Several years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing a woman celebrating her 100th birthday. As we stood in the shade of her peach orchard, she sang a song she remembered from the Suffragette Movement. It was the rallying call of her youth. She knew in her bones what the movement meant to the women who brought courage and tenacity to the fight for voting rights — and to the generations of women who have followed.
It was 99 years ago this August that Congress ratified the 19th amendment granting American women full voting rights. It seems the arc of our country’s history is defined by struggles for human rights in its many forms. Time hasn’t diminished the need for citizens to defend equality and justice.
A new rights battle is building momentum — a fight for the Rights of Nature — and the Great Lakes are at the center of the struggle. Environmentalists have struggled to protect water quality for decades. But the assaults keep coming. Our own Lake Michigan and beaches suffer continuous abuse from sewage spills, microplastics, PFAS, industrialization, oil spills, invasive species and other harms.
Fed up with government’s inadequate protection for Lake Erie and its watershed, the people of Toledo took the matter of protection into their own hands. In 2014, Lake Erie produced a massive toxic algae bloom which contaminated the drinking water of nearly a half-million Toledo residents. The crisis inspired creation of new legal rights for the ecosystem.
Last February the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed, giving citizens the ability to sue on behalf of the lake whenever the lake is endangered. It is the first law in the U.S. to provide a natural resource legal standing. Citizens may now sue on behalf of the lake when its right to flourish is threatened. Not surprisingly, the law is being challenged in federal court. As the suffragettes and other activists knew too well, change is hard.
A coalition of governors of the Great Lakes states are calling for 2020 presidential candidates to support policy proposals protecting Great Lakes ecology and economic interests. They ask for increased federal funding and EPA action on PFAS. At this point, I’m with the people of Toledo who realized government action isn’t enough. It’s tough love time.
For love of its sweet waters, blue vistas, fishes and soul-inspiring energy, it’s time to fully appreciate Lake Michigan and all Great Lakes as living entities deserving of legal rights. Shifting policy perspectives of the lakes solely as a resource for humans to believing in their inalienable right to thrive unpolluted may be the missing piece for effectively preserving and protecting these magnificent waters we love.