From Corporate Law and the Rights of Property to Earth Law and the Rights of Nature

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by Noel Ortega

Type: Audio [title]
Published November, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2:00-4:00pm ET (11-1pm PT) 

At the Institute for Policy Studies


NET Session Intro

This New Economy Transition (NET) session addresses the transition to a legal system that secures the rights and interests of living people and nature both present and future and clearly recognizes that these rights pre-empt any right granted by law to a for-profit corporation. 



Conversation Starter Panel

Gus Speth and David Korten: Introductory comments and an overview frame connecting Earth Law and Commons Law issues and perspectives.

Linda Sheehan, executive director, Earth Law Center ( Defining issues and the current state of the Earth Law movement.

David Bollier  ( Co-author, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons. Defining issues and the current state of the Commons Law movement.

Janelle Orsi, executive director, Sustainable Economies Law Center ( Author, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy. Development and promotion of legal tools to facilitate transition to localized, resilient, sharing economies that honor the rights of nature and support the just, equitable, and sustainable sharing of the commons.

Moderated by John Cavanagh, Institute for Poilicies Studies' Director

Session Overview

We begin with these self-evident truths.

There are no human rights without nature, because there are no humans without nature. There are no corporate rights without humans, because there are no corporations without humans.

Consequently, the rights of living Earth’s critical natural systems appropriately and necessarily pre-empt human rights; and human rights appropriately and necessarily pre-empt the rights of corporations.


The Old Economy legal system treats for-profit corporations as legally protected aggregations of property consolidated under a unified management widely considered to be legally obligated to use its authority to extract maximum short-term financial gain from society for the sole benefit of the corporation’s shareholders and to be legally entitled to richly reward itself for its services. This legal system’s treatment of corporate and private property rights and obligations virtually assures destruction of the viability of the living commons on which all life depends, spiraling inequality, and the exclusion of billions of people from a means of living through enclosure of both natural and human commons. We are only beginning to acknowledge and address the profound implications.

New Economy values and logic recognize that the natural generative systems by which a living Earth stabilizes its climate and regenerates, purifies, and stabilizes its oceans, atmosphere, clean water, and fertile soils are the foundation of life and therefore of all value. They are at once a collective creation and a shared inheritance of all of Earth’s living beings.

We each bear a primary obligation to maintain the health and vitality of these living systems and the right and obligation to share their generative surplus fairly, not only among ourselves, but as well with all living beings. None among us has the right to impair or destroy the function of these generative systems or to monopolize their generative product. It is not just a values choice; it is a pragmatic imperative for human survival and wellbeing.

Within this frame, it is further self-evident that the only legitimate reason for a government to issue a charter granting any right or privilege to an artificial legal entity called a corporation is to fulfill a defined public purpose in service to life. In return for these rights and privileges, such legal entity incurs a responsibility to fulfill its designated purpose in ways consistent with the law and the larger interests of the communities in which it operates. It has no rightful natural entitlement beyond such selective rights and privileges as may be specifically granted by its charter or related legislation—and in no instance can any such “right” pre-empt the inalienable rights of nature and people.

An emerging global social movement is advancing the transition to a legal framework that secures in law the inalienable rights of Earth’s natural systems and recognizes that natural systems are a commons essential to the well-being of all people.

The New Economy Transition session explores paths to this transition and implications for the institutions of law and economics. The questions we addressed include:

  1. What are essential features of an Earth Law/Commons Law jurisprudence that recognizes the inalienable rights of Earth’s critical natural systems and supports the just, equitable, and sustainable sharing of the generative product of those systems?
  2. What are the implications for corporate law and the laws governing private property?
  3. What are promising strategies for advancing the transition to an Earth Law/Commons Law jurisprudence in the face of determined opposition by corporate interests? What are the specific rights issues around which there is greatest potential to gain positive traction? What is the appropriate balance of focus between local, national, and global campaigns?
  4. Is there strategic benefit in joining campaigns for the rights of nature and rights to the commons with campaigns working to correct the current distortion and abuse of corporate and property law? If so, what are the practical implications for groups engaged in these campaigns?