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Guest Commentary: Florida needs a Right to Clean Water Constitutional Amendment

By Joseph Bonasia - | Jun 3, 2021

Joseph Bonasia. PHOTO PROVIDED

Red tide has been around for months, and now a massive blue-green algae bloom blankets 500 square miles of Lake Okeechobee and is making its way down the Caloosahatchee River. Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani says we are facing “an impending disaster.”

This comes after 2018, and 2016 before that, and 2013 before that, and after water summits and a governor’s water quality task force and a much-ballyhooed Clean Waterways Act in 2020.

Knowing the critical importance of our water issues, Fort Myers Beach has been resorting to war metaphors. It recently ran ads in local newspapers declaring: “Enlist in the Fight for Clean Water Now!” It called for a “Snowbird Advocacy Army” and a “Floridian Advocacy Reserve” to fight in defense of “our environment, our economy, and our health.”

But we’ve been fighting this fight for decades by writing representatives, speaking out at public hearings, and supposedly voting the “right people” into office.

Why are we all constantly fighting an uphill battle for something as fundamental as clean water?

Against what are we fighting?

On one level, we combat a regulatory system in which the interests of corporations, which have enjoyed rights of personhood since the early 1800s, supersede the well-being of citizens and nature.

Examples are plentiful: toll roads to nowhere; transferring wetlands-permitting from the EPA to the FDEP; state preemptions of local plastic bag and sunscreen bans; 23,000 permits issued to polluters over the past 50 years.

The results are damning: an explosion of algal blooms; 50,000 tons of phosphorus sitting at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee; 2,440 waterways officially designated as impaired; 712 manatees dead since December, because polluted water has killed the vegetation they feed upon.

In the ad, Fort Myers Beach urges its “armies” to write letters to state and federal representatives urging action. But decades of letters have proven ineffective against an arsenal of corporate rights and state preemptions.

On a deeper level, though, the fight is against a cultural paradigm in which we view the natural world as a bank of resources to satisfy human needs and fuel our economy.

It’s the paradigm implicit in the notion that the Everglades were undeveloped until we engineered them for “useful” purposes. Now we’re spending billions trying to undo the mistakes of our ignorance and avarice.

At our own peril, we see ourselves as separate from and superior to the natural world even though everything in nature is connected and interdependent, including humans.

Microbiologists have discovered that nine out our every 10 cells in our bodies belong not to us, but to microbial species, and 99% of the DNA we’re carrying belongs to them. Each one of us is a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred co-evolved and interdependent species.

The natural world is as we are: everything is connected in community. This is what ecology teaches and what indigenous peoples have always known.

But our legal system, reflecting this flawed paradigm, treats nature as mere property, the way it once treated women and Black Americans as property. We were wrong then, and we are wrong now.

Last November, 89% of Orange County voters passed their historic Right to Clean WaterRights of Nature Charter Amendment. In addition to granting citizens the right to clean water, it granted all the waters in Orange County the right to exist, flow, be free of pollution, and have access to healthy ecosystems.

The first lawsuit has been filed against a developer who wants to build on wetlands in violation of the charter amendment, as well as against the FDEP which has issued the permits to do so. It’s a case that the Orlando Business Journal reports will have “a major impact on development in the state of Florida.” It’s about time.

Legally recognizing rights of nature can help ensure that finally we will build, farm, and live in a sustainable manner. If nature doesn’t have rights, it can’t be adequately protected from corporations that do, nor from a paradigm that imperils ecosystems and people.

Floridians can now sign a petition (at FL5.org) to place before voters in 2022 a state constitutional amendment modelled upon the Orange County law, so all citizens and waterways in Florida can have these rights. It is, after all, our constitution, and we have the power to amend it as needed.

Go to FL5.org. Print out the petition. Sign it. Date it. Mail it.

We shouldn’t have to fight for clean water, but we do. Fighting effectively means granting rights to nature.

— Cape Coral resident Joseph Bonasia is Vice-Chair and SWFL Regional Director of the Florida Rights of Nature Network. (fronn.org)