the time for such a change. 
“This is the time for a movement,” Gore said.  “We have the innovative, explorative spirit to begin to see the great wealth around us as part of a living, breathing reality to be shared in communion.  And we also have the grit and bravery to take the risk to fight for it.” 
The second panel of the day offered three different perspectives – an international perspective, a United States perspective, and an indigenous perspective. 
Sharing the international perspective was climate-change activist Natalia Greene, from Ecuador.  In 2008, her country became the first nation to adopt the Rights of Nature into its constitution.  She talked about some of the obstacles that her people had faced. 
“Law 101 told us that a subject of rights is a person…and maybe a corporation,” Greene said, “but not nature.” 
She said changing that mental framework is a shared responsibility, and that more people need to become educated about the law to do so. 
“We expect communities and others to really get empowered by rights of nature,” Greene said.  “But we also need to teach.” 
Sharing the United States perspective was Grant-Township resident Stacy Long, who serves on the town’s Board of Supervisors.  She told the story about she and hundreds of other residents did all they could to stop an injection well from being located in Grant Township, but to no avail. 
“The Board of Supervisors adopted a community bill of rights with an ordinance prohibiting the permanent storage of fracking waste in Grant Township,” Long said.  “And then in October of 2015, a federal judge ruled against Grant Township and stripped out the language in the ordinance that prohibited the injection well.” 
The legal battle has not ended, and could even result in bankruptcy for the small town.  However, Long said it’s worth the fight. 
“Grant Township’s value lies in its environment,” Long said.  “So rather than submitting to the state and industry, the people of my township are just saying no.” 
One of the individuals to talk about the indigenous perspective was Bill Greendeer of the Ho-Chunk Nation.  In 2016, Greendeer presented a resolution at his tribe’s annual General Council meeting that had proposed the adoption of Rights of Nature into his people’s constitution. 
“I put a resolution together because I’m the guy that does the nature thing,” Greendeer said. 
The resolution passed by an overwhelming majority, but the constitution has yet to be amended.  Greendeer claimed that the only people who voted against the resolution were ones that had no idea what Rights of Nature were. 
He said that only education could help the average person better understand environmental laws.  He encouraged everyone to read up on the topic, and called for a communal effort. 
‘We’re all in this together,” Greendeer said.  “We have to stick together to protect the planet.” 
The third and final panel was entitled “Defending and Enforcing the Rights of Nature.”  CELDF’s Thomas Linzey moderated the discussion. 
He said that a new legal approach is needed, when it comes to fighting against corporate powers. 
“If the current system was working,” Linzey said, “we wouldn’t be here today to talk about new ways of protecting nature.” 
In pursuit of change, his organization has been advocating the Rights of Nature in dozens of communities across the country. 
“A new form of law is advancing that recognizes that nature possesses its own legal rights,” Margil said. 
“More and more people, communities, and governments around the world are recognizing that existing environmental legal systems which authorize human use and exploitation of nature are not able to protect nature.  These environmental laws are giving way to new legal frameworks.” 
CELDF has hoped that Rights of Nature will be adopted by small-scale governments before spreading to the state and, eventually, national level.  Members of the organization said they would continue to work with communities across the nation until that day comes.