Rivers are sad

To see the passing of advocate Christopher Stone, who fought tirelessly for their rights. Yes, that’s right, he fought for the right of rivers to have what is known as standing in court. In the ’70s,  the idea seemed eccentric, though the environmental tide was beginning to turn with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. 

It might seem a stretch to attribute personhood to rivers but what was obvious was the degradation of the environment. All thoughtful people were talking about it – with 1970 came the advent of Earth Day, then there were back to the landers, people were still debating Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, etc. – but nobody knew what to do about it.

What about trees? Stone—the son of muckraking journalist I.F. Stone–raised a question. Everything can flow from a question, if you’re smart enough or brave enough to raise it. What if endangered non-human beings could see their day in court? Should trees have standing? Towards legal rights for natural objects was the law review article he published in 1972 asserting that since entities with standing, or locus standi, have the right to bring action or appear in court, and environmental entities cannot themselves bring action or appear in court, this standing can be achieved on behalf of the entity by a representing legal guardian. 

Representation could increase protection of culturally significant aspects of the natural environment, or areas vulnerable to exploitation and pollution.

I know that I have rather snarkily suggested in a post here that trees, environmental entities if they are anything, are not in fact people. But that does not mean they shouldn’t share the rights of people.

There is an energetic movement of people arguing for the rights of apes. Their credo: The great ape personhood movement aims to extend legal personhood to apes, a distinction that recognizes these non-human animals as beings with the capacity to hold both rights and duties.

Since the early 1990s countries have taken steps to protect great apes and other animals. Switzerland amended its constitution in 1992 to recognize animals as beings and not things. In 1999, New Zealand granted protections to great apes, and as a result their use is today forbidden in research, testing or teaching. Some European countries, including Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, have completely banned the use of great apes in animal testing.

In the past, it’s gone the other way too, with animals having standing in courts and thereby being sentenced to death. The earliest documented execution of an animal comes from 1266, when the trial of an infanticidal pig took place in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. In the Middle Ages, dogs, pigs, cows, horses and bulls and even rats routinely faced judges and, if found guilty of capital crimes, went to the stake or gallows.

So much has changed over the centuries. In 2015 in India, a decision came down from the Delhi High Court that birds have the fundamental legal right to fly,

But we stray from the rights of rivers. Stone’s article and the book that followed had a real impact on the lives of some riverine entities.

In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was declared to be a legal person in 2017.   This new legal entity was renamed Te Awa Tupua and is now recognized as “an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea, incorporating the Whanganui River and all of its physical and metaphysical elements.”

The lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi, Gerrard Albert, said “we consider the river an ancestor and always have…treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

The Ganges is now considered a legal person, an action taken in order to combat the 1.5 billion liters of untreated sewage that flood into it daily.

Back at home, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in 2019, making the point that the lake has the right to “flourish.” The Bill was struck down a year later.

What about trees? Do they have rights in court?

This ash tree died today in Ozone Park, Queens and was fed into a chipper. The worker with the saw sang as he cut off the branches, high up in the air.

Are we violating those rights when New York City Parks asks that certain trees be taken down? Will they have their day in court when the wooden gavel falls in their favor? So far I only have questions.

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