Rights of Nature in Santa Monica

Santa Monica may follow Pittsburgh's footsteps in codifying fundamental rights of nature.

In the Citizens United case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that corporations have the same rights as citizens. The ruling already has changed the face of electoral politics in America, with unlimited campaign contributions by corporations for communications now apparently a First Amendment right. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously stated in Iowa last August that corporations are persons.  And the Occupy movement has continually spoken out about the disproportionate influence of Big Business in the United States.

In response to the corporate personhood issue, and the lack of progress statewide and nationally on a wide variety of environmental issues, the Santa Monica Task Force on the Environment worked with Global Exchange, Earthlaw and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to develop a draft Sustainability Bill of Rights.  The draft includes elements of the Rights of Nature ordinances that have passed in Pittsburgh and numerous towns concerned about the impacts of industry on local water supplies.

The draft also includes elements of Santa Monica’s renowned Sustainable City Plan, which was first approved by city council 17 years ago. And finally, the draft includes fundamental environmental rights that every person should have.  These are a modified version of the environmental bill of rights I recommended back in 2008 in this blog.

From my perspective, we all have fundamental rights to clean air, water and land. We have the right to sustainable water and energy supplies.  We have the right to sustainable food and waste management systems. We have a right to a natural climate that hasn’t been changed by greenhouse gas emissions. And we have the right to natural communities and ecosystems. Despite California and federal environmental laws, those rights simply are not protected as often as they should be.   All too often, air, water, soil and toxics regulations are thousands of pages long with more loopholes than you can count.

Also, no Congress has passed a far-reaching environmental law since the 1990 Clean Air Act, and the current Congress may be the most hostile towards environmental protection since EPA’s inception.  We can’t wait for Congress or our state legislature to solve our environmental problems.  A new approach is needed.

The Sustainability Bill of Rights is a new vehicle for environmental protection that emphasizes personal rights over corporate rights in a relatively simple manner.  To date, Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Plan has been voluntary.  The draft Sustainability Bill of Rights creates accountability to implement and comply with the Sustainable City Plan.

Also, the draft makes it clear that corporate rights should never supersede our basic environmental rights. Somewhere along the way, our regulatory system has failed in protecting these fundamental rights. This Bill of Rights reminds us why environmental protection is so important: to safeguard human health, our quality of life and nature herself.

Tonight, Santa Monica College will host a discussion on the draft at 6:30 p.m. in Room HSS 165.  It will be the first public discussion of the ordinance that affirms our fundamental rights and includes numerous requirements and metrics that, if achieved, will protect those rights for the people of Santa Monica.

The draft will be presented Jan. 24 at the Santa Monica City Council with the hopes that the city will continue its national environmental leadership by requesting the development of an ordinance based on the draft Sustainability Bill of Rights.

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