If, in Florida, Mother Nature were a woman, she’d have the telltale signs of an abusive relationship: cut lips, black eyes, and broken bones.
The signs of abuse to nature in Florida are equally clear and disturbing: a million acres of estuaries and 9,000 miles of streams and rivers contaminated with fecal bacteria; red tides and blue-green algae blooms that sicken people short term, threaten long term illness, and cripple local economies; wildlife that suffer, at times, like manatees, catastrophically.
This isn’t what Floridians want. We go to public hearings and plead for needed protections. We email our state representatives, call the governor’s office, and overwhelmingly approve environmental initiatives only to see their intent undone. We “Enlist in the Fight for Clean Water!” as one town council near me has urged citizens to do.
Occasionally, we win a small battle, but we’re losing the war. Over half of Florida’s 4,393 waterways are polluted. Unquestionably, two things aren’t working well: our environmental regulatory system and citizen actions to fix it.
We need a different approach to environmental protection. Therefore, Florida Rights of Nature Network (FRONN) advocates a "Right to Clean and Healthy Waters" amendment to our state constitution.
To be clear, this amendment is not a Rights of Nature law. We at FRONN wish it were, because Floridians will never live sustainably until our relationship with the natural world changes culturally and legally. Changing that relationship is what Rights of Nature is about.
We prefer a law like the historic Orange County Right to Clean Water charter amendment approved by 89% of voters two years ago that granted citizens a right to clean water, but also granted county waterways the right to exist, flow, be free of pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem.
What is permissible on the county level, however, is not permissible on the state level. An amendment to our constitution must focus on a single subject. Consequently, a law like Orange County’s would not survive Florida Supreme Court review.
Instead of a right of nature, the amendment creates a fundamental human right to nature, because the health of our families, the strength of our economy, and the wildlife we cherish, among other things, all depend upon clean and healthy waters.
Vital to our well-being, clean and healthy waters merit the protection only a fundamental right can provide. This fundamental right logically takes precedence over the rights of polluters, and the state is bound to act accordingly when, for example, it considers permits that would allow harm to our waters and aquatic ecosystems.
Furthermore, this right is indefeasible. It cannot be annulled or altered by any branch of government, as we have seen happen to other laws created through citizen initiatives.
Finally, this law enables citizens to hold the state accountable in court when through action or inaction it fails to protect our waters.
This is the simple, powerful essence of the law that can begin the shift toward a healthy, sustainable relationship with nature that is at the heart of the Rights of Nature movement. How?
Currently, our environmental regulatory system doesn’t recognize nature’s rights or interests. The state legislature made sure of this in 2020 when in its Clean Waterways Act it preempted the authority of local governments to “grant any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment.”
Nor is the system much concerned with human rights and interests. That same law denied the authority of local governments to grant citizens “any specific rights relating to the natural environment.” No right to clean air. No right to clean water.
These preemptions reveal just how effective special interests and legislators fear a rights-based approach to environmental protection can be.
Instead, the system favors corporate rights and interests, which exert undue influence over our legislature and environmental policy and agencies. Bad environmental laws are made, and good ones go unenforced. The results, as noted above, are terrible.
In its ability to hold the state accountable, this law can start the crucial shift away from corporate rights and interests to human rights and interests, and toward a more ecologically sensible form of governance that respects both rights to nature and rights of nature, benefitting generations to come.
With this right we can stop pollution at its source instead of paying billions to clean it up afterwards. We can stop the ransacking of our aquifers and restore flow to our springs. We can curtail the loss of wetlands and prevent the catastrophic loss of wildlife. We can stop the abuse.
Sign the petition to qualify the “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” constitutional amendment for the 2024 ballot at floridarighttocleanwater.org.
Originally published in “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.