It started a couple years ago when New Zealand passed legislation that granted one of its national parks personhood status. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’m not trying to be funny. They actually protect the 821-square-mile national park Te Urewera not as government-owned land, but as a person, a citizen with legal rights and entitlements.
Later this year, another bill along the same lines is expected to pass the New Zealand parliament that will grant personhood status to one of its rivers – the Whanganui.
For years, the local indigenous Maori people – of Polynesian descent – argued that they owned the land, but the government wouldn’t give it up. This law acted as a sort of compromise. As professor Jacinta Ruru who specializes in indigenous rights at New Zealand’s University of Otago explained:
“From our perspective as Maori, we believe that we come from the land and that the land has its own personality, its own heartbeat, its own health, its own soul. The government was not willing to give ownership of that national park back to that tribe, so this legal personality concept resonated and is a term that both sides – the government and Maori tribes – can create a solution around: it’s an ancestor that owns itself.”
New Zealand actually got this idea from a 1972 paper by a University of Southern California professor Christopher Stone called “Should Trees Have Standing?” in which he argued “toward legal rights of natural objects.”
Now this idea of granting land legal personhood status to mountains, rivers, parks, etc. with all the protections that go along with it is gaining ground (no pun intended) around the world, including here in the United States.
Some 100 municipalities around the country have enacted similar ordinances granting personhood status to various land areas – so-called “rights-of-nature” legislation. So far, those ordinances haven’t gone as far as New Zealand’s in affecting actual ownership of land. Some examples from Outsider Online:
In April 2013, as part of a 10-year process toward becoming a “sustainable city,” the city council in Santa Monica, California, passed an ordinance that empowered the city and residents to file suit on behalf of local ecosystems. The law could apply if, say, an otherwise legal development or activity threatened a natural area. Movement Rights also worked with Mendocino County, in northern California, to write an ordinance giving the county the right to be free from fracking. And in 2006, local leaders in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Movement Rights to ban toxic sludge dumping on similar legal grounds.
Movement Rights mentioned above is a “rights-of-nature” advocacy group based in San Francisco, California. “All of this work outside the United States makes it so much more possible here,” the group’s director Shannon Biggs said. “The future can look like New Zealand. It’s not scary. We’re not talking about shutting down the American dream, we’re actually talking about how do we rebuild it so it’s a viable one that can be shared with future generations. It’s kind of inevitable.”
These same people who want to grant personhood status to mountains, trees, rivers, and waterfalls are the same people who think an unborn baby isn’t technically a person until it’s born. These people talk about nature as having its own “heartbeat” and “soul.” Those are obviously descriptive metaphors. They’re not literal.
An unborn baby actually has a soul, and around six weeks, a heartbeat. But that doesn’t count, because a woman has a right to do what she pleases with her baby’s own body.