Nature and the Rule of Law

A two-part series on environmental law


We live in a time when the vast majority of the world’s wealth is derived from the exploitation of natural resources, a time when laws and legal responses must demand that all resources be protected from corruption and indifference, and must be sustained for the benefit of future generations.


There are laws of Nature — immutable forces and systems such as gravity, the water cycle, and the workings of the atom — which represent the greatest discoveries of human science and which underlie all aspects of human endeavor. And yet that same science is resolved beyond understanding to intercede, manipulate, even contradict those laws in the name of what? Progress? Hubris? Profit?

Society devises comparable laws — accepted concepts to maintain and advance collective needs and aspirations. In the narrowest application, they react to deliberate, defiant, anti-social indifference to the norms; in the largest application, they define honesty, morality, and the highest forms of human achievement and governance.

For some, nonetheless, laws are for the breaking. And history shows us individuals, organizations, and events where such indifference becomes criminal, the social contract is broken, a crisis ensues and those forces must be confronted and denied for community benefit and survival.
charlie riedel | associated pressAre we in such a time today? When there seems to be a calculated, alarmingly successful effort to subvert the laws of Nature, undermine harmonious societal behavior, and concentrate natural value away from the many into the hands of the few?

To fight back against such subversion, we turn to the rule of law. And we see today again and again that in order to oppose such appropriation of value, we must turn to precedents, courts, wise judges, and dedicated proponents to finance, argue, and prevail in the name of the greater good.

We expose and challenge government bureaucrats who advance vested interest over public interest. We confront lobbyists and lawyers with transparency and legal skills adequate to the defense. We affirm larger definitions of what is right and true as principles by which to protect society from the self-serving machinations of certain nation-states, corporations, and individuals who see the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others as acceptable behavior in civil society. As that wealth is mostly derived from the exploitation of natural resources, we must turn to the laws of Nature to demonstrate the folly of such corrupt practice.

A first law: Indiscriminate use of a limited resource will exhaust that resource and bankrupt its value. The insistence of the fossil fuel, mineral, plastic, and industrial agricultural companies on unlimited consumption of oil and gas for energy, production, and growth is the most destructive example we now face. It is a strategy, by definition, doomed.

A second law: Failure to nurture and sustain a resource, organism, or institution over time will result in its sudden demise with catastrophic consequence. Failure to maintain adequate supply of food, air, and water for a growing population will cause a civilization to collapse. Failure to protect plants, animals, or persons from an avoidable infection, viral or moral, will destroy that organism without mercy. Indifference to corrupt values and behaviors within a community or nation will corrode and weaken societal bonds toward chaos and extinction.

A third law: Nature has rights that, in the context of the first two laws discussed, must be affirmed to avoid their consequence. Thus, the Public Trust Doctrine that affirms the public ownership and benefit of all natural resources that can be licensed and exploited but must be sustained for the continuing benefit of ensuing generations. If corporations are legally deemed to have citizen’s rights, then so too do mountains, forests, rivers, and seas have comparable rights that must be defended and upheld by law. If nations can conclude international contracts and treaties for trade or political compromise, then so too can Nature have similar protections by collective, trans-national agreements and agencies for enforcement to extend its value for the benefit of all mankind.

A fourth law: For every abuser, there is a victim; and for every victim there is a defense that must assert, compensate, and controvert that abuse. If Nature, and by extension ourselves, is abused, we must join together to defend, defeat, and displace the abuser by rule of law.

A fifth law: The governors are only as good as the governed. If we do not believe that the present interpretation and application of the law is adequate to its purpose, we have the right and power by law and through law to replace, recapture, and reapply the principles we hold dear and necessary to affirm the laws of Nature for the protection of the environment and our future.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.