Janie Cheaney: Human rights for non-humans


KENT COVINGTON, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 20th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Kent Covington.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The idea of giving human rights to natural elements is taking hold in some places. But what does that really mean? Janie B. Cheaney’s put some thought into it. 

JANIE B. CHEANEY: Two months ago our Electric Co-op magazine reported on the efforts of volunteer linemen from Missouri to bring electric power to a remote village in the Bolivian Andes. It was no small effort, at 13,000 feet, with no auxiliary power. But it all seemed worthwhile when a single bulb washed the village leader’s home with light.

But some radical environmentalists might see it another way. What right have men to mar the stark beauty of Andes with power lines? Does nature have a right to be left alone?

It’s not a theoretical question. Last month, Columbia’s Supreme Court granted “personhood” to the Atrato River. That means the right to be protected, preserved, and restored by the state, with representatives chosen from the people and the government to speak for it. And the Atrato isn’t the first. Courts in Ecuador, New Zealand, and India have declared rivers or river systems to be  legal entities entitled to bring suit.

Granting personhood to geographical features isn’t so far-fetched, according to a paper published by the Earth Institute. It wasn’t long ago that children, women, and blacks were denied legal standing in America. The paper goes on to argue that rights are not timeless values, but rather evolving relationships.

Most reasonable people agree that valuable resources and features should not be willfully polluted and spoiled, but, quote, “it is not until nature is recognized as holding certain rights that we will realize that nature is deserving of a chance to speak for itself”—just as corporations, also defined as “persons,” can appoint individual representatives to speak for them.

The Earth Law Center describes itself as “a global force of advocates for the rights of nature.” It recently published a draft of the Universal Declaration of River Rights on its website. The document defines a right to flow, to feed and be fed, and to perform essential functions—making a river sound something like an office manager. The ELC and other environmental groups are searching for new streams to conquer—that is, adjudicate.

Human culture first developed along Earth’s rivers. They are the source of boundaries, battles, and ballads, the bloodstream of a nation: vital to early human flourishing. But they’re not human. That’s the distinction advocates miss: rights have expanded to include women, children, and minorities because all of those are humans. Corporations can be understood as persons because they are composed of persons. Non-human entities should be protected, but they can only be protected by humans.

That’s our calling: to take care of Earth, not to referee between ourselves and non-human entities over competing claims.

If a mountain receives legal personhood, who decides if the mountain’s right not to be defaced trumps a villager’s right to power? The self-appointed guardians, that’s who: Big Brother disguised as Mother Earth.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


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