Living world: Should natural entities be treated as legal persons?

by Kurt Cobb – Resource Insights – April 09, 2017

This year the New Zealand parliament voted to give legal personhood to a river and provided for the appointment of two guardians to represent it. In India a court extended legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and the glaciers that feed them.

It defies our normal modes of thinking that natural entities such as trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, and glaciers should be given legal standing in courts and public life. And yet we take as a matter of course the legal rights of other inanimate entities:
The world of the lawyer is peopled with inanimate right-holders: trusts, corporations, joint ventures, municipalities, Subchapter R partnerships, and nation-states, to mention just a few. Ships, still referred to by courts in the feminine gender, have long had an independent jural life, often with striking consequences.

The quotation comes from a famous law review article on the topic of rights for natural entities entitled “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights For Natural Objects,” written in 1972 by Christopher Stone, a professor of law at the University of Southern California.

Perhaps our most important blind spot is that we forget that we humans are natural entities as well. Scientists study our bodies just as they do the bodies of other animals–except that these scientists are not allowed to kill humans to dissect them or expose them to potentially harmful substances without informed consent. (Animal rights activists would argue that such protections should be extended to all animals.)

Ultimately, what’s at stake is what our relationship with other natural entities will be and whether it is in our interest to grant them legal rights. It is well to remember that full legal rights for women, African-Americans, Native Americans, the mentally and physically disabled, and many other disadvantaged groups were once unthinkable, too. And yet, today few would argue against including these previously excluded groups within the realm of legal personhood.

But, one might say, these are people and belong to a special category. Nature cannot speak for itself as we humans do. To which law review author Stone replies:

It is not inevitable, nor is it wise, that natural objects should have no rights to seek redress in their own behalf. It is no answer to say that streams and forests cannot have standing because streams and forests cannot speak. Corporations cannot speak either; nor can states, estates, infants, incompetents, municipalities or universities. Lawyers speak for them, as they customarily do for the ordinary citizen with legal problems.

Now, perhaps the most important phrase in the above quotation is “in their own behalf.” This explains why we might not regard it as sufficient merely to compel people by law and by custom to take care of natural entities. When natural entities do not have independent advocacy, it is all too easy to consider them merely as the instruments of humans. We call them “resources” and that means they are for our use as we please. Nature becomes merely a great vat of primordial clay from which we humans can take whatever we want and shape it to our needs without regard to the needs of any other entities.

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