Do forests and rivers possess standing to sue? Do mountain ranges have substantive rights? A recent issue of The Judges’ Journal, a preeminent publication for American judges, alerts the bench, bar, and policymakers to the rapidly emerging ‘rights of nature’, predicting that state and federal courts will increasingly see claims asserting such rights. Within the United States, Tribal law has begun to legally recognize the rights of rivers, mountains, and other natural features. Several municipalities across the United States have also acted to recognize the rights of nature. United States courts have not yet addressed the issue, though in 2017, a Colorado District Court dismissed a suit claiming rights for the Colorado River ecosystem. Meanwhile, fourteen foreign countries have extended standing and substantive rights to nature, and that number is growing quickly. This international trend matters because US Supreme Court Justices, including Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, have argued that American courts should note and address cutting-edge legal developments in foreign jurisdictions.
This Article provides the key foundational and theoretical basis for recognizing the rights of nature. It explores the intellectual and precedential basis for accepting nature’s rights, surveying developments in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and providing the only comprehensive survey of all legal systems that currently recognize such rights. It traces the geographic, theoretical, and practical development of the idea of nature’s rights, illustrating that human thought regarding the intrinsic value and rights of nature has evolved significantly since our common law on the issue was established. This Article thus provides the intellectual, moral, and philosophical grounding for students, clerks, judges, and lawmakers facing questions about extending rights to nature.
Ochoa, Christiana, Nature’s Rights (February 24, 2021). Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law (forthcoming).