Commentary by Susan Crowell / email@example.com
In late February, the citizens of Toledo approved an amendment to the city’s charter form of government called the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, granting citizens there the right to sue polluters of Lake Erie.
We reported on the ballot initiative when it was approved, as well as on the lawsuit challenging the LEBOR measure that was filed by Wood County grain farmer Mark Drewes.
But there’s a backstory that deserves some attention, too.
Who or what is behind the bill of rights? The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit law firm based in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, which identifies communities that are ripe to advance local ordinances to legalize community rights and the rights of nature.
The firm has supported similar local ordinances, often focusing on agriculture or the oil and gas industry. In Toledo, the legal defense fund connected with Toledoans for Safe Water, a group that formed following events in August 2014 that led the city of Toledo to issue a drinking water ban.
The idea marries “home rule” — meaning local communities, not states nor the federal government, know best how to govern their communities — with environmental activism, and would return civil, political and environmental rights to the local level. They challenge corporate rights with binding local laws, sponsoring “democracy schools,” that teach citizens how to get involved.
The proponents believe in the “rights of nature”: that ecosystems have an inalienable right to exist and flourish (without human intervention), calling it “liberation ecology.” Basically, they believe nature has legally enforceable rights of its own.
There are more far-reaching implications to the “rights of nature” movement, than just celebrating and preserving natural resources. If you read more about CELDF founder Atty. Thomas Linzey, some would say his ultimate goal is dismantling corporate and private property rights.
Peggy Hall, an associate professor of agricultural and resource law at Ohio State University, has talked to judges and fellow attorneys across the country about the LEBOR issue, and says there’s definitely agreement that the amendment is unconstitutional. It conflicts with various state and federal laws, and also violates measures in both the state and federal constitution.
Ohio’s constitution grants cities the right of self government, but if that home rule reaches beyond a city’s limits and interferes with something that’s of general concern for the state’s residents, that’s not something the city can control. Lake Erie, as a natural resource, doesn’t belong to the city nor its residents and the state of Ohio is actually charged with protecting it.
So if it was doomed to fail, what’s the ultimate goal?
Beyond the courtroom, the goal is simply to increase awareness of the concept of “rights of nature” and “home rule,” and the proponents don’t have to win the case to win that battle.
A good controversy is key to elevating your cause — just ask the folks at PETA, who wrote the book on engaging in publicity stunts to reach the masses.
“We are all now talking about it,” Hall said during the Ohio Dairy Producers Association annual meeting April 4. “They want attention. I think that’s their primary goal.”
The veiled, death-by-a-thousand-cuts tactic reminds me a lot of the Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS, too.
You keep chiseling away, wounding in small but steady ways, none of which are fatal. But if continued, the blows finally add up to a slow and painful death. Meanwhile, the farm world that failed to get engaged wonders “how did this happen?” or “why didn’t someone do something?”
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is taking advantage of the publicity to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to “protect Lake Erie and grow the Rights of Nature movement,” according to the news release about the campaign.
In time, Hall says, they want to change everything that’s stopping this — they want to change the law that says the state can pre-empt this local right. They’re building momentum, membership and money, so when they have enough people behind this concept, they can go to legislators and say “we all want change.”
“They’re headed in that direction and it’s a long view,” the attorney added. “That’s something we all need to pay attention to.”
Related commentary: Susan Crowell: Farmers must get out in front (April 25, 2019)
Related content: Ohio Ag Law Blog: Lucas County sues U.S. EPA over western basin water quality
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