Stephen Marx, lives off the grid in Vermont and he’s angry.
Thirty-two years ago, Marx moved out of New York City to the end of a long dirt road, beyond the reach of power lines. The retired literacy teacher and gardener bought a couple of modest-sized, 20-year-old solar panels and times his use of appliances to coincide with topped-up batteries.
Yet he says he’s only recently become anything like an environmental activist. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of “corporate personhood” (in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) tipped the scales.
“It was really bothering me. I was getting angrier and angrier,” Marx remembers. “I tend to shut down when I’m angry, so I walked up the hill with May (his dog). I said to myself, ‘Wait a second — corporations have rights. We gave them rights; I gave them rights’ — I mean, I vote; I accept responsibility. It means that corporations can do whatever they want, but the Earth can’t. And that was it.
Everyone had been saying ‘We can change this,'” Marx continued. “And then it came to me: We can’t change this — no one’s going to change multinational corporations. But maybe we can make it an even playing field. It became something positive, instead of a negative.”
This year the Strafford resident went mainstream: At Town Meeting Day, he and a majority of his neighbors voted approval of an amendment to Vermont’s constitution to grant legal rights to Mother Earth.
It doesn’t come across as a hot-head’s manifesto:
“Ch.1, Article 22 (Rights of Nature). That the natural environment of Vermont, including its forests, natural areas, surface and ground waters, and fish and wildlife populations, has certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights to clean water and air.”
The only troublesome thing about that ballot item, Marx said this week, is that it will take many more of its kind, throughout Vermont, to deliver a sufficiently strong message to the Legislature.
Under state law, the process for amending the constitution includes passage of the amendment by both the state House and Senate in two successive sessions, followed by ratification by the voters.
Marx hopes to get his Rights of Nature measure approved within 20 years.
The wiry, gray-bearded man seems reconciled to the slow track.
“I’d like for people to talk about it,” he said. “For me, that’s what’s so great about Vermont: It’s that people talk. Let’s find out what people’s fears are, and make a constitutional amendment that isn’t scary; that really just says: ‘We have to take care of this Earth for the next 100 generations.'”
Planet of the people
Granting the planet a legal status isn’t new. For millennia, humans have honored Earth as an entity from which they received goods and services (as well as pestilence and famine).
Marx and many others believe that in more recent centuries, the transactions have become terrifyingly homo centric — and that climate catastrophe and mass extinctions can be averted by nothing less than a restoration of equal rights: of balance.
Exotic and starry-eyed? Maybe at first glance. But Marx and his confederates have allies.
What would Pittsburgh do?
Ecuador, in 2008, amended its constitution to guarantee the rights of Earth “to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions, and its process of evolution.”
In response to a threat to groundwater posed by hydro-fracking, the city of Pittsburgh passed a law, a section of which reads:
“Natural communities and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers, and other water systems, possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the City of Pittsburgh. Residents of the City shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights on behalf of those natural communities and ecosystems.”
Dozens of other jurisdictions have similar laws on the books, documented on the Earth Law Center website: earthlaw.org.
Two other Vermont towns placed the Earth Rights amendment on the ballot this year. Thetford residents defeated it by a single vote.
“It was the last item on the docket,” explained Thetford advocate Didi Pershouse. “It was after an 8-hour meeting of people arguing over the price of excavators and whether to ban assault weapons. People were tired.”
In Norwich, on a paper ballot, the measure passed, 684-284.
Marx said skeptics of the amendment have hewed to industrial-age definitions of who on Earth is in charge; and on questions of who can sue whom for environmental damage.
“People have told me that they’re worried that they wouldn’t be able to cut down a tree, or shoot something or go fishing,” Marx said. “But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about making sure that in 30 years we can go fishing, and there will be trees.”
In the books
Marx bounced the idea around, and found a critical mass of collaborators in East-central Vermont.
“We all started researching,” he said. “We started putting together what an amendment would look like, and drafting petitions. I called everybody at Vermont Law School, I talked to a lot of professors there, and they were very helpful, and they all said the same thing: ‘This is a great educational tool, but it’s never going to happen.'”
Then, last summer, he audited the Earth Law course at Vermont Law School, taught by Linda Sheehan, who also directs the Fremont, Calif.,-based nonprofit Earth Law Center.
Ostensibly academic, the class confirmed for Marx that he was in good company.
“I also realized that I could never be a lawyer,” he said.
No tree too high
As a boy in Queens, N.Y., Marx rambled through empty lots, fished in a local pond and picked blackberries among the few remaining farms.
A learning disability, diagnosed much later, prompted him to skirt book-learning at every possible opportunity.
“There wasn’t a tree in my neighborhood I couldn’t climb,” he said.
• Vermont Rights of Nature (Facebook): http://bit.ly/RightsOfNatureVt
• Earth Law Center: www.earthlaw.org
• Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature: http://therightsofnature.org
• Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund: www.celdf.org
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