Rivers Declared to be “Persons”

Original Article

We live in truly surreal times. In an age when all human beings still do not have access to human rights—and when some of the world’s foremost bioethicists declare that the unborn and cognitively disabled are not persons — radical environmentalists and others are agitating to grant “rights” to objects in nature.

In the latest phase of this descent into metaphysical madness, two rivers have been declared to be legal “persons” endowed with human-style rights. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was granted the same legal rights as a human being. The reason? The Maori tribe considers the river sacred and an “ancestor.”

Religion was also why an Indian court declared the Ganges River, considered sacred in the Hindu faith, to be a “person.” From The Guardian story:

A court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand ordered on Monday that the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, be accorded the status of living human entities. The decision, which was welcomed by environmentalists, means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person.

Just what does it mean for a river to have “rights”? That remains to be seen. At the very least, human needs will count for far less when a river is considered our legal equal. For example, what if building a dam could prevent deadly flooding or generate electricity? Would these essential needs be left unfulfilled because the river has a “right” to flow unimpeded to the sea?

This is madness. Yes, we should respect the religious views and traditions of the Maoris and of Hindus. But should secular law inscribe distinctly religious beliefs into a nation’s statutes and secular court rulings? Imagine the hue and cry if the Host in Catholic Communion were legally recognized as the body and blood of Christ. The screaming would break decibel machines!

Radical environmentalists supporting these declarations are playing a cynical game. They don’t believe the theology expressed in these laws. But they are happy to harness the religious energy of the faithful to promote their own quest to destroy human exceptionalism by granting legal rights to nature and its various aspects — and not just to rivers believed to be sacred.

Granting “rights” to nature requires us to give equal consideration to flora, fauna, and geological phenomena that might be adversely affected by human activity. And more subversively, it will open the courtroom doors to radical environmentalist lawyers who will surely fire a barrage of lawsuits seeking to uphold the rights of their animal, vegetable, river, mountain, meadow, and microorganism clients. Indeed, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund—a driving force within the Nature Rights Movement — states on its website:

[T]he rights of ecosystems and natural communities are enforceable independently of the rights of people who use them. That means that people within a community could step “into the shoes” of a mountain, stream, or forest ecosystem, and advocate for the rights of those natural communities. It calls for a system of jurisprudence in which those ecosystems are actually “seen” in court. Damages are assessed according to the costs of restoring the ecosystem to its pre-damaged state.

Talk about a full employment guarantee for lawyers! Imagine the courtroom backlog if “nature” could sue (funded by well-heeled radical environmentalist groups) every time a person wanted to act enterprisingly with his own property. Indeed, consider the difficulty — nay, impossibility — of obtaining a liability insurance policy to protect a development project if “nature” could sue to prevent its rights from being infringed. Even if these cases ultimately failed, they would increase the cost of human enterprise exponentially and have a chilling effect.

Then again, taken to its logical conclusion, nature rights would prevent us from truly owning property in the first place. We would become, at best, fiduciaries for all of the life forms on and of the tracts of land that we no longer truly owned. Such self-destructive policies would have a particularly pernicious impact on the developing world, where granting equal rights to bushes, mosquitoes, viruses, and swamps would thwart people’s ability to liberate themselves from destitution.

Granting rights to nature is also intellectually nonsensical. University of Michigan professor of philosophy Carl Cohen put it this way: “A right … is a valid claim, or potential claim, that may be made by a moral agent, under principles that govern both the claimant and the target of the claim.” This means that for nature to possess rights, it must be capable of assuming concomitant duties or responsibilities toward others — a farcical notion.

And this is all completely unnecessary if the goal is environmental protection and conservation, which can be sustained through laws and protected designations. For example, Yellowstone remains a treasured wonder of the world even though Old Faithful Geyser is not a legal person entitled to enforceable rights.

I have been warning for years that the movement to grant rights to nature is gaining steam, often to the derision of folk who thought we would never be that self-destructive. It’s time to splash some cold river water on our faces: Nature rights is happening. Unless we come to our senses quickly, that bodes very ill for the human future.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.