Nature's going to sue your ass!

Posted by Bushel Basket in , , , , , ,

A very interesting article was published in the Boston Globe today. Apparently, there is a growing movement to provide nature with legal rights. A town in Maine made it possible for residents to file lawsuits on behalf of "natural assets." This was brought about as a proactive action against the Nestle Company in case they attempted to tap the local aquifer for it's bottled water products.

On one level, this seems to be an absurd over reaction and perhaps even a prime example of the hyper-litigious culture that exists today. On the other hand, two of the ways society can assign value are to place a monetary value upon it and to give it legal rights. The article points out [o]ther nonhuman entities have long enjoyed certain rights under our legal system: ships and corporations are two examples of entities entitled to “personhood,” meaning they can bring lawsuits to court. The notion that corporations are essentially people in the current legal structure has bothered me deeply, both as an expression of structural evil, and as an example of how the idea of inalienable rights has been divorced from the idea of inalienable responsibilites, ie. the social contract theory. But, I digress.

Upon reflection, I think that I'm also intrigued by the theological implications that this debate might open up. The idea of "personhood" in a legal sense leaning closer towards the idea of pantheism or panentheism; endowing nature with divine presence, as well as revisiting the Biblical story of Genesis, where humanity was installed as either caretakers or dominators of nature, depending on how Genesis is read. It also reminds me of the Talmudic debates about the nature of the golem, a humanoid creation of clay, whether it counted as a person for the minyan, the Jewish prayer circle, or the destruction of a golem would be considered murder or destruction of property.

Of course, another argument can be made that we are projecting human values and concerns onto nature by entering lawsuits on their behalf. The article also speaks to this position, and highlights it better than I think I could. A counter to this concern is that a similar issue could be found with ships and people as non-human "persons," as it isn't the bodies themselves, but rather humans speaking on their behalves that actually has the legal standing.

In short, re-visiting how society views nature is a very serious matter, with significant economic, religious, and political repercussions. In so far as it is an extra layer of protection for the environment, I support the effort, though I need to learn more before I'm fully convinced. It does seem like a neat solution to the issue with corporations being legal entities, though. In closing, the article points out another interesting fact, "What’s more, proponents say, the extension of rights invariably seems absurd before it happens. When the economy depended on slave labor, emancipation was unfathomable even to many who abhorred slavery. In retrospect, though, it seems morally imperative and historically inevitable."

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