Under the law corporations are people, right? That ruling, by the way, wasn’t the outcome of Citizen’s United. It appeared in the 1886 case of Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. While the Supreme Court didn’t settle the railroad case on the question of personhood, a comment by chief justice Morrison Waite was inserted as a headnote. That headnote led to later decisions, giving corporations, joint ventures, trusts and municipalities, among others, personhood under the 14th Amendment. Waite reasoned that if slaves, recently freed property, had rights under the law, then corporations, being property, did too. (“Who Speaks for the Trees?) by Astra Taylor, The Baffler, No 32, pg. 136.)
Bizarre as our treatment of corporations may seem, environmental advocates have begun to see virtue in it. If corporations enjoy personhood then why not air, water, rivers and streams? The question to be grappled with is whether or not Nature has inherent legal rights. Advocates insist that though Nature is unable to speak for itself, it enjoys the same right to representation as the mentally ill, the severely handicapped and the dying. (Ibid pg 141)
Take for example the legal battle underway between Pennsylvania General Energy Company ((PGE) and Grant Township in western Pennsylvania. PGE plans to inject fracking waste water into fissures surrounding the community. Grant Township objects, believing doing so will threaten their water supply. The nonprofit, Community Environment Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has come to water’s defense and filed suit on behalf of Nature. (Ibid p. 139)
In the meantime, Grant Township has passed an ordinance which makes civil disobedience legal, pitting its rights as a local authority against state and federal authority. (Ibid pg. 141) PGE is livid, if a corporation can be said to be livid.
The squabble has humorous aspects, to be sure. Should it lose its case, for example, Grant Township is prepared to pay any fines with its sole, tangible asset: its garbage. Nonetheless, the debate raises pertinent questions: Where do rights come from? And, what takes precedent, a man-made law or one designed by God?
I am a devout atheist, but if God exists, I’ve no doubt where She comes down in this argument. Nature’s laws are pretty simple. It’s human law that makes life complicated.