What are the Rights of Nature?

By David Liners and Robert Karski, Photography by Eddee Daniel

“We envision a world where the inherent rights of nature are respected and protected, and where the natural world is recognized as a living, breathing entity with its own intrinsic value and worth. We believe that all living things must exist in harmony, and that the health and well-being of the many interconnected ecological systems of the planet is essential to the health and welfare of all beings, including humans.”

The above is the mission statement adopted in January of 2023 by the Wisconsin Rights of Nature campaign, which included people from Menikanaehkem (an organization from the Menominee reservation), WISDOM (the statewide network of mostly faith-based organizations working for social justice that JONAH is part of) and others who work for environmental justice. 

Long-eared owl; Sanctuary Woods in County Grounds Park, Wauwatosa.Long-eared owl; Sanctuary Woods in County Grounds Park, Wauwatosa.

“Rights of Nature” is both a legal theory and a worldview. It is a belief that ecosystems have inherent rights that should be protected by law. That is, the value of the natural world does not derive from its usefulness or economic benefit. Traditional laws, even environmental laws, view nature as a “resource” that can be owned, used, and even destroyed. Regulations have only sought to limit the amount and kind of damage that is allowed. For example, governments tend to regulate how much pollution can be introduced into a river by a given person or entity—it is about the rights of the polluter, not the rights of the river.

The Rights of Nature movement seeks to gain legal recognition for the rights of the natural world to:

  • Exist, thrive, and evolve;
  • Be defended against threats and harm;
  • Receive an appropriate remedy when it is found that those rights have been violated.

The Wisconsin Rights of Nature core team has worked throughout 2023 to develop materials and a website: rightsofnaturewi.org.

Most recently, the group worked with the Milwaukee County Board Committee on Community, Environment, and Economic Development to approve a Rights of Nature policy. The committee recently recommended the adoption of a resolution that would make it the board’s policy to support the “Rights of Nature” movement. If it is adopted, the board could become the first in Wisconsin to endorse the aims of the movement.

Next steps will include looking for more counties to adopt Rights of Nature resolutions. Our hope is that some municipalities and counties will actually give Rights of Nature the force of law, so that it can be a tool to defend the ecosystems we depend upon.

The long-term goal of the Wisconsin Rights of Nature campaign is to see those rights put into the state constitution. Such provisions already exist in some nations, and other states are working to change their constitutions. With that, when a river, lake, or other ecosystem is threatened with harm, citizens will be able to go to court on behalf of the endangered natural system to seek a remedy.

The campaign has great aspirations. But, in a world with out-of-control climate change, mass extinction, and water crises of all kinds, a paradigm shift is desperately needed. The plants, animals, waters, and terrains we share the world with need it. And, increasingly, we realize that humanity cannot long survive if we do not honor the natural world on which we depend for life.

A blaze of autumn color; Menominee Park, Waukesha County.

Here are two ways you can join in the effort:

The group has also begun to circulate a petition, to be able to show decision-makers that there is broad support for Rights of Nature. You can find the petition by clicking here: Rights of Nature Petition

Donor’s Corner

JONAH raised $9,299.27 (before expenses) from our Annual Celebration. This exceeded our goal of $5,000. Thank you to everyone who contributed! Especially our event Sponsors.

Our Yearbook contributions brought in $14,811.24 (before expenses). While our goal was $15,000, this is still quite remarkable. Thank you to all individuals and businesses who contributed! Check our new yearbook, there is a list of all the businesses that support JONAH’s mission through our yearbook.

Other fundraising updates: We were disappointed that our concert fundraiser was cancelled, but perhaps its rescheduled date will bring in even more ticket buyers. We will have updates for you on those numbers in January. We have clear goals this year that need funding: large task force projects and keeping our valuable staff!

A final note of how grateful we are to everyone who helped make these fundraisers a success. We are feeling great about 2024 – yet another way JONAH demonstrates that working together is how we get things done!