Sunday, June 7, 2020

Standing Up Instead of Standing By

(Note:  Names have been changed.)

Circa 1973-74
I’m driving home to my duplex apartment just outside Tampa after my yoga class at the University of South Florida, where I’m studying anthropology and Asian religions. Yoga leaves me somewhere between fully energized and completely relaxed; it’s a pleasant space for both brain and body and I’m looking forward to some quiet time to do homework as I pull into a parking space, shift my black VW Beetle into neutral, and switch off the ignition.

I’m almost to the door of my apartment when I notice that the door to the apartment opposite mine is wide open—not characteristic behavior for Jerry and Fred, the two black men who are renting there. While I exchange friendly hellos with them, we don’t socialize too much; however, I have learned from them to appreciate the soulful voice of Barry White, whose records seem to be in continuous rotation on their turntable.

Concerned about the open door, I knock on the doorjamb and peer inside. Furniture has been upended and is in considerable disarray. No one answers my knock. Almost without thinking, I enter, walk through the apartment and go out the back door, which is also wide open.

There on the ground, Jerry is struggling while being forcibly held down by a couple of white men. Another white man, our landlord, is holding a large grey concrete block right over Jerry’s head, obviously getting ready to bash it in.

Adrenaline kicks in and I start screaming as loud as I can. “Robby!! Stop it!! Stop it right now!! What are you DOING???”

Robby stops and looks at me blankly, as do his two friends. “He hasn’t paid his rent!” Robby explains, as if this is justification for assault or worse.

“You can’t do this! That’s not a reason!” I keep up the high-pitched screeching and now other neighbors are coming out of their apartments to see what is going on. With an audience gathering, Robby and his two friends back off and Jerry jumps up.

“I’m calling the police and this needs to stop,” I declare, and retreat to my apartment. I leave my front door open in haste as I head to the phone to dial 9-1-1. One of Robby’s accomplices appears at the door and says to me, “You don’t need to call the police, it’s just that he didn’t pay his rent.”

I give the guy a cold stare while I’m waiting to talk to the police dispatcher. “That doesn’t matter,” I say. “That’s not a reason to hurt or kill someone.”

There is a flicker of surprise on the guy’s face. Evidently that is a new thought for him.

I finish the call and head back to the scene of the crime just in time to see Jerry break a large Coke bottle against the side of the duplex and point the shards straight at Robby and his two friends.

“Jerry!” I scream again. “You can’t do this! I’ve called the police and they are on the way! Put that bottle down right now! The police are coming!!” I keep screeching and more neighbors appear.

Jerry puts the bottle down and backs off. When the policeman arrives, I tell him that I need to talk to him before he leaves, point him to my apartment, and make my retreat.

The questioning goes on for a while and thankfully, the policeman remembers to come talk to me. I tell him everything I witnessed, in sequence. I am fairly sure there will be an assault charge for Robby and his friends.

The policeman tells me that the assault will be written up as a “landlord-tenant dispute.”

Jerry and Fred move out of their apartment shortly after this incident.

Circa 1996-97

The public relations office of the college where I write press releases and newsletter articles is going through a transition. Our graphic design coordinator has left to take a teaching position, and we are getting complaints from employees in other departments that their graphics jobs are not being completed in a timely fashion. Those complaints are starting to pile up.

Our boss, Layton, calls a staff meeting to clarify who can accept work and how jobs are to be prioritized. He announces that instead of routing all work requests through the graphic design coordinator, each designer is now able to accept those requests from other offices at the college.

We begin discussing the progress of several jobs that have landed on the complaint list. When our one black employee, Teresa, reports that she has accepted a job from a black employee who works in the library, the conversation takes a surprising turn.

Layton and Patty, the new graphic design coordinator, don’t think that Teresa should have accepted that job from the librarian. They begin to light into Teresa and as their criticism escalates, Teresa bursts into tears. Layton agrees that she should take a few minutes to collect herself. Teresa leaves the room.

When Teresa comes back to the conference room table with her Kleenex box and sits down, I think, “Good, now this will stop.”

But it doesn’t stop. Layton and Patty light into Teresa again, and again Teresa starts to cry.

“Hold on just a minute,” I say, as calmly as I can, holding up an outward-facing palm. “What is the problem here? You have just told us that anyone in graphics can accept jobs from other offices, and now you are telling Teresa that she can’t? Please stop and think about what you are saying, because you’re talking out of two sides of your mouth.”

Layton begins to seethe. I have openly challenged his authority. The meeting breaks up.

As time goes on and Layton avoids speaking to me, it becomes obvious that I’m in trouble—and finally, word comes down from the college’s human resources department that my contract is not going to be renewed for the next academic year.

The college president, for whom I sometimes draft speeches, calls me to ask what has gone on. I tell him. “Who else knows about this?” he asks me. “No one,” I tell him, “because I haven’t discussed it with anyone outside this office.”

There is a pause and my intuition tells me that the president may be getting ready to intervene on my behalf, or may be wondering if there’s something else he can do. “I will say one other thing,” I offer. “It’s okay with me if I am let go. Why would I want to work for someone who doesn’t want to work with me?”

Later, it dawns on me that this was a racist incident—that if Teresa had been a white employee, she would not have faced chastisement in front of everyone in the department, but would have instead been called into a closed-door meeting with only Layton and Patty in attendance. I communicate that insight to the president of the college and to the head of human resources, with whom I also have a long conversation about exactly what happened.

The end of the academic year approaches and with it, the end of my job. Teresa visits me in my office one day. “Do you think that what you did in that meeting has something to do with why your contract isn’t being renewed?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer, “it has everything to do with it. And I’ll tell you something else. I’d do the same thing again in a heartbeat, because it wasn’t right and it should never have happened.”

After my job ends, I apply for unemployment. I realize that I probably won’t receive it, since I had been a contract employee serving at the pleasure of the college’s administrators. Getting unemployment in that circumstance is unheard of.

I get called to a meeting with a woman in Florida’s unemployment office. I briefly describe what happened and she checks her computer; she’s obviously reading something and I see her blink and sit up a bit straighter in her chair. She looks a bit shocked.

My unemployment claim is approved and I receive money from the state for the next six months while I look for another job. I’m fairly certain that the college’s human resources officer supported my request.

I use part of my newfound free time to do something completely different. I travel on Friday nights to Cassadaga, Florida, where I take classes in psychic development with Eloise Page, a well-known Spiritualist medium and inspirational speaker.

You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Death of the Blue Springs: A Horror Movie

Could it happen here?


A Young Woman stands with an Older Man on the bank of a beautiful clear blue freshwater spring. Other people—the Young Woman’s classmates on a geology field trip with their college instructor, the Older Man—are milling around at some distance. Young Woman and Older Man are silently gazing into the depths of the spring, looking pensive.

“You know,” Older Man says, “if these springs ever get polluted, it will take Mother Nature hundreds of years to clean them up.”

Young Woman laughs at the absurdity of the thought.


Anthropologist:  An intelligent, beautiful and intuitive young woman who is grounded in an unidentified spiritual Asian path (Taoist? Buddhist?). A specialist in political and corporate power structures, she is trained to see the interconnections (not always obvious to others) between the environmental, economic, spiritual, scientific and political sectors of a society. She’s introverted but not shy and is unafraid to ask tough questions or to speak out against injustice directed toward other people or Mother Earth.

Scientist:  A Ph.D. at the local university who is an expert on freshwater springs and is documenting the reasons for their decline. He has identified a pattern of failing springs on the local river that alarms the Anthropologist and gets the attention of the TV Reporter, but he is ignored by Officials and most of the public. (Doesn’t every good horror movie begin with a scientist who is being ignored?)

Artists:  A painter and a photographer who have, intentionally or unintentionally, depicted the decline of the springs over years of bad political and environmental decisions.

Lawyer:  A brilliant, handsome law professor who is also a member of the board of directors of a local springs defender group. He has researched state and federal laws extensively and leads a small statewide “fringe” effort to change current laws. He has received anonymous death threats that he suspects come from some major industrialists.

Writers:  A journalist who covers big environmental stories for a large metropolitan newspaper and a rural resident who writes books set in the Springs Heartland, similar to the ways that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote about Cross Creek and Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about the Everglades.

TV Reporter:  A springs defender at heart, the Reporter uses every opportunity to bring the story of degrading springs to the attention of the public.

Cave Divers:  A man who began cave diving as a youth and the woman who is his video production partner. By filming, mapping, writing and lecturing about the underground aquifer that feeds the springs, they try to raise public awareness about the connections between springs, aquifer and drinking water supply.

·      Chairman of the Board of the local water management agency, a businessman with a string of ethics complaints about his conflicts of interest.
·      The Executive Director of the same agency, an agriculturalist who has forged good communications with and seems sympathetic to the springs defenders.
·      The Secretary of the State Department of Environmental Permitting, who walks a tightrope between his business and political supporters and the springs defenders. A supporter of the Governor.
·      The Governor, who poses as an “environmentalist” solely to win votes and whose actions give lie to that label.
·      Two state Legislators who have crafted laws that create the illusion that the State is saving the springs and who take steps to keep local municipalities from enacting stronger springs protections.
·      County Commissioners and their Lawyers who, when approached by the Anthropologist and her friends, prevent local legal changes that might help to save the springs.


After some years away, an Anthropologist (the Young Woman in the opening scene) returns to take a higher education teaching job in the mid-sized town where she spent her college years. The town is centered in an area called the Springs Heartland, the largest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet.

On a weekend visit to go swimming, the Anthropologist discovers that the area’s blue freshwater springs have begun to turn green. She chances to meet two Cave Divers emerging from the spring and begins to question them. She becomes very concerned and because she is trained to look at the holistic “big picture” of social situations, she begins to investigate what has caused the greening of the springs.

In her spare time, the Anthropologist meets with the Scientist, Artists, Writers, the TV Reporter and Officials who have various roles in defending the springs and in maintaining water quality and water supply. When she attends the meeting of a local nonprofit springs defender group, she meets a sympathetic Lawyer with whom she develops a romantic relationship.

The Anthropologist also attends state water management agency and legislative delegation meetings. She interviews state and local Officials. With coaching from the Lawyer, she discovers how laws are written, at the expense of the springs, to support the wealthy that hold political power. Banding together with the Lawyer and other friends she has made while doing her research, she mounts effort to hold Officials accountable and to change the laws. Those efforts are blocked at every turn and she finally realizes that the Officials who hold power are completely unwilling to make changes that might save the springs.

Just as the Anthropologist begins to realize the futility of her efforts, the springs go dry, saltwater intrudes into the increasingly polluted aquifer and the water becomes poisonous for drinking or irrigation. As large numbers of people get sick, the local health care system collapses alongside the water supply. These failures lead to a crash in the local economy, after which public chaos and an increasingly violent societal breakdown rapidly follow.

To save herself and to be able to share at the national level what she knows about the causes of the collapse, the Anthropologist—accompanied by a few friends—makes a daring escape from the chaos and destruction that have been caused by ignorance and greed.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Fluffy Bunnies, Dying Springs and the Rights of Nature (Part 3 of 3)

The Santa Fe River seen from Rum Island Spring

The idea that Mother Earth and Her ecosystems have the right to exist and to thrive is not a new idea. Indigenous people have lived this view for thousands of years, but relatively modern European law (upon which U.S. law is based)—law developed largely by landed gentry—has subverted the idea of humanity's relationship with the natural world by relegating Nature to the status of "property." And in property-based law, only certain people are allowed to have legal "standing" to defend natural systems in court.

Christopher Stone's landmark article, Should Trees Have Standing?, was published in 1972 and makes the argument that natural systems should have their own legal rights. The article is often cited as the inspiration for the current rights of nature movement. (Stone has since expanded the article into a book with the same title.)

The nonprofit group I work for, the Ichetucknee Alliance, was granted standing to defend the Ichetucknee in one legal challenge but was denied standing in another. So there is no guarantee that even groups whose mission is to restore, protect and preserve specific natural systems can fulfill that mission through our courts of law.

I have watched other environmental groups challenge actions by state agencies and corporations that harm Florida's springs and rivers. Those groups are sometimes denied standing, as the Ichetucknee Alliance was, but even if they are granted standing, they invariably lose their challenges.

The Florida Rights of Nature (RON) movement is a response to this crisis of legal standing that leads to the destruction of Nature, but it is more than that:  It is also a response to a crisis in our democracy in which state governments and the federal government can deny people the right to govern their local communities.

Like many people who are worried about what we humans are doing to Mother Earth, I am committed to doing what I can to reverse our current destructive trends. When I had the opportunity to get involved with a campaign to amend Alachua County's home-rule charter by having a Bill of Rights for the Santa Fe River placed on the 2020 ballot, I jumped on board.

At the first public information session we held for this SAFEBOR (Santa Fe River Bill of Rights) effort, one young man asked, "How long do you think it will be before the State of Florida preempts you from doing this?" My answer was quick:  "Until the next legislative session." (Everyone laughed because they knew that was true.)

Sure enough—the Florida Legislature is now in session and language to preempt local governments from enacting rights of nature laws is sailing through committees. Those of us involved in SAFEBOR and Florida's RON movement knew this was coming and we see it as validation for our efforts, because as Thomas Linzey said recently, "The fact that they're trying to preempt you means you already have the right to do what you're doing."

At the recent Florida Rights of Nature Convention (RONcon) held at the University of Florida's Law School, I asked Linzey:  "If Alachua County wants to put SAFEBOR on the 2020 ballot and the State preempts us from enacting rights of nature laws, what should the County do?"

Linzey's answer:  "Do it anyway."

Do it anyway because our springs and rivers are being destroyed.

Do it anyway because our current regulations and laws are not preventing our springs and rivers from degrading.

Do it anyway because Florida needs to recognize nature and ecosystems as having that highest level of protection that can be afforded by law.

Do it anyway because ecosystems need substantive rights that can be enforced.

Do it anyway because people in communities have a constitutional right of local self-government that enables us to enact stronger environmental protections than those set by the state.

Do it anyway because that same constitutional right of local self-government limits what laws the state can override.

Do it anyway because the Declaration of Independence reads:  "...That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Do it anyway because the Florida Constitution reads:  "Article I, Section 1. Political power. – All political power is inherent in the people. The enunciation herein of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or impair others retained by the people" and "Article II, Section 7. It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty. Adequate provision shall be made by law for the abatement of air and water pollution and of excessive and unnecessary noise and for the conservation and protection of natural resources."

Do it anyway to get a challenge into the courts that will enable resurrection and expansion of the Cooley Doctrine that asserts certain municipal lawmaking cannot be preempted by state law.

Do it anyway because even though a court challenge will be costly, there are some things that are more important than money.

Do it anyway because now is not the time for baby steps. Now is the time for brave people to stand up strongly to the forces that are destroying Mother Earth.

Do it anyway because it's the right thing to do.

Many thanks to Thomas Linzey for tutoring on these legal issues.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Fluffy Bunnies, Dying Springs and the Rights of Nature (Part 2 of 3)

For the next seven years, I talked about the rights of nature idea to anyone and everyone who seemed even slightly receptive. I bulldogged the idea because I knew that Florida was on the fast track to lose our priceless freshwater springs—the largest such concentration of springs on the planet—and because I couldn't stand by and do nothing as the springs were damaged by overpumping from the Floridan aquifer and pollution by people and industry (including, but not limited to, agriculture).

Florida's Eden, a group of artists who had joined forces in Gainesville to create awareness of springs problems, produced the "Dead and Dying Springs" graphic above. The list of dead and dying springs is a reminder for anyone who needs it that we human beings are playing an active role in the destruction of these ecosystems.

I felt like I was talking into empty space for most of those seven years. When I mentioned rights of nature, people would smile and nod; sometimes a more engaged person would ask a question or two, but that would be the end of it. The impression I got from these conversations was that people thought it was a novel idea but they didn't think it was something that would ever catch on. Every now and then, though, I'd run into someone who would resonate with it. Those people gave me hope.

Fast forward almost seven years from 2013, and I saw a Facebook post from Chuck O'Neal in the Orlando area, who—coincidentally or not—I had met at Democracy School when we sat next to each other. Chuck was musing about the idea that he might want his activist's legacy to be the establishment of a rights of nature movement in Florida. I immediately messaged him, "You need to get in touch with Thomas Linzey."

I had been in touch with Thomas about the possibility of having the Ichetucknee Alliance, the group I work for, get involved with RON, but the directors of that small group weren't interested in taking up the rights of nature banner and had several good reasons for not doing so.

I exchanged several more messages with Chuck, and in each one I stressed, "You need to talk to Thomas Linzey." I gave Thomas's contact information to Chuck, and eventually the two connected—and what a connection that turned out to be!

Chuck arranged for Thomas to come to Florida and hosted a meeting at his house in which Thomas gave a crash course in RON to a small crowd of people who were intrigued with the idea. It seems like things moved really fast after that, but actually it took almost a year for the big event to unfold:  the Florida Rights of Nature Convention (RONcon), held in February 2020 at the University of Florida Law School's annual public interest environmental conference.

I've heard from one person who attended those events in the past that the second day of that conference, which was the day RONcon was held, usually has an attendance of about 35 people. This year, we filled a large lecture hall to standing room only capacity!

Following RONcon, a group of people who were particularly interested in and committed to starting a rights of nature movement in Florida got together and with Chuck's leadership, we formed the Florida Rights of Nature Network. There are now people working on bills of rights for local rivers in all areas of Florida, from the Panhandle to the southern part of the state!

And the person who called these ideas "fluffy bunnies" has now admitted that the rights of nature movement has momentum in Florida.

But what exactly are these bills of rights for natural systems supposed to do? Stay tuned for Part 3 of this blog series.

Fluffy Bunnies, Dying Springs and the Rights of Nature (Part 1 of 3)

Back in 2013, I attended a Democracy School that was led by Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) at Barry University Law School's Center for Earth Jurisprudence in Orlando. The school was a crash course in what I didn't learn in high school civics or any of my college classes—namely, how the USA's laws have been structured, since the Constitution was written, to benefit business and commerce at the expense of Mother Nature who sustains us. Even the landmark environmental protection laws that were passed in the 1970s have failed by enabling individual landowners and corporations who own property to receive permits for activities that can lead to the destruction of that property and nearby natural systems.

I had two major takeaways from Democracy School. The first was a quote by Jane Ann Morris, a corporate anthropologist who said, "The only things environmental laws regulate are environmentalists." As a water defender working primarily for the Ichetucknee River and its associated springs, I can vouch for the fact that Morris's statement is true. We activists are extremely limited in what we can speak about—usually only minor problems and never the "big picture"—and limited in whether or how we can challenge activities that cause harm to ecosystems.

When faced with questioning or openly challenging environmentally harmful activities, activists at state agency meetings find themselves trapped in scenarios that play out like this:

1. Agency staff members present a slide show and describe their “process.”
2. During public comment, people point out substantive flaws in the agencies’ positions and/or flaws in scientific methodology and findings. People decry lack of meaningful action, beg for substantive change, and ask pointed, simple questions that put agencies on the spot.
3. Agency representatives hem and haw with answers to simple questions. Often there are comments about the need to do more studies.
4. An email address for written comments is projected on a slide.
5. The meeting is adjourned.
6. Nothing ever changes, except for the harm to Mother Nature, which increases.

The results of those meetings seem to be inevitable. After public feedback, which is sometimes received patiently and sometimes not, the individuals or corporations eventually get the permits they've requested or the state agency moves forward with its planned actions. Water defenders are left feeling like we're behind a big truck that's dumping trash (or worse!) at us as we desperately try to shovel it away, only to be buried by the contents of the truck at the end of the road.

My second takeaway from Democracy School was a lot more positive:  It was the idea that by granting legal rights to individual natural systems like the Ichetucknee or Santa Fe rivers, we could level the playing field between business/commerce and Mother Nature in our courts of law and possibly provide much-needed protections for vulnerable ecosystems.

I saw this rights of nature (RON) concept not as a magic bullet, but rather as a "helicopter idea" that enabled us to get out in front of that trash truck to spark a paradigm change and a change in our culture. Instead of treating Mother Nature as an object, people could be encouraged to treat Her as a subject with whom we're in a healthy instead of an abusive relationship—not as a "thing" that can be destroyed for private profits, but as a living system that we, and many other animals and plants, depend upon for our survival; as a benefactor, to whom we owe acts of kindness in reciprocity for all She has given us.

And I was thrilled to learn from CELDF's representatives that rights of nature laws were being adopted in various parts of the world!

I came home from Democracy School determined to spread the word as widely as I could about this new approach to defending Mother Earth. One of the first people I told was the head of an environmental organization I was working for. "Giving rights to the river?" he laughed. "That's some real fluffy bunny stuff right there."

He might have even rolled his eyes.