With no planet B and life dependent on our resources, this is a great question. Do we allow corporations that mine and pollute our resources rights over the health and fate of our planet for profits if they do not practice responsible and renewable resource extraction?
Corporations Have Rights. Why Not Rivers?
By JULIE TURKEWITZ SEPT. 26, 2017
DENVER — Does a river — or a plant, or a forest — have rights?
This is the essential question in what attorneys are calling a first-of-its-kind
federal lawsuit, in which a Denver lawyer and a far-left environmental group are
asking a judge to recognize the Colorado River as a person.
If successful, it could upend environmental law, possibly allowing the redwood
forests, the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Nevada to sue individuals,
corporations and governments over resource pollution or depletion. Future
lawsuits in its mold might seek to block pipelines, golf courses or housing
developments and force everyone from agriculture executives to mayors to rethink
how they treat the environment.
Several environmental law experts said the suit had a slim chance at best. “I
don’t think it’s laughable,” said Reed Benson, chairman of the environmental law
program at the University of New Mexico. “But I think it’s a long shot in more ways
The suit was filed Monday in Federal District Court in Colorado by Jason
Flores-Williams, a Denver lawyer. It names the river ecosystem as the plaintiff —
citing no specific physical boundaries — and seeks to hold the state of Colorado
and Gov. John Hickenlooper liable for violating the river’s “right to exist, flourish,
regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.”
Because the river cannot appear in court, a group called Deep Green
Resistance is filing the suit as an ally, or so-called next friend, of the waterway.
If a corporation has rights, the authors argue, so, too, should an ancient waterway
that has sustained human life for as long as it has existed in the Western United
States. The lawsuit claims the state violated the river’s right to flourish by polluting
and draining it and threatening endangered species. The claim cites several nations
whose courts or governments have recognized some rights for natural entities.
The lawsuit drew immediate criticism from conservative lawmakers, who
called it ridiculous. “I think we can all agree rivers and trees are not people,” said
Senator Steve Daines of Montana. “Radical obstructionists who contort common
sense with this sort of nonsense undercut credible conservationists.”
The office of Mr. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, declined to comment.
The lawsuit comes as hurricanes and wildfires in recent weeks have left
communities across the country devastated, intensifying the debate over how
humans should treat the earth in the face of global climate change.
Mr. Flores-Williams characterized the suit as an attempt to level the playing
field as rivers and forests battle human exploitation. As it stands, he said, “the
ultimate disparity exists between entities that are using nature and nature itself.”
Imbuing rivers with the right to sue, he argued, would force humans to take
care of the water and trees they need to survive — or face penalties. “It’s not pie in
the sky,” he said of the lawsuit. “It’s pragmatic.”
Jody Freeman, director of Harvard’s environmental law program, said Mr.
Flores would face an uphill battle.
“Courts have wrestled with the idea of granting animals standing,” she wrote
in an email. “It would be an even further stretch to confer standing directly on
rivers, mountains and forests.”
The idea of giving nature legal rights, however, is not new. It dates to at least
1972, when a lawyer, Christopher Stone, wrote an article titled “Should Trees Have
Mr. Stone had hoped to influence a Supreme Court case in which the Sierra
Club wanted to block a ski resort in the Sierras. The environmental group lost.
“But Justice William Douglas had read Stone’s article,” Ms. Freeman wrote,
“and in his famous dissent, he embraced the view advocated by Stone: that natural
objects should be recognized as legal parties, which could be represented by
humans, who could sue on their behalf.”
That view has never attracted support in the court. But it has had some success
In Ecuador, the constitution now declares that nature “has the right to exist,
persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” In New Zealand, officials declared
in March that a river used by the Maori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island to
be a legal person that can sue if it is harmed. A court in the northern Indian state of
Uttarakhand has called the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, to be living
The Colorado River cuts through or along seven Western states and supplies
water to approximately 36 million people, including residents of Denver, Salt Lake
City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angeles. It also feeds millions
of acres of farmland.
It is as famous for its power and beauty as it is for overuse. Scientists expect
that increased temperatures brought on by climate change will cause it to shrink
further, leaving many people anxious about its future.
Mr. Flores-Williams is a criminal defense lawyer known for suing the city of
Denver over its treatment of homeless people. Deep Green Resistance believes that
the mainstream environmental movement has been ineffective, and that industrial
civilization is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. The group’s task,
according to its website, is to create “a resistance movement that will dismantle
industrial civilization by any means necessary.”
Mr. Flores-Williams responded to criticism that his argument, if successful,
would allow pebbles to sue the people who step on them.
“Does every pebble in the world now have standing?” he said. “Absolutely not,
“We’re not interested in preserving pebbles,” he added. “We’re interested in
preserving the dynamic systems that exist in the ecosystem upon which we
Doris Burke contributed research.
A version of this article appears in print on September 27, 2017, on Page A14 of the New York edition with
the headline: Plaintiff in Federal Lawsuit Over a Violation of Rights Is the Colorado River.
© 2017 The New York Times Company