Defending Rights of Nature

  • Sister Pat Siemen (pictured) leads a seminar on earth jurisprudence at Barry Law School in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jennifer Szweda Jordan)

Some lawyers believe it’s time to stand for the rights of nature. They want to represent trees. They want to defend the rights of birds and lakes, and all of nature.
They’re trying to put into practice a theory called earth jurisprudence.
Jennifer Szweda
Jordan has the story:

Transcript

Some lawyers believe it’s time to stand for the rights of nature. They
want to represent trees. They want to defend the rights of birds and
lakes, and all of nature. They’re trying to put into practice a theory
called earth jurisprudence. Jennifer Szweda Jordan has the story:


A law seminar on defending the rights of nature is probably not what
you expect, at least not at first. The start of Roman Catholic Sister
Pat Siemen’s law seminar on earth jurisprudence is unorthodox and Zen
like:


“We’re gonna start with our reflection time. And what I’d like you to
do is close your computers.”


Siemen taps a handheld chime in a classroom at Barry Law School in
Orlando, Florida. She has the law students practice slowing down so
they’ll notice what’s going on around them in nature, and they’ll take
the time to really think about arguing for the rights of nature in the
courtroom.


The legal system doesn’t recognize the rights of nature just yet.
Courts interpret the Constitution as protecting needs and rights of
humans. So only humans, or say, groups of humans such as corporations
can sue. The rights of bunnies and trees aren’t entitled to a voice in
courtrooms. Siemen says the emerging field of earth jurisprudence wants
to change that.


Part of the whole thought of earth jurisprudence is that other beings
actually be given their rights -legislatively – to come into court
through the understanding that someone as a guardian or trustee stands
in their right.


Besides teaching this new area of law, Siemen directs the Center for
Earth Jurisprudence. The center’s just wrapped up its first academic
year. Siemen’s early legal work focused on advocating for people who
were poor, minorities, or otherwise marginalized.


Siemen moved in a different direction when she was influenced by
ecotheologian Thomas Berry. Berry says that if the animals and trees
had a voice, they’d vote humans off the planet. Siemen was shocked:


“I had spent my whole life – at least adult life – ministerially trying
to stand in positions of empowerment of others, and furthering the
rights of others and I had never once really thought about what it
meant to be – whether it would be rivers or endangered species – what
it would mean to have to live and exist totally by the decisions of
humans.”


Siemen was also influenced by University of Southern California Law
School professor Christopher D. Stone. Stone wrote an article entitled
“Should Trees Have Standing?” In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William
Douglass agreed that inanimate objects should have rights. But that
view hasn’t gotten very far in American courtrooms.


The idea that ecosystems should have legal rights is problematic in the
view of free-market advocates. Sam Kazman is General Counsel for the
Competitive Enterprise Institute. He calls the theory of earth
jurisprudence gibberish.


“It is impossible to lay out what is in the best interest of an
ecosystem unless you lay out just what you as someone who owns that
ecosystem, or enjoys it, or appreciates it from a distance, what you
hold important.”


In other words, the owner will decide what’s best for the ecosystem.
Some legal experts believe giving nature rights would take nothing less
than a constitutional amendment.


University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Tom Buchele disagrees. He’s an
environmental lawyer who’s used the standing concept – unsuccessfully –
in arguing for a forest. He says that the Supreme Court could, if it
chose, interpret the constitution as allowing nature to have legal
standing:


“There’s certainly nothing in the constitution that says a case or
controversy has to have a person as the entity. It’s just that current
case law doesn’t do that.”


Buchele and Siemen know changes in court decisions are a long way away.
But if teaching about earth jurisprudence can make tomorrow’s corporate
counsels, real estate lawyers, and governmental officials consider the
trees and the water in their work, Siemen feels she’ll have made some
progress.


And getting law students to think about the rights of nature along with
the rights of humans might be the start of the legal revolution Siemen
wants to see.


For the Environment Report, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.

Related Links

Mapping Wooly Mammoth Genome

Wooly mammoths stopped roaming the Great Lakes region 10,000 years ago. But a Canadian scientist has made a breakthrough in reviving their prehistoric genetic code. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

Wooly mammoths stopped roaming the Great Lakes region 10,000 years
ago, but a Canadian scientist has made a breakthrough in reviving their
prehistoric genetic code. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David
Sommerstein reports:


Scientists have studied ancient DNA in the past, but only in fragments.
Geneticist Hendrik Poinar got well-preserved DNA from a wooly
mammoth found in the Siberian permafrost. Poinar is an assistant
professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He and
colleagues at Penn State University have found a way to map the entire
mammoth genome.


“So, it’s really having a Kodak moment on the genes of the past, really,
as they were evolving, and being able to answer fascinating questions
about what makes a mammoth a mammoth, or what makes a Neanderthal a
Neanderthal, and how they differ from a human.”


So far, they’ve completed just one percent of the genome.


Poinar says the discovery begs tough ethical questions, like bringing
extinct animals back to life.


“Creating Pleistocene Park, basically.”


Poinar published the discovery in a recent issue of the Journal Science.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Recycling Nuclear Waste

Several Midwest universities will be part of a controversial
effort to improve the recycling of nuclear waste. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

Several Midwest universities will be part of a controversial effort to
improve the recycling of nuclear waste. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Spent nuclear fuel is piling up at many commercial nuclear power plants around the nation.
Scientists know how to re-process and re-use the fuel. but that’s currently not done
in the U.S. nuclear industry.


Michael Corradini is an Engineering Physics Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He says the re-use of nuclear waste can be improved… and he contends this is the moment to do
it.


“And with the need for energy… particularly electrical energy… this is a way to more efficiently
deal with our spent fuel.”


Wisconsin and other Big Ten universities with nuclear engineering programs will team up with
the University of Chicago for a recycling project at the Argonne National Lab in Illinois. But an
anti-nuclear group contends that trying to recycle more nuclear waste makes it more likely some
spent fuel will be made into bombs. The university scientists say safeguards will be taken to
prevent that from happening.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

A Closer Look at Mercury Hair Test

  • Hair is now a way to test people for mercury levels, as opposed to more invasive tests of blood and urine. (Photo by Anna Miller)

Health officials are experimenting with another way to gauge the level of mercury in people who eat a lot of fish. The only test sample needed is… hair. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach
reports:

Transcript

Health officials are experimenting with another way to gauge the level of mercury in people who eat a lot of fish. The only test sample needed is… hair. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Doctors can already test your blood and urine for mercury. Now, as a less invasive technique, some health officials can test the hair near your scalp for the toxic chemical. There’s some debate over the quality of the tests, the lab analyses, and over what a high test reading means. The federal health warning for mercury in hair is one part per million. But that’s for susceptible populations like an unborn fetus.


Jack Spengler is a professor of environmental health at Harvard University. he recently ate a lot of fish and says his hair tested out at 3 parts per million of mercury.


“But I’m not going apoplectic about it because I know if I just watch my consumption, I can moderate that over time… and there’s that safety margin…that I suspect I’d have to be much higher for much longer to really have symptoms. ”

Prolonged high levels of the most toxic form of mercury, methyl mercury can trigger various health problems in adults such as memory loss and cardiovascular damage.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

Scientists Speak Out Against Bush Administration

  • A group called Scientists and Engineers for Change is touring battleground states, campaigning against the Bush Administration. (Photo by Emanuel Lobeck)

A group of prominent American scientists, including 10 Nobel prize-winners, will bring a campaign against the Bush Administration to key battleground states in the region. The group says the President has misused and marginalized scientific research. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

A group of prominent American scientists, including 10 Nobel prize-winners,
will bring a campaign against the Bush Administration to key battleground states
in the Great Lakes. The group says the President has misused and marginalized
scientific research. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:


The political advocacy group formed last week is called Scientists and Engineers for
Change. Stanford University professor Douglas Osheroff is a member. He won the Nobel
Prize for physics in 1996. He says the Bush Administration is compromising scientific integrity.


“Having scientists reporting to middle-level bureaucrats who simply don’t have the background
to assess what the scientists are saying and he, of course, has essentially put a gag order
on scientists that are paid by the government directly. They are really not free to say what
they want.”


Osheroff also says President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s ties to the oil industry have
led them to minimize evidence of climate change.


Members of the Scientists and Engineers for Change will speak in Battleground states
like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania this month.


The group has no direct ties to Senator John Kerry’s campaign. The Bush campaign hasn’t
responded to the group’s claims.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

States Go It Alone Against Greenhouse Gasses

Some Midwest states are highlighted in a new report that looks at what states are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

Some Midwest states are highlighted in a new report
that looks at what states are doing to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach
reports:


The federal government wants no part of international
treaties aimed at reducing pollution linked to global
warming. But a report by the Pew Center On Global Climate
Change says about one-third of the states have taken significant
steps on their own. The study mentions Minnesota’s effort to
plant trees that may help reduce energy consumption and absorb
carbon. Wisconsin is praised for requiring large polluters to
report their carbon dioxide emissions.


University of Michigan professor Barry Rabe offered the study. He
says the budget deficits faced by many states may stifle additional work.


“And there may be an unfortunate irony here that at the
moment when political interest in doing something to
reduce greenhouse gases is greatest, the fiscal capacity to
fund some of these programs and implement them may be at a very,
very low point.”


The Pew Center says the state efforts are no substitute for a
comprehensive national plan. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium,
this is Chuck Quirmbach reporting.