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:


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

“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

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

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

“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

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

States Slow to Pump Up Ethanol

  • As the price of gasoline rises, many states are looking for alternatives. One of those alternatives is the ethanol blend, E-85. But, some states (like Ohio) are not keeping up with the trend. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The federal government is focusing new attention on research and development of ethanol. Some states – especially those in the corn belt – are getting into the act too. The GLRCs Karen Kasler reports:


The federal government is focusing new attention on research and
development of ethanol. Some states – especially those in the corn belt –
are getting into the act too. The GLRC’s Karen Kasler reports:

Now that gasoline is near or above three dollars a gallon, ethanol seems
to be everywhere. The Renewable Fuels Association says more than a
third of the gasoline in the U.S is blended with ethanol, an alcohol based
fuel made with the sugar found in corn and other grains. A 10 percent
ethanol/gasoline blend can be used in every vehicle on the road, but
many politicians and consumers are very interested in the 85 percent
ethanol blend – E-85 – as an alternative fuel for cars and trucks. But
getting E-85 to drivers who have cars which can use it isn’t that easy.

Tadd Nicholson with the Ohio Corn Growers Association, says part of
the problem is the big oil companies have banned E-85 pumps under the
canopies at branded stations.

“Oil companies don’t own ethanol production. They own oil refining,
and so that’s their profit center and that’s where they get their fuel and so
they have a lot of control over that. They don’t own ethanol. I don’t
know why. They should, but they aren’t in the ethanol ownership
business yet. I say ‘yet’.”

The governors of Wisconsin and Minnesota have asked the big oil
companies to change their E-85 policy, and some states have been
encouraging independent gasoline dealers to put in E-85 pumps for a few

But others, such as Ohio, have been lagging behind in the trend. Only
recently has Ohio launched a new energy action plan that sounds
ambitious, when it comes to providing access to ethanol to drivers.

LeeAnn Mizer is with the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“The goal is to triple the amount of E-85 pumps available to Ohio
consumers by the end of 2006.”

That sounds like a lot – but it’s not, says Dwayne Seikman heads up the
Ohio Corn Growers Association.

“Tripling’s a nice start. There’s six… that would go to 18. But with over
150,000 vehicles in the state of Ohio, that’s not enough to cover the

Since corn is Ohio’s top crop… it would seem to make sense. But unlike
other states in the corn belt, there are no ethanol plants in operation in
Ohio, though there are at least three under construction, and ethanol
supporters say the state is way behind its neighbors when it comes to
getting ethanol pumps at service stations.

Sam Spofforth is executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio.

“I’ll be honest, we’d like to see a lot more and we think a lot more is
certainly very possible. Indiana, they’re up to about 25 to 30 stations.
Illinois has over a hundred. Minnesota has almost 200 at this point.
Even places like Arizona are putting in E-85. They don’t make any corn
in Arizona. We think Ohio can do a lot more.”

Some critical studies have found that ethanol has a high energy cost with
low benefits – ethanol supporters say that’s been debunked. Whether
ethanol makes economic or ecological sense or not is still not certain.
But one thing is certain – cars using ethanol blends need to fill up more
than those using regular unleaded gasoline.

Robert White with the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says that’s
offset because typically ethanol-blended fuels cost less than regular
unleaded gas.

“Well, no doubt the fuel economy is the only negative with E-85, and we
tell folks that is where the price differential hopefully is there to make
E-85 use a wash.”

Part of the reason the price is lower is because the ethanol industry is
heavily subsidized by the government. Those lower costs would quickly
disappear if the subsidies were removed. Because ethanol is cleaner
burning, many support further development and use of the renewable

General Motors is increasing the number of vehicles it produces that can
burn ethanol. Ford already produces E-85 burning cars and trucks.
However, many believe for ethanol production to be truly efficient,
farmers will have to start growing crops such as switch grass for ethanol
because corn requires too much fossil fuel based fertilizer and other
inputs to make it a permanent solution.

For GLRC, I’m Karen Kasler.

Related Links

A Backyard Encounter

Covering the wilderness experience during the cold winter months has
taken Knight-Ridder outdoors writer Sam Cook on snow-shoeing and camping
trips throughout the Great Lakes region. But in a
sampling from his latest book "Friendship Fires", Cook points out that
it’s not necessary go any farther than your own backyard to share a
winter encounter: