Legal Rights for Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

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Sigal Samuel:

"The pollution of Lake Erie had gotten so bad that it had taken a serious toll on their lives. The government, they felt, wasn’t doing enough to protect the lake. And so they wondered: What if the lake could protect itself?

The idea they hatched that night ultimately resulted in a special election, which had the citizens of Toledo voting February 26 on a very unusual question: Should Lake Erie be granted the legal rights normally reserved for a person?

The measure passed easily, which means citizens will be able to sue on behalf of the lake whenever its right to flourish is being contravened — that is, whenever it’s in danger of major environmental harm.

“There’s a lot of nervous energy,” Tish O’Dell, who was at the pub that fateful night, told me while traveling between different polling places in Toledo on the morning of the vote. She was on tenterhooks as she waited for the election results. “It’s like torture.”

If the stakes felt almost unbearably high for the activists who pushed for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, it’s because this was the first rights-based legislation aimed at protecting a whole US ecosystem: the lake, its tributaries, and the many species that live off it.

The law isn’t without precedent, though. It’s part of the nascent rights of nature movement, which has notched several victories in the past dozen years. Rivers and forests have already won legal rights in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, India, and New Zealand.

Activists in the movement often argue that the environment is the next frontier in humanity’s expanding moral circle: over the centuries, we’ve extended rights to more and more beings, so why shouldn’t nature itself be next?

They reject the conventional Western way of relating to nature — as property that is ours for the taking, as an object rather than a subject — but they recognize they’re going to have to work within the existing Western legal system if they want that to change." (