Aerial view of river in tropical green forest with mountains in background
Aerial view of river in tropical green forest with mountains in background
Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Florida County Passes ‘Rights of Nature’ Charter Amendment

Originally published at National Review

I have been warning for years against the “nature rights” movement — only to be met mostly by eye-rolls and complacent chuckles of, “What will they think of next?”

But the movement is advancing steadily. In that time, four rivers have been given human-style rights, two glaciers, and Lake Erie (overturned by a state law in Ohio). Nature-rights ordinances have been enacted in more than 30 U.S. municipalities — mostly sold as a vehicle to stop fracking, but the terms of those laws are not actually so limited.

Now, voters in Orange County, Fla., have overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment granting “rights” to all “waters” in the jurisdiction.

The measure was sold as a non-radical clean water measure. For example, take this description in an opinion piece from one of the nature rights activists in Florida Today:

This is an indisputable, bi-partisan mandate from the citizens of Orange County. Approval of the amendment — also known as the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights — shows that the rights to clean water and healthy ecosystems are not to be subordinated to the interests of polluters…

It shows that business should not be conducted at the expense of the environment and the public welfare, and that the so-called choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy is a false one.

That description is disingenuous and a half.

The actual breadth and scope of the measure will cripple the ability to make any use of water systems — even if it doesn’t pollute — that activists believe interfere with the “flow” of the rivers or impact life within the river, in addition to all other waters in the county. From Charter Amendment Question 1 (my emphasis):

(1) The Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River, portions of which are within the boundaries of Orange County, and all other Waters within the boundaries of Orange County, have a right to exist, Flow, to be protected against Pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

(2) All Citizens of Orange County have a right to clean water by having the Waters of Orange County protected against Pollution.

That is incredibly broad language that could, for example, prevent a landowner from draining a swamp to plant crops or construct a building as violating the right of those waters to “exist.”

It could also prevent a project from diverting some river water for human use since it could be deemed an interference with the water’s right to “flow.” Again, violating the rights of all the waters in Orange County would not require actual pollution thereof.

Making matters more difficult, everyone and anyone living in Orange County can bring lawsuits to prevent human uses that activists or, for that matter, nuts, think interfere with the rights of the waters to exist, flow, etc.:

Orange County, municipalities within Orange County, any other public agency within Orange County, and all Citizens of Orange County shall have standing to bring an action in their own name or in the name of the Waters to enforce the provisions of this Section of the Charter. S

This provision provides an icy chilling effect against industry. After all, what liability insurance company is going to insure a project when underwriters know that anyone in Orange County can bring a lawsuit to enjoin the project.

This is very radical stuff sold as merely a clean-water measure — when it actually dilutes human exceptionalism by granting rights to geological features and handcuffs even nonpolluting uses of natural resources.

Thankfully, Florida law may preempt the Charter amendment since the legislature passed a law last year to thwart such moves. Time will tell.

But I do wish more people understood the acute threat “nature rights” presents to human thriving and push back against the noxious notion every time it is promoted by activists and proposed as law.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.