Interview by Simon Davis-Cohen
Editor’s Note: Santa Monica recently passed an ordinance that elevates its right to enforce its Sustainable City Plan, rights to clean air, water and soil, and the rights of nature above corporate entities’ privileges and powers. Below is a written conversation between Read the Dirt editor Simon Davis-Cohen and Linda Sheehan, Executive Director of Earth Law Center and advocate of the Santa Monica Sustainability Rights Ordinance.
Linda Sheehan: Escalating climate change, accelerating species extinctions, and ongoing environmental degradation signal the need for fundamental change. In response, small communities and nations around the world are adopting governance systems that recognize the inherent rights of nature to exist, thrive, and evolve. Such governance systems reflect both the science and ethics of our intrinsic interconnections with the natural world, and will better guide our behavior toward lives in harmony with the planet.
Simon Davis-Cohen: What prompted Santa Monica to pass the Sustainability Rights Ordinance?
LS: The Ordinance grew out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United granting even more rights to corporations at the expense of people and nature. Santa Monicans wanted to take action to protect the well-being of the people and environment of Santa Monica generally, and their Sustainable City Plan in particular, from corporate forces that would prevent them from achieving their sustainability goals.
SDC: What are the ramifications of the ordinance?
LS: The ordinance, the first nature’s rights ordinance on the West Coast, joins efforts by communities across the country to protect the health and well-being of their inhabitants and the environment. Santa Monica’s ordinance also establishes a link between a Sustainable City Plan and rights of nature and human rights to a healthy environment, thereby creating a path of implementation of positive change on the ground as a result of the ordinance.
SDC: The ordinance states that the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act “have proven inadequate to provide long-term protection of our rights to clean air, water, and soil, and sustainable food systems, and the rights of natural ecosystems.” Why did the city feel the need to include this disclosure?
LS: The city included this disclosure to clarify the need for a rights-based approach. Current environmental statutes do not acknowledge the inherent rights of the natural world to be healthy, thrive, and evolve. Accordingly, they only slow, rather than reverse, the trend of degradation. A rights-based approach is essential to begin steadily and consistently improving the health of the natural world and we who depend on it.
SDC: The Ordinance calls for the City Council to on a bi-annual basis assess “compliance with the [Sustainability City] Plan’s provisions and with the inherent rights of the people and natural communities of the City of Santa Monica described herein.” Why was it necessary for Santa Monica to hold that “corporate entities, and their directors and managers, do not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law that subordinate the community’s rights to their private interests,” in order to gain the legal power to implement its Sustainable City Plan?
LS: The articulation above clarifies the City’s perspective that if in conflict, corporate rights, as they are currently viewed by the US Supreme Court, cannot trump the local right to self-governance to protect the health and well-being of City residents and their natural environment. So for example, if an energy provider insisted on using hydrofracked gas in place of the renewable energy portfolio that the City had chosen to meet its Sustainable City Plan, the City would be able to make the choice for itself to continue with renewables, rather than have fracked gas forced on them. (That is not currently happening; it is just an example for illustration purposes.)Φ
Attorney Linda Sheehan brings 20 years of environmental law and policy experience to her work as Executive Director of Earth Law Center, where she utilizes legal research, outreach, education, and applied advocacy to develop new laws and governance models that acknowledge the natural world’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve.