A Lake in Florida Is Suing to Protect Itself

Lake Mary Jane, in central Florida, could be harmed by development. A first-of-its-kind lawsuit asks whether nature should have legal rights.

For most of history, people saw themselves as dependent on their surroundings, and rivers and mountains had the last word. Illustration by Sadia Tariq

In the center of Florida, about a half-hour drive from Disney World, the shallow, irregularly shaped Lake Mary Jane—frequented by swimmers, boaters, and, of course, alligators—is quietly making history. As developers plan to convert hundreds of acres of wetlands and forest north of the lake into homes and office buildings, Mary Jane—together with another lake, a marsh, and two boggy streams—is suing. Elizabeth Kolbert writes, in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, “Never before has an inanimate slice of nature tried to defend its rights in an American courtroom. Depending on your perspective, the lake’s case is either borderline delusional or way overdue.” Follow Kolbert as she visits Mary Jane and the boggy streams, interviews central Florida’s “local Lorax,” and takes us on a voyage through history, back to the seventies, when a Supreme Court case about the building of a Disney ski resort near Yosemite culminated in one of the “most famous and passionate dissents” in the Court’s history. What would it mean for a piece of nature to be given standing? In the words of one skeptical attorney, “How can I rest beneath a tree / If it may soon be suing me?”

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