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Citizens allowed to sue on behalf of Lake Erie when it’s being polluted (vox.com)
116 points by howard941 55 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments



This movement is a little stupid, or at best trying to capitalize on headline-grabbing aspects of it that appeal to laymen. In the best case, I would give them credit for using "clickbait"-level tactics to get attention on the real cause to be advocated.

Objects, geographic features, even animals, don't have rights of their own. Their protection is advocated for by people, for the benefit of people, under our laws. We fight to protect things like these because we value them as people. They don't have inherent rights. Rights come with responsibilities. It's a person-centric view, but what else do we have in our current system? The Constitution talks about individuals, not objects.

I think their time would be better spent advocating for laws that are formulated correctly in the legal framework. Though boring, more effective. I give this low odds of survival in the courts. Why not spend the energy on something that will succeed? This only will leave people disappointed when it gets overturned.


We could say the exact same thing about corporations, too, that you said about objects, geographic features, and animals.

The reason it makes sense to treat those things as if they were a natural person under the law is because it allows for natural people to group their common interest into a single legal entity that is separate from any individual member.

So, take the lake eerie thing. Sure, you could write a law to protect the lake that focuses on natural people and corporations, but if something happens, say an oil spill or algae bloom, then each individual who thinks they are be affected by it would be bringing suit. in the case of a lake oil spill that's possibly hundreds of separate lawsuits for the exact same incident.

Or, the lake could be granted juridical personhood and the law making the same protections could be written based on that personhood. If the same theoretical oil spill or algae bloom happened, there'd only be a single case instead of quite possibly millions.

And that doesn't even begin to affect issues of standing and actual harm. If I'm some poor schmuck getting water from downstream of Lake Eerie and there's an algae bloom or oil spill, it's going to have to be massive for me to be able to prove i've actually been harmed by the spill and that the harm is enough to justify the costs of hiring a lawyer. Otherwise whoever caused the spill is going to either get the case dismissed because i can't prove i was actually harmed because of their spill, or they're going to argue that my actual harm is something like 86 cents because that's how much extra it costs for water filtration, so even with treble damages I'm entitled to less than the price of a large drip coffee.

And even if you think, well, individuals shouldn't be bringing any sort of suit for something like that, it should instead be via the government, the government itself is just another instance of a non-natural person.


Corporations, and the government for that matter, are made up of people. Lakes, rivers, and forests are not. So there is that difference.

The article itself is an editorial piece with scant details. Who is sued? One example is given of a lawsuit on behalf of a river in Ecuador, in which "companies" were sued. Who represents the river? The government? Who is paid the damages? The government? Are trial lawyers involved? What is their fee? Surely no potential for shenanigans there </sarcasm>.


"Corporations, and the government for that matter, are made up of people."

And I'd emphasize, made of people who can have responsibilities. We can regulate a corporation, and the result is real people have to do real work or make real changes somewhere, or the regulation is meaningless. Treating a corporation like a big person makes sense in at least some ways.

You may legislate all you like, but the river is not going to fill out an environmental impact statement in advance of its next flood. It's not a person. It can't have responsibilities.


A river is made up of those who live along it, a farmer that dumps manure into it is effecting it - similarly the community downstream has certain rights when it comes to their waterway, they may be farmers that purchased access to the waterway with their lands, or residents that purchased their property with an expectation of being able to swim or even a home owner who is pursuing damages against the flood of a river where an insurance company needs to determine if an upstream private party was responsible or the river itself.

Basically, I agree with your statement that a river doesn't have personal rights or responsibilities but those people effected by mal-treatment of the river (including, if no one else advocates, a state/local government) should have the right to protect against unrestricted mistreatment.

Nothing that isn't a natural person should be treated like a person, everything outside of an individual should have separately delineated rights afforded to it depending on the type of object it is. We can sanely fix this problem (and citizen's united) by just agreeing to shift some definitions.


Ugh, those aren’t rights though. There are also already protections for rivers enforced by governments (who have the rights to do so).


Corporations are people. People work for corporations and hold roles. Lakes, rivers support people. Lakes can't sue but people could.


> Corporations are people.

Corporations are entities made up of people that have incorporated. Corporations are therefore supported by people. If the people aren't there, a corporation will fall.

Forests don't need people, people need forests. To me, that would make them more important to protect than a corporation. For this reason, suing on behalf of a river seems quite reasonable to me if a corporation can, too.


> Corporations are entities made up of people that have incorporated.

No, corporations are legal persons created by law, with regard to which which other people (natural, non-natural legal, or a mix) are granted certain rights and privileges, by law.

They aren't made up of people they are made up of laws.


The problem isn't the importance but the practicalities - it is abundantly clear who has standing to sue on behalf of corporations and they have common interests.

Who can claim to speak for a forrest and not be mere sophists? A hunter, hiker, and a lumberjack all have different interests in a forest. Unless it is privately owned in entirety there is nobody who can claim standing unless the standards are anarchic enough that literally anyone can sock-puppet the entity.


> Forests don't need people, people need forests.

Citation needed, your orders of magnitude are probably off.

If we literally burned every tree that probably would be catastrophic, but most large corporate entities have created more net good than a given forest or lake.

We rely on corporations for food and comfort, we rely on forests for ... maybe oxygen? But from a rationalist perspective, the ideal would be to identify how much forest cover is required and then convert the rest of the land to productive use.

People don't choose to live in forests and visit cities. They choose to live in cities and visit forests. Cities are literally 100% corporate supported, from the infrastructure under the ground to to the tops of the skyscrapers. As far as I'm concerned, people who don't live in cities are disadvantaged by their lack of access to corporate support.


The trend to ask for citations when logical reasoning could be easily applied, is a sort of modern disease. Citations can be proven wrong with time. Logic reasoning is the right stuff.

"Forests don't need people". They are firmly rooted here since Devonian age. We came much, much, later. This part is pretty obvious.

"People need forests". Well, maybe not all people. Some people live in the deserts and never see a forest. Some live of goats that graze shrubs, other can rely on their fine petroleum resources, a great substance that keeps alive all cities in the world, and is made of old fores... oh, wait.

You certainly could build a skyscrapper without wood, but not without steel beams. To made steel beams you need molten steel, and to be able to molt steel you need a big bonfire made of carbon that is another thing made with... forests

You still could have a not so modern, old style city. They are made of wood.

No forests? Say bye to the tires of your car (and mountain bike)

And many cities are built around water courses, that is often another forest subproduct...

There is also the not minor issue of the oxygen, of course.

¿Could people live without forests? Yes probably, but our long term survival would be much more fragile.


Yowza. Lots to unpack here.

> most large corporate entities have created more net good than a given forest or lake

"net good?" Perhaps, avoiding the strictly philosophical, you intend to invoke an economic argument wherein the market value of forests or lakes is defined within the bounds of the free market? Such that "large corporate entities'" high economic valuation is "better" than that of a forest? In this context, given that the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest outside of Seattle (many trees, many lakes) is valued at $1 Trillion [0], this seems like a bit of a reach. But, even then, why make the comparison, especially since...

> we rely on forests for ... maybe oxygen

Wildlife habitat, drinking water filtration, CO2 sequestration, timber production, refugia against climate change, biodiversity reservoirs

Or, if you like: solitude, silence, wild spaces, discovering one's place in an improbable universe

> from a rationalist perspective, the ideal would be to identify how much forest cover is required and then convert the rest of the land to productive use.

"Productive Use" is a dangerous phrase. There's much to say, but I'll let someone else say it.

In an essay ("The Trouble with Wilderness" [1]) by William Cronon, which I believe you all would enjoy reading, after he finishes dismantling the myth of wilderness in America, he writes: "one of my own most important environmental ethics is that people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature––as wilderness tends to do––is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior."

Further: "Learning to honor the wild––learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other––means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means the deep reflection and respect must accompany each act of use, and means too that we must always consider the possibility of non-use. It means looking at the part of nature we intend to turn toward our own ends and asking whether we can use it again and again and again—sustainably—without its being diminished in the process."

> As far as I'm concerned, people who don't live in cities are disadvantaged by their lack of access to corporate support.

As far as I'm concerned, people who do live in cities are disadvantaged by their constant immersion in a world where perverse incentives for corporations (shareholder expectations, government contracts, CEO salaries) define the very environs in which a city-dweller spends their days, rather than the natural world which cradled humanity for hundreds of thousands of years prior to Google and Facebook, to Bechtel and Skanska.

[0]: https://www.wilderness.org/articles/blog/what-intact-forest-... [1]: https://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wildernes...


That trillion dollar valuation is nothing short of complete bogus though. It’s based on a bunch of handwavy extrapolations that gave them a number beteeen 159 billion and a trillion. They also include a bunch of secondary effects to get there (the forest wouldn’t sell for anything close to that).

It would be like saying Amazon is worth 100 trillion because of all of the time and money it has saved society.


> "net good?" Perhaps ... an economic argument ... [but] "Productive Use" is a dangerous phrase.

You're not wrong, but even from a purely philosophical perspective it is not at all obvious that solitude is a greater good than the structures that make up human civilisation - I won't make an argument that forests are bad, but I'm perhaps more making the point that "forests are more important than corporations and deserve greater legal protection" is an opinion that stands in defiance of political reality, and is only supportable with some specific and frankly fringe definitions of good. I'm pretty sure that any definition of good that privileges human wellbeing over animals is going to agree that corporations are a greater good than forests and lakes (notwithstanding that we obviously need some forests and lakes, and that I'm not about to start buying property next to a polluted lake).

We have pretty good polling on what people value in practice. There are people who honestly care more about forests, but they are a minority to the people who downright fear solitude and want more community and human built environment. Biodiversity in particular is a lovely idea until it meets humans in practice, where we actively choose to extinguish it wherever we gather in groups. Very much a NIMBY phenomenon.

> As far as I'm concerned, people who do live in cities are disadvantaged by their constant immersion in a world where perverse incentives for corporations...

The better hospitals, places of higher learning, food and entertainment tend to be in cities. It is quite hard to argue that those things are less important than harking back to the cradle of the natural world that was awful and primitive. A society built promoting the natural world over human endevour would be horrific, barbaric and very hard to defend as more moral or 'good' in any meaningful sense.


> Lakes can't sue but people could.

People can sue, for damages to the people, not to the lake.


I believe what you are advocating for already exists in the form of class action suits. I don’t think your framework works, becuase damge to the lake is not the same thing as damage to people who interact with the lake, so the interest of those people are not really aligned with the lake.


I think the legal system is fundamentally different than other systems like scientific research, but people think they are similar.

If you sort of say the motivation of the scientific system is to discover "truth", looking back at history you might discover there were a bunch of course corrections to address problems where we fooled ourselfs.

In the same way, I can imagine some course corrections in the legal system to address "externalities" that prevent some problems from being solved.

The corporation was probably the most important invention of all time.

I wonder if similar legal fictions might solve the tragedy of the commons and other problems.

I was told once "Remember. We have a legal system, not a justice system".

I don't think anyone can say we shouldn't try to solve that problem.


Bring up a good point on downstream effects of an oil spill. Really a better legal unit in this instance would be watersheds (which includes the lake and all its upstream rivers and lands that contribute to the lake), but people are less knowledgeable about what a watershed is.


> Objects, geographic features, even animals, don't have rights of their own.

That, or the converse argument that there can be anything that has rights of its own, is here presented as an axiom that requires no further proof. However, I don't think it's that self-evident.

If rights come with responsibilities, why do e.g. the mentally disabled have rights - what responsibilities to they confer to them? When someone can suffer, why would they not have a right to minimise that suffering, even if they're "just" an animal?

The Constitution (I assume the US one) was made up by humans, and any rights it confers were conferred by humans. If humans also confer those rights to, say, lakes, those should theoretically be just as valid as others, I'd presume?


interesting point.

it's also interesting, though, that governments and law enforcement are completely willing to treat objects as individuals when they want to confiscate it. my understanding of many civil forfeiture laws is that they "charge" the object with drug trafficking, or whatever, and then take it when the object doesn't mount a vigorous legal defense.

(i'd be happy to be corrected by someone who understands this better than me; I'm just pointing out that it's a related legal issue)

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_forfeiture_in_the_United... :

  Civil forfeiture begins when government suspects that a 
  property is connected with illegal drug activity, and files 
  a civil action:[20]

  The government simply files a civil action in rem against 
  the property itself, and then generally must prove, by a 
  preponderance of the evidence, that the property is 
  forfeitable under the applicable forfeiture statute. Civil 
  forfeiture is independent of any criminal case, and because 
  of this, the forfeiture action may be filed before 
  indictment, after indictment, or even if there is no 
  indictment. Likewise, civil forfeiture may be sought in 
  cases in which the owner is criminally acquitted of the 
  underlying crimes ...

  — Craig Gaumer, Assistant United States Attorney, 2007[20]


Rights are somewhat arbitrary and given by law for things that lawmakers think should be rights such as the right to bear arms, or whatever. There are practical problems in giving rights to a lake in that you need human representatives of it to go to court but beyond that it doesn't seem that silly. While you say animals don't have rights, in the UK you can go to prison for cruelty to animals which seems quite similar to a right not to be treated cruelly.


> Objects, geographic features, even animals, don't have rights of their own.

Humans don't either, in the most basic sense. The universe really isn't concerned with our well being. We can argue that our government offer us rights, but the natural world is about to test the validity of that right soon.

We have the option of giving rights to natural objects and spaces, and arguably we have done so with the national Park system. I think we can, and should, do better than this. What form that takes I am uncertain of, but I am hopeful.


Canada has a similar law under the Fisheries Act.

You can pursue a private prosecution if you can find a court willing to hear your case.

You would get half of the fine (if any).

The only problem is that the Crown can take over the case if it wants, so you may lose out on your investment if your case is too good.

Other laws let you pursue private prosecutions, but you don’t get a cut, so there’s little incentive.


>private prosecutions

Is this another name for civil law suit ?


This seems... abusable. I get that's it's going to be great for the lake and everything, but given the clusterfuck of legal problems that come from corporate entities being given legal rights I'm hesitant about giving it to more entities that aren't actual humans.


we interact with hundreds if not thousands of entities every day that aren't blood and flesh humans. Government institutions, think tanks, firms, cars, vending machines, internet routers, all of which in many ways are subject to regulation and have specific laws set out for them and whatnot.

It's not surprising, because we need to manage all the things we interact with and depend on on a daily basis.

Honestly a lake is a pretty trivial and important entity because it's a basic part of human ecosystems.

It's going to get a lot more interesting when we're going to have more discussions about chatbots, fake news, and other non-human agents in similar situations.


This conception is far saner than other "rights to natrual entity" schemes and I must praise for being theoretically workable and fully consistent with other intangibles in property rights - those can be taken too far but there is a valid purpose to them.

Prior "ecological entity rite" proposals I heard were emotional appeals from true believers which sounded superficially good on the surface but made no damn sense. Who exactly can speak for the river with any authority? You say the river wants to be clean and unfished? I say it wants to be pretty and colorful with mine run-off! Those being affected by it have a perfectly solid claim to damages ahead of time and can help bring many parties to the table for nuance.


As a Michigan resident, I would love it if we were able to create a "council of the Great Lakes", made up of all states that share coastlines with one of the 5 lakes, including Ontario and possibly Quebec, and federal representatives from US and CA. The goal would be to align each political unit with environmental regulations that affect the lakes, since what happens to one inevitably affects the rest, especially the downstream lakes Erie and Ontario.

One example would be to prevent things like different regulations between the US side and CA side that allow for barges to dispose of semi-toxic sludge they collect in the CA side of Lake Huron, since they have to clean it properly in the US side per EPA regulations. No citations for the above but I've heard rumors.

Even more serious is the underwater Line 5 Oil Pipeline that runs parallel to the Mackinac Bridge. A spill in that region affects the entire region, yet only MI and the Trump-led EPA have any decision power as to what to do about it.

Natural bodies transcend political units, and environmental regulations need to do the same, as pessimistic as I am about how realistic that is.


> ... I would love it if we were able to create a "council of the Great Lakes", made up of all states that share coastlines with one of the 5 lakes, including Ontario and possibly Quebec, and federal representatives from US and CA.

International Joint Commission https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Joint_Commissi...



It sorta exists:

the Canadian/U.S. Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries.

And the Great Lakes Fishery Commission: http://www.glfc.org/index.php


When you got a fishing license in PA, you used to get a booklet on the bodies of water, with a small table of which you cannot eat the fish from.

Now, there's a small table listing the ones that are safe. (Or perhaps there are none nowadays? I haven't had a fishing license in years...)

The pollution of Lake Erie is a travesty.


Damn, this is awesome.


I think it could have been done in a better way avoiding the personhood issue some people have: set up a regional (necessarily international) authority made up of various stakeholders which looks after the interests of the lake.


But that regional authority would have to be a legal person, too, in order to do anything via the legal system. This doesn't avoid the problem of personhood at all, so much as it changes who/what the nonnatural person actually is. Like, say we did it your way. We make a regional authority that's only raison d'etre is looking after the ecological interests of the lake. That's going to be either some NGO or non-profit or government agency, all of which are considered persons under the law.


Yes it totally avoids the problem, because the hypothetical authority is made up of people, thus granted (some of) the legal rights of persons.


Nonnatural persons aren't granted rights under the law because they're made up of people though. In America they're granted those rights because it makes dealing with them much easier. That's it. That's why it's so confusing which rights are reserved only for natural persons and which apply to all persons.

https://books.google.com/books?id=4K0CWvR2FNEC&pg=RA1-PA284&...

I'm trying to link to the section that starts just barely on the page before "Indeterminacy of the Personhood Designation"


But it does avoid the problem of having a legal person that lacks a well-defined intent, which is probably the weirdest aspect of this.


I like the personhood issue.

If a corporation can be a person for purposes of law, then why shouldn't the resources it wants to exploit be a person for purposes of law as well?


Yep. Another recent example is the The White Earth band of Ojibwe recognition of the Rights of Manoomin (“wild rice”).

https://www.nationofchange.org/2019/02/04/the-white-earth-ba...

Linked article reminds us that 'In 2008, Ecuador and Bolivia both added Rights of Nature clauses to their constitutions.'

Not a moment too soon. To protect nature is to protect ourselves and our progeny. The same is true for any corporations in any way dependent on extraction (or as they learned to call it 'harvesting').


A related read on India's top court reversing the lower court's order which held that Ganges and Yamuna, two of India's well known rivers, have the same rights as humans.

https://phys.org/news/2017-07-rivers-rights-humans-india-cou...


This is the only way to make companies and governments to pay for externalities. It is the only way to make capitalism work.

If people can get profit by making other pay the cost, then there is a perverse incentive for destruction.


I agree in theory. In practice I would see this working like any other class action. Most of the money will go into the pockets of lawyers, with very little left to remedy the actual damages.


So the question becomes does it matter where the money goes as long as the corporation/individual doing harm is punished sufficiently to dissuade them from future abuse of natural resources?


It is a way at least if not the only way but I agree that it is a decent counterforce.


Why this link can be forbidden for me?


I thought the US was the land of the free and that no one could tell you who you could and couldn't sue.


> no one could tell you who you could and couldn't sue

Anyone can sue anything. That doesn’t mean the court won’t dismiss it.




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