There are enough jokes about the American tendency to over-litigate, long before pondering whether Mother Nature needs a lawyer. Yet precedents and sentiment do exist to support giving the natural world legal standing in a court of law.

The town of Shapleigh is one example. In February, town meeting voters approved an article giving all of the town’s “natural assets” the right to exist, and any resident could seek legal redress for damages to nature. This would, as the Boston Globe pointed out, allow lawsuits on behalf of streams. (Or trees, foxes, deer yards, aquifers, Bicknell thrushes, bald eagles, fisher cats or the Turner Beast, if it hailed from Shapleigh.)

The Globe noted in July that about a dozen U.S. towns have adopted the stance of Shapleigh, while environmental attorneys have also petitioned courts to consider cases in which the plaintiff is neither man nor woman, but of another genus or species altogether.

For Maine, so dependent on using its natural resources for economic survival, widespread adoption of ordinances like Shapleigh’s would have a negative effect, by giving fringe concerns an ultimate authority to disrupt even the most responsible developments.

Those who purport to speak for nature are projecting their opinions onto the environment. They assume, rather presumptuously, that nature, if asked, would unhesitatingly agree that it should be left alone.

While this is a natural assumption, it’s not necessarily correct. In a court of law, nature cannot be called upon to testify to its intents, wants, needs, dreams or desires. What nature, in its form as a collection of life, would prefer in its interactions with humans is really anyone’s guess.

Would the Androscoggin River sue for its cleanliness? It seems likely, but not assured. Or would Sugarloaf Mountain have defended itself against the building of a ski resort across its craggy peak? Only the mountain knows for sure. Man only knows what he would say, if he were a mountain.

Defending the environment is a just cause; if we are good to our planet, it will be good to us. Yet this shouldn’t mean bestowing legal standing onto something — or some things — that can only exercise this powerful right by depending on a human proxy.

Maybe this avenue would be more attractive if advocates for the environment were scarce, but the opposite is true. Their collective political and social influence on Maine is easily measured, both by what’s seen — acres of unspoiled wilderness — and unseen, such as highway billboards.

Do we defend nature by pretending to know what a tree is thinking, or by appealing to the sentiments of humans to respect that tree’s existence? We’d say the latter. Not only does it make more sense — who knows what a tree thinks — but it strikes us as more convincing, long-term.

Nature is not an environment of equals. Nature provides sustenance and shelter, medicine and mobility to every organism. Our interactions with nature help define ourselves as human.

Arguing about what nature might think of that, only reduces the time we humans should be pondering our own actions.

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.