A lake in Florida filed a lawsuit to stop a nearby development that could impact its natural ecosystem. That’s right — a physical lake. Lake Mary Jane alleges that the development would “adversely impact the lakes and marsh who are parties to this action,” causing injuries that are “concrete, distinct, and palpable.”

Lake Mary Jane is the first body of water to file a lawsuit in the United States. In fact, it’s the first inanimate natural object to do so. Animals like elephants, horses, and birds have been found to have legal standing, but never a lake. The concept of standing has a long and complicated legal doctrine, but it generally refers to the “capacity of a party to bring suit in court” where “plaintiffs have sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm and that this harm is redressable.”

So, should non-people — and even objects found in nature — have enforceable legal rights? 

That’s the implicit question posed by Elizabeth Kolbert, who drew attention to the case last week in a widely-read New Yorker piece. Here’s how she summarizes the two points of view:

“Depending on your perspective, the lake’s case is either borderline delusional or way overdue.

‘It is long past time to recognize that we are dependent on nature, and the continued destruction of nature needs to stop,’ Mari Margil, the executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said in a statement celebrating the lawsuit.

‘Your local lake or river could sue you?’ the Florida Chamber of Commerce said. ‘Not on our watch.'”

Kolbert quotes the late University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone, who in 1971 made the case for extending rights to natural objects:

“This extension of rights, Stone argued, was needed to address an otherwise insuperable problem. So long as ‘natural objects’ were valued only in terms of their worth to humans—’for the use of us’—they could, quite legally, be destroyed. Stone cited the example of someone polluting a stream. People living downstream could take the polluter to court and perhaps win damages. But the waterway and the species dependent on it would never recoup their losses. In the conflict between the polluter and the downstream residents, he wrote, ‘the stream itself is lost sight of.'”

In the United States, the definition of who counts as a “person” under the law has never been particularly strict. A corporation can be considered a person. So, too, can a ship. So why not an animal or a lake? 

Stone, in his 1971 article, wrote that inanimate objects have a kind of “legal personality” that, despite the fact that they can’t speak or advocate for themselves, should give them standing to sue. Stone’s article spawned the idea of “environmental personhood,” which has gained traction in recent years. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the legal rights of nature in its constitution. Bolivia followed suit in 2011. And in 2017, New Zealand became the first country to grant legal rights to a specific river. 

In a recent episode of CAFE’s Office Hours, Steven Wise, the founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, discussed the litigation involving Happy, an elephant being held in the Bronx Zoo who has a pending writ of habeas corpus before the New York Court of Appeals. 

Happy’s case is similar and different from that of Lake Mary Jane and other natural objects. Wise’s argument on behalf of Happy largely focuses on her human-like qualities: her cognitive and social abilities, her ability to recognize herself in the mirror. Wise’s work is dedicated to non-human animals’ right to liberty, and he draws analogies between the fight to free imprisoned animals and the struggles of liberating enslaved humans. In the interview, Wise told CAFE’s Tamara Sepper: “Our work grows out of story of human slavery and litigation involving it and how it began and how it ended. What we saw with slavery, for example, it was very, very difficult for slaves to stop being slaves, especially in the United States but in other places too.”

Unlike Happy, Lake Mary Jane cannot see, think, or feel, and it is not being held captive in a zoo. Kolbert, in the New Yorker, quotes a recent Virginia Law Review article arguing against extending rights to natural objects. “It is far from clear that it feels like anything to be an oak tree,” Mauricio Guim and Michael Livermore, both law professors, wrote in the article. “Nor does it feel like anything to be a rainforest ecosystem, even if it is teeming with birds who have some form of subjective experience.”

When it comes to recognizing non-humans as persons under the law, where should we draw the line? If corporations are people, should animals receive the same protections? Should lakes?

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