Climate Change
Freedom, Rights, and the Environment

Freedom, Rights, and the Environment

Author: Bob DeAngelis

We are very fortunate to live in a country that values and protects our “freedom” .  But what does that mean as it relates to valuing and protecting our health and the environment?   Do people have a right to clean and safe air, water, and food?  Do future generations have the same rights?  Are there limits to those rights?  What about people or corporations whose actions infringe on these rights?

When we think about our government, and its role, here are other questions to ponder:  How can they protect our rights?  How do we keep special interests from influencing our regulations?  Is our government doing all that it should?  How about other governments around the world?  Does it really make sense for each country (or state or county or town) to make up its own environmental regulations when the ecosystem is one integrated environment so that actions taken in one place can have global consequences?  

There are different philosophies regarding the environment.  In broad and simplistic terms, some people feel humans have the right to control all aspects of the world and modify it however they choose.  Others feel we should respect other living things and the balance of nature. Still others believe that we must learn to  live within our ecosystem, otherwise we will be bringing on our own destruction.  A great book that covers these philosophies with real life case histories is The Wizard and the Profit by Charles C. Mann.  It is helpful to know where you are on this spectrum.

In New York State, a new proposition (Proposition 2 on the ballot) was just approved by the voters.  It is a constitutional amendment to the New York State Bill of Rights that states that “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment” . The amendment, proposed by Manhattan State Sen. Robert Jackson, mirrors similar rights already enjoyed by residents of Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts.

To really maintain a “healthful environment” for future generations, though, our concept of “rights” may have to extend well beyond those of humans.  Did you know that in 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to recognize the “rights of nature?”  “Rather that treating nature as property under the law, Rights for Nature articles acknowledge that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”  (from Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature)

The United States has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any large nation.  We are viewed by others as wasteful and uncaring, and we have allowed the air, water, and environment for many of our citizens to become far less than “healthful”.  We have an opportunity to be true leaders.  But it all starts with you and me – making and driving change.  One last question:  Should we consider incorporating environmental rights in our country’s Constitution?


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