Thursday, September 13, 2012

Do rivers have rights?

I spawn fish and I vote
A New Zealand court has recognised that a river has personality sufficient for it to have legal representation in order for its interests to be considered and its rights respected. The move is made in a deliberate echo or parallel of the legal "personhood" of corporations.

In both cases, corporations and natural entities, the personhood that is legally recognised is not identical with that of a "natural person", though it was the idea that corporations are persons that lay behind the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Citizens United that effectively removed any spending cap on corporate political "speech".* This is not the place for a detailed consideration of the history and myriad implications of this legal metaphor. My usual brief reply to this idea is that as long as the US starts applying the death penalty to corporations who commit grave offences, then they can continue with this somewhat odd word games.
*Also lying behind the decision was the equation that campaign money is a form of speech and so falls under the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech. I find both assumptions dubious.

In truth, I don't really know what to make of this development in New Zealand. It seems like an extension/application of the move made in 2009 by the new Bolivian constitution, which acknowledges that nature has rights. There may have been other ways of doing it, but I do think it is imperative that the ecological damage we are doing is brought more clearly and fully into our legal system. There are all kinds of difficulties with this task and I doubt there is a perfect solution. I would be very interested to hear reflections from lawyers (and anyone else) on the possible pros and cons of this precedent.

A variety of theological observations support some kind of legal recognition of creatures (and I'm not confining this word to living beings, but include rivers, mountains, atmosphere, oceans, etc.). The created order is declared "good" in the absence of humanity (Genesis 1); it is sustained and designed for goods that are not exhausted by human projects (Psalm 104); God cares for it simply because he made it (Matthew 6 & 10). In short, non-human creatures have intrinsic, not merely instrumental, worth and cannot rightly be appropriated by or subordinated to human projects without this being given due weight.

7 comments:

byron smith said...

An utterly fascinating piece on the history of the participation of animals in court, including a case where termites won against a monastery and weevils won against a village.

byron smith said...

"Indeed, Rembaud asserted, the weevils enjoyed a prior claim to the vegetation on Mount Cenis, since, as detailed in the Book of Genesis, the Supreme Deity had created animals before he fashioned humans and God had promised animals all of the grasses, leaves and green herbs for their sustenance. Rembaud’s argument stumped the court."

Rich said...

This is a complicated issue. Those who wish to be informed of the issues would do well to read this report of the Waitangi Tribunal: http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/reports/summary.asp?reportid={09C81BD2-473F-4F11-81FB-E22EC2D75B5A}

byron smith said...

Thanks Rich.

John Roe said...

I expect this is already mentioned somewhere in the links you reference, but a foundational document for this kind of thinking is "Should Trees Have Standing" by Christopher Stone, first published in the 1970s: see here

byron smith said...

Yep, it's referenced in the first link in the post, but you're right that it's worth highlighting due to its importance.

Matthew Petersen said...

This post reminds me of the scene in Prince Caspian where the river asks Aslan to unbind him.