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Natural Law

From Rural Pennsylvania to South America, a Global Alliance is Promoting the Idea that Ecosystems Have Intrinsic Rights

By Jason Mark

Cathy Miorelli doesn’t think of herself as an environmentalist. When Miorelli decided to run for the city council of Tamaqua Borough – a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived her entire life – she didn’t have any sort of eco-agenda. It was 2004, and the hottest controversy in Tamaqua involved a proposal by an outside company to dump sewage sludge and coal fly ash into abandoned mining pits on the edge of town. But the main issue on Miorelli’s mind was creating more transparent governance on the council, which she says had long been dominated by an old boys’ network. “I was just concerned about everything overall, not really so much the environment,” says Miorelli, who has worked for 16 years as the nurse at the Tamaqua high school. “You know, I didn’t run on any kind of platform, saying that I was going to change the world here or anything.”


photo by Brett Weston, Corbis

She did change the world, though. Halfway through her one-term stint on the council, Miorelli spearheaded the passage of an anti-sewage sludge ordinance that included a provision recognizing the rights of “natural communities” to flourish – the first law of its kind in the world. The Tamaqua Borough ordinance inspired dozens of other communities in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – including the city of Pittsburgh – to adopt similar rights of nature laws. Those ordinances then helped influence the people of Ecuador to put legal rights for ecosystems in that country’s new constitution. The idea that nature, just like people, possesses inalienable rights has percolated up to the United Nations, which has considered a proposal to adopt a “Charter on the Rights of Mother Nature.”

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