Lake Erie Now Has a “Bill of Rights”

Photo: Lori King, The Toledo Blade

On Tuesday, a citizen-led referendum in Toledo to provide Lake Erie a “Bill of Rights” passed by an impressive 61-39 margin, according to the Toledo Blade’s coverage of the unofficial election results.  Yes — you read that right — the Lake now has rights, thanks to a small group of determined citizens in Toledo.  The initiative requires that the Toledo City Charter be amended to provide that the Lake Erie watershed has legal rights to “exist and flourish,” and provides a right for citizens to sue private actors that threaten the Lake’s health.  A farm family has already sued to have the law thrown out, arguing that the bill will allow anyone in the city to sue local farmers for harmful algae blooms that frequently develop in the Lake.

  • Toledoans for Safe Water submitted approximately 10,000 signatures to get the Bill of Rights on the ballot.
  • Turnout for the special election — it drew only about nine percent of Toledo’s registered voters to the polls.
  • Clean water in Lake Erie is an important part of Toledoans’ quality of life — it provides important recreation and also drinking water to 12 million U.S. and Canadian citizens.

This is, according to Vox, the first “rights-based legislation aimed at protecting a whole US ecosystem: the lake, its tributaries, and the many species that live off it” in the U.S. — but this type of law is gaining popularity in other countries, such as Ecuador, Colombia, India, and New Zealand.  This kind of law builds off a famous 1972 court case called Sierra Club v. Morton, in which the Court held that nature did not have legal rights, but Justice William O. Douglas dissented, saying “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”

Why This Matters:  And people think that the Green New Deal is radical!  But as Vox put it, “If we find it strange to view nature the way we view people, that may just be because we’ve grown up in an anthropocentric intellectual tradition that treats the natural world as an object to be examined and exploited for human use, rather than as a subject to be communed with and respected.”  Clearly, given what we are up against in climate change, we need to change our traditional ways of thinking about the environment and nature.  And our current system allows too many environmental harms — such as toxic algal blooms — to occur without penalty or accountability.  So lead the way, Toledoans — show us how to protect Lake Erie and beyond. 

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