Earth Day: Time to Recognize the Rights of Nature

Earth Day environment
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It's Earth Day 2013, and it's a good time to step back and see how we've been doing since the first one 1970. That's when 20 million people took to the streets to protest rivers on fire, DDT-poisoned birds, sewage on beaches and a devastating oil spill off the pristine Santa Barbara, Calif., coast. Soon after, many of our basic national environmental laws were passed in direct response to this massive grassroots movement.

Is there another wave of this activism coming?

Since those early days, we have improved sewage treatment plants and banned DDT, but new threats to human and environmental health are mounting: pollution from hydraulic fracking, leaking oil pipelines, nuclear disasters and other localized impacts on communities.

At the global scale, climate change is real and accelerating, as evidenced by unprecedented droughts, hurricanes, floods and crop losses. As the World Bank warns, a possible 4 degree C increase in global temperatures by the 2060s will lead to a "transition of the Earth's ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience."

(Read More: We Need Climate Change)

These new and very visible threats are igniting a fresh grassroots call for more action that is commensurate with such challenges in ways the existing laws seem unprepared to address.

Enter the "Rights of Nature" movement.

Any retiree knows you can spend the interest on your nest egg, but should avoid diminishing the principal if you want a sustainable economic future. But our current economic system assumes we can consume nature's capital without consequence. Given that we live on a planet with finite resources, the Rights of Nature movement seeks a new, sustainable model.

Several countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, and more than three-dozen U.S. municipalities have recently incorporated such Rights of Nature into their policies and laws.

In the past few weeks, my hometown of Santa Monica became the first city in California to pass such a law. This new ordinance states that "natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish." It recognizes Santa Monicans' rights to "clean water from sustainable sources; marine waters safe for active and passive recreation; clean indoor and outdoor air; a sustainable food system that provides healthy, locally grown food; a sustainable climate that supports thriving human life and a flourishing bio-diverse environment … and a sustainable energy future based on renewable energy sources."

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Relevant to the business community, which depends on resources and public good will to make and distribute products, the ordinance makes clear that "[c]orporate entities … do not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law that subordinate the community's rights to their private interests."

At some point, these rights and values will clash if smart businesses don't take these rights into account and demonstrate that their products are truly sustainable. That's especially critical because the Santa Monica ordinance includes citizen enforcement authority to protect those rights, just as the federal Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other fundamental statutes do—and which have been used by individuals and environmental groups to force compliance.

The good news is that solutions to this potential culture clash already exist. Cradle-to-cradle product design, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for the built environment, and zero waste plans by companies such as Walmart all show the path to products and services that maximize the use of scarce resources and find measurable ways to spend the interest of nature and not the principal.

If more companies pay attention to the Rights of Nature movement and the obvious limits of our planet, we can enjoy sustainable, healthy communities and profits, making every day Earth Day in the process.

Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors, an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors and author of "Cracking The Carbon Code: The Key To Sustainable Profits In The New Economy."