Lake Erie
The first law in the US to recognize the rights of an ecosystem is under threat.
By Tish O’Dell

14th June 2019

It should not come as a surprise that laws protecting elite profiteering come at the expense of laws that protect people and the planet.

But we never consented to allowing corporations to treat our lakes, rivers, farmlands and forests as resource colonies and dumping grounds for investor gains, nor to be governed by greed.

We certainly didn’t create and pay for the government and its agencies so they could legally permit poisons to enter our children’s bodies and destroy our future on this planet. Yet this is the system we live under.

Community rights

Some of us have had enough. We realize that we need to advance a movement to shift the bedrock priorities of the government.

We realize we must shift a culture that currently measures success in quantities of “stuff.” So we are taking back the law and using it to protect what is dear to us: our families, our homes, our communities.

We need laws that reflect the values and morals of the people, not just the elite.

This is the Community Rights Movement. In Ohio, individuals and communities have proposed and passed dozens of local laws that embody the paradigm shift we envision, with the additional support of the Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN) and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (Celdf).

In Toledo, Ohio, 61 percent of voters passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (Lebor). It is the first law in the US that specifically acknowledges the rights of a distinct ecosystem, securing the Lake’s rights to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.

Water health

Lebor reflects the values of the people who experienced suffering when they completely lost their water for three days in 2014 due to the Lake’s toxicity. It recognizes both Lake Erie and Toledoans’ right to be healthy. The people of Toledo understand their health is dependent on the health of Lake Erie.

Lebor also subordinates the “rights” of corporations to the rights of people and the Lake – a necessary and bold move given that our legislatures and courts have illegitimately granted “rights” to corporations through their lawmaking and judicial decisions. Under Lebor, life comes before corporate privileges and profits.

In response to Toledo’s adoption of Lebor, the Ohio House of Representatives passed their 2020-2021 budget bill and sneakily inserted language that would ban all existing and future Rights of Nature laws in the state. It is now before the Ohio Senate and they are expected to pass the bill next week and then it goes to the Governor to sign into law.

As Salon wrote: “Ohio [legislators have] at once both acknowledged rights of nature to exist, and taken them away.”

Soon after the House vote, a judge granted the State of Ohio intervention in a lawsuit brought by an agribusiness farm against Lebor. However, Ohio is intervening on behalf of agribusiness rather than Toledoans, arguing to overturn Lebor.

Direct harm

The state claims to be the ultimate and sole authority that can protect Lake Erie. But we’ve seen clearly that the state is not exercising its power on behalf of the people and the Lake.

Instead, we see the state using its authority to “regulate” how Lake Erie is used and exploited. They have allowed sewage and toxic dredge, fertilizers and pesticides, and oil and gas waste to be dumped into the Lake “legally.”

Lake Erie and the people have suffered direct harm due to “our” state government’s determination to act on behalf of corporate profiteers rather than people and nature.

Let’s think about that a moment. Toledoans realize no one is protecting them or Lake Erie. They realize their government is protecting profits over their children’s health.

So they protect themselves – through democratic action. They voted Lebor into city law. And then their purported government intervenes, insisting on its authority to “protect” the Lake and on the corporate “right” to pollute.

Illegitimate profits

Specifically, in the lawsuit, the corporate farm and our state government collaboratively argue that the people’s efforts to protect the lake are illegitimate.

The people of Toledo now realize, in fact, that it is their government’s actions that are illegitimate. Attempting to strip the people’s authority is what’s illegitimate.

Protecting polluters’ claimed “right” to profit is illegitimate. Allowing people to drink toxic poisoned water is unconscionable – as is interfering with communities’ unalienable right to life and the pursuit of happiness.

In a press statement attacking the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, Ohio Attorney General David Yost said: “Giving the Lake the right to sue is legal nonsense. Should the algae in turn have the right to answer Lake Erie’s lawsuit and counterclaim?”

Such simplistic logic finds it unfathomable that scientific conversations about the complexities of the natural world might take place within a courthouse.

Local democracy 

My response to the AG is: “Giving non-living corporate entities the right to sue is legal nonsense. Should the corporate form have the right to force pollution into communities trying to protect their air, soil, and water?”

It’s preposterous. Yet it happens daily. And when people tried to protect themselves, corporations were given standing in a US court to overturn the law while the people are barred from that same court.

We will not wait for individuals like Yost to wake up to the crisis we inhabit. Instead, we will take the government into our own hands.

The Ohio State Constitution reads: “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform, or abolish the same, whenever they may deem it necessary.”

Many Ohioans are engaging a concerted effort to exercise these rights to establish local democracy, community rights and Rights of Nature, and to inspire others across the continent to join with us.

Legal rights

As our governments continue to break the laws that govern life, we have a responsibility to alter or abolish them in such a way that moves law away from a reverence for commerce, and toward a reverence for life-giving systems and the laws of nature.

When tornadoes, hurricanes and forest fires hit, it is clear which law is superior. We must make haste, and, as quickly as possible, reorient the priorities reflected in our laws by establishing legal rights for the ecosystems upon which we depend.

A study out of Australia just reported that in just 31 years, 90 percent of mankind may be “annihilated” by the effects of the global climate crisis.

First, we must change minds, which Toledoans have accomplished with worldwide recognition and support for their Rights of Nature law. Then we change the law. But will it happen soon enough to save Lake Erie, the people of Toledo and the majority of life on this planet?

This Author 

Tish O’Dell is the Ohio organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. She can be reached here.