This lake now has legal rights, just like you
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This lake now has legal rights, just like you


In the summer of 2014, a giant
algae bloom took over Lake Erie. It was so big, you could see it from space. This algae contained a toxin that
could cause vomiting and liver damage. “Leaving over half a million
people with no safe drinking water.” “Residents have been served notice:
stop drinking water. Don’t shower.
And don’t let pets come near tap water.” A few days later… “Hundreds of thousands of people in Ohio are
breathing a sigh of relief today. The mayor of Toledo announced today the
city’s water is now safe to drink.” “It seemed like, oh don’t worry,
we we got over that, the water is safe, we’re gonna show video of people
drinking tap water just to put you at ease.” “Here you go, right from the tap… And again: The blooms weren’t toxic enough to affect the drinking water, but they kept
coming back. That made me really angry, that we’ve just been kind of allowing
this problem to go on, we’ve been watching this ecosystem suffer. Why
haven’t we taken action until now? In February 2019, the citizens of Toledo
voted to try something unprecedented. “Breaking news tonight, the results are in.” “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has passed by a wide margin.” “Lake Erie has earned some of the same legal rights as humans.” “The same rights, as a human being.
It happened.” If you fly over this area west of Lake Erie, you’ll
see mostly corn and soybean fields, but that wasn’t always the case. Up until the
late 1800s it was known as the Great Black Swamp, it was muddy and mosquito
infested. Indigenous communities had always just left it alone, but when European settlers arrived, they had other ideas. They thought “oh wow look at all this
great ground we have here.” We need to conquer this land. They drained the swamp. First they dug trenches around the fields to siphon off the water, but the
soil beneath was still too wet to grow crops, so they added these underground
tubes with holes in the top. Water from the swampy soil traveled through the
tubes into the ditches, where it flowed into creeks and rivers and eventually
Lake Erie. The soil could support crops and livestock, which is why we need to
talk about cow shit. Each cow in a herd needs an acre of grass. That’s nearly a
football field. So these early farms tended to have small herds on huge
swaths of land. The whole idea is to sort of emulate the bison in olden days. They didn’t have to do anything with the waste. It slowly fertilized the soil and
grew more grass. In the mid 20th century that started to change. Economists came
up with a notion that if we got a lot of animals together, then they could grow
livestock in a very rapid manner. The equation had flipped — instead of a small
herd of cows spread out over a large area, today thousands of cows share a
very small space. The same is true for pigs and chickens. These operations are
known as centralized animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It was efficient
and meat got cheap, but this new way of raising animals created a problem: What
to do with all that waste? It’s normally stored in large, what are
called lagoons. The waste is mixed with water and eventually these lagoons fill
up, so the CAFOs will have it hauled and spread out over nearby corn and soybean
fields. Unlike solid manure, nutrients from this
liquid mixture can travel quickly through those same tubes that keep the
soil dry and into the waterways that eventually feed Lake Erie, where the
phosphorus from the manure combines with warm shallow water, to create an ideal
home for toxic algae. There are nearly 150 centralized animal feeding
operations in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Each year, they produce nearly 700
million gallons of manure. Nearly 20% of it originates here, in southern Michigan. This is the Hudson dairy CAFO right here. 3,500 cows puts out the manure equivalent
of 70,000 people every day. Pam Taylor is a retired math teacher. She showed me what happens when these giant manure lagoons get filled up. Watch watch watch! And so that’s liquid manure coming out of there? Yes. Several times a year, Pam goes
out and tests the water near these fields. Today we’re looking for orthophosphate, the main culprit in Lake Erie’s recurring toxic algae blooms. This already does not look good to me. Anything above 0.005 parts per million
can trigger a toxic algae bloom. “And we’re already at five.”
“At least.” The Maumee River is the main tributary to Lake Erie. It’s where all these other
creeks eventually end up. The orthophosphate levels in the Maumee River
have been rising steadily since the mid-1990s and algae blooms have become the
new normal. “Residents in Toledo, Ohio are facing another day without tap water.
They were ordered to stay away from the water over the weekend after tests
showed it was toxic.” It was definitely something that made you just kind of sit
back and think this isn’t right. As a mom, I have to do something. I think there
were maybe five or six of us at the very very beginning putting pressure on those
agencies that are in charge. And trying to get a
response from them. There was nothing and that was the first time I had heard
about rights of nature. The rights of nature movement spans communities in
Pennsylvania, Ecuador, New Zealand, and elsewhere, that have passed statutes
recognizing the legal rights of rivers, forests, and ecosystems. Drawing on these
laws, the Toledo group wrote up a document. They called it the “Lake Erie
Bill of Rights.” It recognized the lake’s right to “exist, flourish and naturally
evolve.” What the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is trying to do is to say hey, Farmer A,
even though you had a permit when you applied it all of that fertilizer and it
ran off into Lake Erie, that is essentially legally wrongful. The bill recognizes Lake Erie’s right to file a lawsuit if it’s been harmed. And if that
sounds ridiculous, consider how that right
has changed over time. Historically, there was a very small pool of actors that could come before
the court and say, something has happened to me, and that is wrong, and you have to
fix it. If someone harmed a woman or an enslaved person, the man they were
beholden to would have to bring a lawsuit on their behalf. And so over the
years, we’ve seen an expansion of who can come before the courts and say my rights
have been violated. It’s not just humans.
Corporations can file lawsuits too. In the United States, the court has also recognized corporations’ rights to make
unlimited political donations and to ignore laws that conflict with the
religious beliefs of their owners. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights argues that
nature should have at least some of these same rights. But that creates a
constitutional puzzle for the courts. Because, if the corporations who raised
this livestock and spread this manure have a right to do business, but the lake
also has a right to be healthy, then whose rights win out? If you’re the kind of person who is
fascinated by the natural world, then I highly recommend you go stop by
CuriosityStream and check out The Secret Life Of Lakes. It’s a fantastic
series that explores the natural life cycles of lakes and the mysteries hidden
beneath them. CuriosityStream is a subscription service, they offer over
2,400 documentaries and nonfiction titles by some of the best filmmakers out there.
You can get unlimited access starting at $2.99 a month and because
you’re a Vox fan, the first 31 days are free, if you go to curiositystream.com/vox and use promo code Vox. CuriosityStream doesn’t impact our editorial, but
their support does make videos like this possible, so go check them out.

100 Comments

  • Vox

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  • Itsa Games

    can you arrest that lake too?
    i wonder what gender it identifies with
    maybe give it a seat at the Human Rights Council ……

  • DazeofSam

    I have the right to build a bonfire. I don't have the right to build a bonfire in my neighbor's house. Seems like a similar analogy could apply to these businesses.

  • silvio d'alessio

    you can have free market capitalism or meat consumption, but if you want to have both then environmental disasters are the result.

  • Brenton Rettig

    According to reports, 20% of the people of Toledo voted. That is 55,298 people who voted out of 276,491 people who live in Toledo. Lake Erie is one of the most populated lakes meanings there are huge cities in its shores like Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Monroe, Detroit, Windsor, Erie, and Buffalo. The farmers are only doing probably less then 5% of the damage, but most of the harm is coming from the population in the lake front. The algae is a natural phenomena but also human because the EPA decided to clean the lake so it was clear. This caused the algea because the lake is the shallower than all of the great lakes. Go look at a pool algae grows there because it is shallow and clear. So don't blame the farmers, they supply your food. Your talking about stopping conventional crop production of some of the biggest crop growing US states and the one of the largest crop producing Canadian provinces.

  • Shahaan Singh

    You can't give an inanimate object, or a group of inanimate objects, none of which are composed of formerly, currently, or soon to be conscious humans, legal rights.

  • Thrumbolt the Great

    Just stop eating animal products. Problem solved. It's stupid to pollute water because you'd rather use cow titty juice than oat based juice in your dumb latte.

  • MiloTheHunk

    Ye fair enough, I'm a Farmer from Wales sheep and cattle, we are a mountain farm but these people from the cities want us to stop putting our livestock on mountains so that plants and that can grow… But its the natural home for the livestock to be up on the mountains graising. They tested to save a plant by fencing off a small area to let it grow. This proceeded for the other plants to grow over it and they killed that plant… Its called the re Wilding scheme which in some places is good just not all…. Im not sure if this has anything to do with the video but like

  • Anne Worth

    I really appreciate the background information presented in the video on how this problem developed and the details about what these farms are like. As a city dweller I found this information illuminating and useful. We need to pay better attention to how our human activities are impacting our most important resources. What a great video! Kudos to the creator!

  • me me

    I can't ignore the possibilities this creates. Can natural bodies sue other natural bodies? I want that to happen.

  • Nathan Kujan

    You completely forgot to put Pennsylvania on the map at the beginning or New York. You just put Ohio over both of them.

  • Maximilian Bennett

    The earliest version of this was in the 17-1800’s, (not completely sure tbh), when a guy gave his land to a tree. Lemme rephrase that, a guy gave his land to a plant.

  • hippiejohn3810

    Humans are the ones in control…it is about time they have some control and start acting correctly!!!!!!!

  • Vici233

    Best way to strengthen the lake's position here is to not be a customer who supports those CAFOs. Reduce your intake of animal products and eat more plants instead. The manure will be there until we take away the reason it gets produced, which is simply the high demand on meat and dairy products. The manure will not magically vanish if we give the lake rights (not saying it hurts though) or if we go to a meeting and call the responsible people baffoons. This conflict of interest is caused by consumers who demand too many animal products, not "incompetent politicians" or "evil farmers".

  • Barney Jobes

    Pollution and wrecking the environment has been going on for many decades. The answer has always been in the past and the answer now is to have powerful national environmental police force agencies in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, etc. with hundreds to thousands of Environment Enforcement Police Agents with their only job totally dedicated to policing the environment and polluters, full power to lock down and shutdown, and laying criminal charges against companies, corporations, industry, private & public polluters, cities & towns, and yes even government polluters also with power over government legislators who purposely & legally allow pollution by cities and industry to happen. (Yes I know it will cost the loss of some jobs, big money, and services at the expense of environmental protection.)

    With their own Environmental Lab Testing for water and soil samples. Also working with cities and industry with consultation on what is legal or not legal so nobody is confused & in the dark by knowing very clearly where they stand, proper refinery or plant building construction to avoid pollution, and pollution prevention information.

    With a pollution reporting telephone hot line, Pollution Agency Police can be directed from 911, with fast response times & quick environmental policing action to lay charges & access to the regular police & army-military for backup if necessary, with the full power to totally shutdown industry & city pollution overriding the government because all levels of government cannot be trusted as governments legally allow this pollution to happen, examples are: raw untreated sewage into the ocean by cities, manufacturing plants putting chemicals into rivers & lakes, mines dumping chemicals, etc.

    I am 'not' a greeny, 'not' a Green Party member, or 'not' a tree hugger. I am 'not against' moderate responsible logging with proper clean-up afterwards & reforestation, I am 'not against' the Oil Sands in Alberta with proper reclaimation of the land, I am 'not against' pipelines & oil tankers (although accidents can happen), and I am 'not against' mining & industry with proper responsible environmental operations minimizing pollution.

  • Edu

    Although companies have the RIGHT to do business, they also have the DUTY to optimize their processes in order to make them SUSTAINABLE

  • Knarf Nil

    7:25 Easy, the Lake Erie's rights supercedes the affected business operations'. One's rights ends at the doorsteps of another entity's health, safety, and other protections.

  • Michael O

    The thing is these are solvable problems if everyone involved invested time and money to fix it. Unfortunately no one wants to do that.

  • Destro Metro

    Why is it being called the lake's legal rights. We are only giving it rights for ourselves, so we can have clean water. No one actually cares about whats living in the lake.

  • newSomber Man

    Experts are predicting a large algae bloom again this year. I suppose we will have to wait and see what happens.

  • Andre Zamora

    This is ironic I mean people need water and food but in exchange of waste and when its harmed then it is there time to spring to action

  • Descencious

    EW people are drinking from the tap! you drink from the filtered water from a fridge! Get a fridge with a filtered water sYstem and u can get water from

  • Alyssa Kelley

    As a student at the university of Toledo, this videos speaks to me. Every single summer we hear about the algae blooms, but yet nothing is ever done. I’m proud to see this. Because “you’ll do better in Toledo” means nothing if you don’t actually stand behind that statement.

  • Version Kinda

    If cow manure is the main problem, why aren't they using the manure to produce biogas energy? Only problem with this is that, less grass for the cows. But you could always use hay for cow food..

  • Cromwell Cruz

    Who's right win out? I think the lake. It's all about capability to compromise an alternative. Farmer A can better its fertilizer, fix the pipe system or add filtration facilities. The lake can't do anything but receive the filth.

  • railbaron1

    Who's rights have more sway Nature or the Corporations. If things keep going the way they are now, It will the Corporations Ever Time.

  • Douglas

    Oh America, always over complicating things. The lake need rights because your useless government don't take care of the population well being, which should be their reason to exist. Population is being harmed not the river.

  • brian stone

    Love the commentary and focus but not gonna let my young kids watch it.. the language wasn’t needed to get the point across. Clean it up a little.. it will make more impact

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