Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature


"The people in the communities we work with recognize that the structure of law was never intended to protect the environment but, instead, to regulate its exploitation. They recognize that, in order to change the existing structure of law, a movement for nature’s rights is necessary, and it’s time we heard their voices and joined their cause."


Bioneers Series X - Program 05-10


Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature



00:00               Underwriting narration (00:13)


Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is made possible in part by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative producing local food with the future in mind since 1988. Learn more at


00:13               Welcome (00:05)


00:18               Suggested Teaser (00:18)


The people in the communities we work with recognize that the structure of law was never intended to protect the environment but, instead, to regulate its exploitation. They recognize that, in order to change the existing structure of law, a movement for nature’s rights is necessary, and it’s time we heard their voices and joined their cause.


00:36               Macy (00:09)


00:45               Billboard (00:28)


01:13               Theme music out (00:10)


01:23     NARRATION 1 (1:57)


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” These famous words in the U.S. Declaration of Independence rang as a beacon of liberty in their day. The revolutionary founders asserted that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are inalienable rights.


Less well known is the fact that in 1776 “equality” and “legal rights” referred to white men of property and wealth – only they could vote, only they had – quote - “legal standing.”


Civil rights were denied to Native Americans, who became wards of the government, African Americans as slaves were literally property under the law, and women, who were the legal property of their husbands.


At the time, the founders considered these logical extensions of a Constitution that was based at its core on property rights.


In 1886, shortly after African-American slaves gained the rights of personhood, the Supreme Court gave business corporations the same rights – 40 years before women won the right to vote. Since that time, corporate personhood has been the law of the land.


But, of course, corporate personhood is a legal fiction. Unlike a person, a corporation is not made of flesh and blood. It does not die a natural death. It has no feelings or heart or relatives, and no conscience.


Yet under U.S. law, corporations enjoy the same human rights described in the Bill of Rights - and flesh-and-blood citizens still find our rights systematically subordinated to corporate rights.


Now in the dawn of the 21st century, people are asking: What about the rights of nature?


Join us for ”Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature” with Mari Margil and Thomas Linzey.


My name is Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.


3:00              Music fade out           (00:10)


03:34               NARRATION 2        (00:30)


What are the rights of nature under a property rights Constitution? Do rivers, mountains, whales – or ecosystems - have inalienable rights that guarantee their interests? If nature had rights, what would it demand from us? And what are our human rights worth if we destroy the healthy functioning ecosystems on which all life depends?


In the 21st century, is it time to move from a Declaration of Independence to a Declaration of Interdependence?


04:06                 Linzey 1          (00:19)


Forever in this country, as well as in Western law, nature has been held to be property. Nature is property. If you own a ten-acre piece of land, you have a deed to it, the law authorizes you, in fact, encourages you in some ways to actually destroy that piece of- the ecosystems on that piece of land.


04:22         NARRATION 2 (00:37)


Thomas Linzey, a Washington state-based activist and attorney, is co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. CELDF is a nonprofit public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to grassroots groups and municipal governments. It develops creative legal strategies for democratic control over corporations.

Linzey is part of the innovative team that leads "Democracy Schools" across the United States. He and his colleagues provoke critical thinking about corporate personhood and sound the call for the rights of nature in the United States and beyond. Thomas Linzey spoke at a recent Bioneers conference.


04:59               Linzey 2          (01:31)


We’ve tried to build an environmental movement on the basis of nature as property.  That’s what we’ve done. And, so, the environmental regulations and laws are all based on Congress’ authority under something called the commerce clause.yep And, in fact, when Congress has passed the clean air act and the clean water act and the national environmental policy act and even the endangered species act, they’re all done under the commerce clause authority, which essentially says that nature is commerce.


And, so, we’ve treated nature as property and commerce for so long. Western philosophy and law treats it as property. It’s really a shakeup when people start saying, well, maybe that rightless thing should have rights, at the very least the right to exist.


06:29               NARRATION 3 (00:28)


After all, we’ve done this before in American history. In the 1800s, it took a grievous Civil War to guarantee the rights of African Americans in the Constitution. The suffragists fought for women’s rights for 100 years before women won the right to vote in 1920. Who will emerge to stand on behalf of the rights of nature in the 21st century? What will the front lines look like? Again, Thomas Linzey.


06:56               Linzey 3 (01:33)


So, for example, if somebody pollutes the Spokane River, if you want to step in and try to actually help the Spokane River, first thing you have to get by is this concept of legal standing. You have to either live on the river or have some kind of financial interest that’s been affected by the pollution of the river. When you go into courts, the first question a judge asks is what’s your financial interest in the river, doesn’t see the river, just like it didn’t see the slave, just like it didn’t see the woman in court – doesn’t see the river, it sees you. And the inquiry is how much you have been damaged by the pollution of the river, and then you’re awarded the damages. It doesn’t go back to the river, ‘cause the river’s not seen. It’s just like the damages paid to the husband. The wife never saw it ‘cause she was property. Or paid to the slave owner ‘cause the slave was property. The slave never saw it. And, so, in much the same way, nature and ecosystems are held in that pocket right now as property.


What’s fascinating is that over a dozen municipalities in the United States today working with our organization have passed local laws that declare that ecosystems have rights to exist and flourish of their own, and that anyone in the community can step into the shoes of the ecosystem to protect it or vindicate it, and damages have to be measured by the damage to the ecosystem and have to go back to restoring the ecosystem itself. So, it’s a fundamental shift in the law: twelve municipalities -- coming to the same conclusion that we can’t protect nature if nature is only property under the law; it has to shift status somehow -- have passed those laws into being.


08:29               NARRATION 4 (00:21)


Like previous popular movements, granting rights to ecosystems may seem outlandish or impossible. Yet, challenging corporate personhood is helping communities wake up to how corporate rights are on a collision course with environmental wellbeing and with the rights of ordinary citizens, such as those in Nottingham, New Hampshire.


08:48               Margil 1 (00:27)


The people of Nottingham had fought for seven years to stop USA Springs from coming in and privatizing their water. They appealed permits to the State Department of Environmental Services. They circulated petitions. They lobbied their state legislature. They held protests, and they filed law suits. They did everything right through conventional environmental organizing but, somehow, they still weren’t winning.


09:14        NARRATION 5 (00:27)


Mari Margil works with Tom Linzey as the associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

She recalls how the citizens of neighboring Barnstead   caught wind of the struggle in Nottingham. At a Democracy School in Barnstead, a town official asked why the state environmental agency seemed more interested in granting permits to corporations to take their water than helping people in the community to protect it. Mari Margil.  


09:41               Margil 2 (02:28)


Turns out, as we cover in the Democracy Schools, there is a reason why that is.

Over a hundred years ago, the first regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was created at the request of the railroad corporations, the Wal-Marts of their day. As the U.S. attorney general Richard Olney told the president of Burlington Railroad back in 1893, the agency “is or can be made of great help to the railroads. It satisfied the popular clamor for government supervision at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal.” He went on to say that the agency acts as “a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people.”


As one Barnstead resident put it, it seemed as though nothing had changed in over a hundred years. To the folks in Barnstead, it seemed that if they took the path of Nottingham, it was only a matter of time before a corporation came along and took their water. Because of that, Jack O’Neil and the other select board members asked us to draft an ordinance that would ban corporations from coming in and siphoning off their water, and which offered the best and highest protection for their aquifer. They also wanted the ordinances to strip corporations of their ability to override the community’s law making. We worked hand in hand with them to draft an ordinance and, like Blaine’s, the Barnstead ordinance recognizes that ecosystems have legally enforceable rights, ban certain corporations from carrying out activities the community doesn’t want and, lastly, strips corporations of constitutional protections. Adopting the ordinance at a town meeting by a vote of 135 to one, Barnstead became the first community in the nation to ban corporations from privatizing their water. [applause]


12:09     Narration 6 (00:13)


Folks struggling to protect their water in neighboring Nottingham soon called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. They wanted an ordinance based on the one written by the citizens of Barnstead.


12:20               Margil 3 (00:48)


Gail Mills, who with her husband, Chris, became leaders in the campaign to pass the ordinance, explained their decision to turn their back on the environmental regulatory system that they’d fought in for so long. She said, “We have to go out and make our own history and not let others define it for us.”


In March of last year, the people of Nottingham made history. They voted to adopt the ordinance at their town meeting, banning corporations from privatizing their water, recognizing the inalienable rights of ecosystems, and stripping corporations of constitutional rights. [applause]


13:07     Narration 7 - Lead to Mid Break (00:54)


Mari Margil and Thomas Linzey’s work is spreading quickly in New England as communities are increasingly finding their water threatened by Nestlé and other corporations.


With the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, another 100 small towns in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia have passed ordinances to put democratic decision-making into the hands of their citizens.


In 24 states across the country, 4,000 graduates of Democracy Schools are building this movement to limit corporate power over citizens and over nature.


When we return, a small South American country is the first to write earth justice into its national constitution.


This is “Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature.”


I'm Neil Harvey. You are listening to The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.


14:01            MID BREAK (00:29)


14:30     NARRATION 8 (1:18)


You can download this and other programs at the radio pages at


In his 2003 book, “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice”, South African environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan asserts that human beings are actually equal members of a planet-wide community that includes the ecosystems that make all life possible. Without clean water, clean air, healthy soil, fertile habitats and sufficient wildlife, every member of the Earth community suffers, including us.


Cullinan advocates for a new body of law to counter the commodification and corporatization of nature. Its first priority is to protect the ecological community in which we live.


If nature had rights, might a mountain spring use its legal standing to keep its watershed flowing free? Would a wetlands stop a Wal-Mart? What would happen if people could have legal standing on behalf of nature and give voice to the voiceless?


Spokane, Washington is the first mid-size city in the United States with a citizen movement organized enough and strong enough to attempt to re-write its governance laws to limit corporate control and legalize the rights of nature.


Again Thomas Linzey.


15:52            Linzey 4          (02:35)


Spokane’s an interesting place. It’s rural. It’s fairly conservative, second largest city in the state of Washington. And, eventually, what happened was the folks that went through the democracy schools then started to clump together and said let’s build a campaign here based on some of these principles. Their main, key issue in Spokane was that Spokane has 27 neighborhoods, just like any other city or most other cities. It’s broken into neighborhoods, so you have a defined neighborhood that you live in. The unfortunate part is that even though there are those neighborhoods and there are elected neighborhood councils – people in the communities come together as residents and form their own neighborhoods councils, so there’s 27 of them as well – that under the city’s plan of governance, their charter in Spokane, that those neighborhood councils have no binding authority whatsoever. They’re advisory only. So they do things like dump passes, you know, to get appliances to the dump. They do good stuff like that, neighborhood activism, but they have no binding authority.


And, so, when Wal-Mart wanted to come in to one of these neighborhoods a couple of years ago, wanted to come into a place called Southgate neighborhood, you had a thousand residents up in arms about what was happening. They attempted to make decisions to say Wal-Mart can’t come in here. What they found was they had no binding authority to do anything.


So, just like our municipal governments back east had learned, hey, we can’t make decisions. In Spokane, the neighborhood councils started saying, What are we, mere window dressing? You know? And if a development we don’t want can come into our neighborhood and we don’t have anything to say about it, then is that really democracy?


And, so, the neighborhood council started coming together with these graduates of the democracy school and other groups started to come in like labor union locals, like the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Iron Workers Union, the letter carriers and the plumbers and pipe fitters and a bunch of different labor union locals started getting interested in this project, as well, saying, Well, if neighborhoods are gonna change the structure of law to actually give themselves binding decision making authority, what about all those labor issues that we’ve been dealing with over the past 50 years that we haven’t been able to get. Maybe we should get involved in this because maybe what’s going to come out of it is something that could change our issues, as well.


And then the environmental folks – the Sierra Club, other organizations active in Spokane around the Spokane River protection issues – then came in, and pretty soon we had 24 organizations in Spokane, people that have never sat down at a table across from each other. You had the Sierra Club sitting across from these conservative neighborhood council reps. You had the United Food and Commercial Workers sitting across the table from the neighborhood councils. You had the river protection folks…I mean, you get the picture.


18:27     NARRATION 9 (01:01)


The citizen group Envision Spokane spent a year crafting a 9-point Community Bill of Rights addressing issues such as the environment, medical care, low-income housing, prevailing wages and apprenticeship rights on jobs, as well as neighborhood control over local development. The community coalition put Proposition 4 on the 2009 November ballot. It aimed to be the first legally binding, enforceable community Bill of Rights in the U.S. which would recognize Rights of Nature and address corporate constitutional rights.


An instant flash flood of corporate opposition saturated the electorate with half a million dollars’ worth of “free speech.” Much of it was out-of-state money, from the likes of the Home Builders Association in Washington, DC, and the northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.


The vote was 75 per cent against Prop 4 Envision Spokane viewed the glass as one-quarter full – a remarkable advance coming from empty. The coalition publicly vowed to keep fighting to successfully amend the City charter.


19:38     Linzey 5 (00:58)


What’s happening in Spokane right now is the cutting edge of actually using government to make what has previously been reserved as private economic decision making left to a very few number of people. And what folks in Spokane are saying is that system has caused severe problems in Spokane, including one in three families being without adequate health insurance, including that the Spokane River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, including the fact that locally owned businesses have no legal protections against out of city corporations coming in and mashing them down.


And, so, it’s a recognition that that system, which got us to this place, is not the system that these folks are going to turn to to solve it, that they’re actually turning to a different system, and that system is actually asserting democratic authority to make some of those private economic decisions that have previously been reserved to that very small elite who has made those decisions for every community


20:36     Narration 10 (00:42)


But after the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporate spending on elections constituted free speech, the battle lines became even more starkly drawn.


And it’s not only the American system of property law that denies the rights of nature. CELDF has answered calls for legal assistance from as far away as Nepal and Turkey. In 2007, the group met with delegates of Ecuador’s constitutional assembly who were in the process of writing a new constitution.


CELDF assisted the delegates to draft a rights-based system of environmental protection in Montecristi, Ecuador. Again Mari Margil.


20:38               Margil 4          (04:43)


For centuries, the people and landscapes of Ecuador have been exploited by outsiders and, in recent years, it was revealed that Texaco had dumped more than eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste water into the Ecuadorian rainforest.


Now, we were not experts in Ecuadorian law, but there are similarities which cut across international lines. There, like here, the law treats nature as property. We told the delegates stories of Blain and Barnstead and how the people in those communities understood that without fundamentally changing how we treated nature and law, they could not protect it, and how we worked with them to draft and adopt new laws recognizing legally enforceable rights of ecosystems.


We also had the opportunity to meet with the president of the constitutional assembly, Alberto Acosta. We thought that we’d have an uphill battle trying to explain to this former minister of energy and mines why communities in the US were adopting laws recognizing ecosystem rights, but before we had a chance to say anything, he told us that, to his mind, the law treats nature as a slave with no rights of its own. We had found a meeting of the minds in one of the most unlikely, but most critical of places. We were asked to draft language for the delegates and, over a series of months, they shaped and expanded that language, and just over a year ago, the people of Ecuador approved the new constitution becoming the very first country in the world to recognize in its constitution rights of ecosystems to “exist, persist, regenerate and evolve.” [applause]


In 1973, Professor Christopher Stone penned his famous article Should Trees Have Standing? He explained this idea of rights of nature and why it’s so hard for us to think about those without rights, the rightless, as possibly having rights, and why every time a movement is launched to recognize rights for the rightless, like the abolitionists did and the suffragists did, the movements and the people involved are deemed treasonous and radical. Stone writes, “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 – us being, of course, those of us who hold rights.”


The people in the communities we work with recognize that the structure of law was never intended to protect the environment but, instead, to regulate its exploitation, and that they must write new structures of law, maybe writing their own constitutions to replace it. These are not people who call themselves activists or, for that matter, environmentalists, but they recognize that, in order to change the existing structure of law, a movement for nature’s rights is necessary, and it’s time we heard their voices and joined their cause. [teaser]


The Lorax asked, Who speaks for the trees? [laughter] The people of Ecuador, Blain, Barnstead, Nottingham, and a dozen other communities have answered, We do. And now I ask all of you, Will you speak for the trees? [Audience members say yes. applause] For, if not you, then who? And if not now, then when? Thank you. [applause]


25:24     NARRATION 11 (00:20)


Mari Margil and Thomas Linzey, advocates for earth justice. Speaking for the trees – for the web of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For a 21st century Declaration of Interdependence.


“Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature”.


25:44     Music fade (00:12)


25:56   Bioneers X - Program Close/Credits (1:50) [need to paste in updated credits]


27:46               Closing Underwriting (00:13)         


Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is made possible in part by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative producing local food with the future in mind since 1988. Learn more at


27:59               Closing Underwriting announcement #2 (00:13)


28:12               END

Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature | THOMAS LINZEY and MARI MARGIL

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Earth Justice: Corporate Rights vs. The Rights of Nature


Posted by Bioneers on Apr 23 2013 in category 2010 Bioneers Radio Series

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