Letter to the Editor: New stakeholder needed in environmental decisions

Most of us recognize that we face numerous environmental crises. We have a fairly good understanding of the origins of these problems. And we have some ideas about solutions. One of the proposed solutions is to give more “stakeholders” a seat at the table with corporate shareholders or lobbyists influencing the regulatory process. Stakeholders are individuals and groups who are affected by decisions made by governmental bodies and corporations.
Corporate shareholders typically seek to maximize profits in any way that is legally allowable. Consequently, as the United Nations Environment Program has calculated, none of the world’s biggest industries actually makes a profit without creating deferred social and environmental costs greater than their profit margins, costs and damages that will have to be repaid or repaired in the future.
If humans, acting as labor unions and organized communities, are barely able to articulate their interests and get action in corporate boardrooms and within governmental deliberations, then surely Mother Nature ranks as a silent and disenfranchised stakeholder. The Maori of New Zealand are attempting to correct this imbalance by obtaining personhood status for a sacred river. Currently a Denver lawyer is seeking legal personhood for the Colorado River, so that the body of water might be better protected, on an equal legal footing with humans.
The idea is not new. Native Americans have always embraced the idea of kinship with nature; they see plants, animals and natural features as our co-equals. In recent struggles over oil pipelines, Native groups have attempted to speak on behalf of sacred rivers and sites. In 1971, one year after the first Earth Day, Dr. Seuss published “The Lorax,” with a character who speaks for the trees who have no tongues. In 1989, “Time” magazine made history when its “person of the year” was the planet earth featured on the front cover wrapped in plastic and twine.
Let’s give Mother Nature her voice and a vote here in Vermont. It can begin at Vermont town meetings. Town meeting members can designate a “stakeholder for nature,” whose charge would be to voice the interests of our environment (much like a public defender, only in this case an advocate for nature) and who would have the one vote of the town meeting member so designated. I can imagine that such a position would be so intriguing and so honorable that there would be competition among those seeking the role.
If the U.S. Supreme Court can bestow personhood on inanimate corporations with its Citizens United decision, certainly we can extend similar recognition to Mother Nature.
And maybe, just maybe, as Vermont has led the nation with adopting civil unions and with its environmental and social programs, we will see other local governmental bodies in other states designate a “stakeholder for nature.” In time, perhaps state governments will twig to Dr. Seuss’s idea of giving the trees a voice. And most importantly, perhaps we will all begin to listen to what Mother Nature is struggling to tell us.
Randy Kritkausky

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