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EDITORIAL: Rights, justice must extend to environment

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We gaze out and see what is ours for consumption, ours for ownership. We claim a callous superiority as if we rule over the dominion with absolute distinction. But in doing so, in accepting the culturally ingrained perception that our relation to nature is one of master and slave, conqueror and conquered, we ignore our duties of justice and our intertwined, codependent existence. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” 

As we continue to destroy the soil upon which this nation is grounded, a movement blossoms in defiance. The new frontier of human moral development aims to extend beyond the humanistic constraints of ethics recognizing that justice is not solely isolated to the human experience. Animals and nature are not simply objects of compassion, but rather subjects of ethical and moral consideration. 

All complex forms of life — as Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago said — have the potential “to flourish as the kind of thing that it is.” This potential and capability of flourishing, though different from human flourishing, still endows an entitlement to not have this potential suppressed or injured. 

For Nussbaum and this moral movement, the purpose of social contracts and social cooperation is not merely to establish social institutions, but rather it is “to live decently together in a world in which many species try to flourish.”

We cannot ignore the consequences of human activity on the world and the solution is not to isolate ourselves. We cannot simply leave the problem alone. We are obligated to fulfill moral and political commitments to the protection of the world. 

We must acknowledge that our current path of environmental destruction is a path of mutual destruction. We tend to consider environmental catastrophes such as oil spills as accidents, as isolated phenomena emerging without detection and warning. “But when does the word accident become inappropriate? When does a consistent pattern of inevitable disasters point to a deep-seated crisis that is not only environmental but profoundly social?” said Murray Bookchin, an ecological theorist. 

Ecological problems originate from our actions and social problems. We can no longer be a nation that accepts a corporation as having personhood while our lakes grow contaminated, rivers grow polluted and plants stop growing. Toledo, Ohio voters decided in a special election this past February that Lake Erie must be granted the legal rights normally reserved for a person. This was the “first rights-based legislation aimed at protecting a whole U.S. ecosystem: the lake, its tributaries, and the many species that live off it,” according to Vox. 

The passage of the Lake Eerie Bill of Rights is “part of a growing number of efforts to carve out legal status for elements of nature, including rivers, forests, mountains and even wild rice,” according to The New York Times. In the dissenting opinion of the 1972 Supreme Court case Sierra Club v. Morton, Justice William O. Douglas predicted that the question of whether nature has rights will return as “contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” 

Internationally, “four rivers were granted legal rights: the Whanganui in New Zealand, Rio Atrato in Colombia, and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India," according to The Revelator.

For survival, the paradigm of rights and justice is shifting as nature poses to take a righteous place as an entity in our legal system through a rights-based approach to environmentalism. Environmental justice saw two victories in our legal system in last week alone. 

The U.S. District Court in Montana ruled that the Interior Department under former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke acted illegally when it sought to overturn a 2016 federal ban on coal mining on public lands. More than “40% of all coal mined in the United States comes from federal land, and when burned it generates roughly 10% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions," according to The New York Times.

While the current White House Administration has pushed to open federal lands to the destructive forces of the fossil fuel industry, 2020 candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has in contrast proposed opening the lands to the renewable energy. Positions on climate change must be the litmus test for any elected official. 

Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit mandated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally takes action to fulfill the demands from environmental groups to ban chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide. Success in the legal system and extending the right to justice demands grassroots supports and democratic reform for real progress to be made. 

Environmental justice is not isolated from the movements of racial and economic justice since the “ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it … economic, ethnic, cultural and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today,” Bookchin said.

Earth Day was not simply a day to flaunt picturesque vistas from your latest vacation. It was meant to be a day of reevaluation, recognition and action. There is no room for moderates and inaction on this moving train. The time for change is now. 

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority   of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters  do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or  its staff.

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