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Preview: Should a River Have the Same Rights as a Person?

Environmental activists are pursuing legal steps that would allow natural entities to sue in their own defense through a human spokesperson. But maybe it’s the conversation, and not the law, that matters most.

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When the Colorado River went to court in 2017, attorney and activist Will Falk was tasked with speaking on its behalf. But this was no typical client. To understand what the river might say if given a chance to testify, Falk set out to travel the Colorado’s entire length. He started by searching for where the first threads of snowmelt begin stitching together a body of water that supplies 40 million people as it runs through seven western states and into Mexico. Off the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, he dug the plaque that marks the river’s headwaters out of a foot and a half of October snow, then hiked upstream along the trickle until ice and snow turned him back.

Next, Falk drove downstream toward the river’s terminus at the Gulf of California, passing farms, fish hatcheries, dams, coal-fired power plants, and uranium mines. Stopping at the riverbank along the way, he’d watch the water and consider the questions he asks his human clients: Who are you, and what do you need?

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona Photo: bavo studio/digitalvision via Getty images

“The Colorado River, she wants to be a river, and a river delivers water to whoever needs her,” he determined, and that means not just people, but places, plants, and animals from her headwaters to where her waters should join the sea­—something the Colorado River hasn’t done for decades. “She wants to flow to the ocean, to have poison taken out of her, to repair the riparian communities and the places that have dried up because of humans taking too much water.”

The lawsuit Falk joined, filed by activist and civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams and Deep Green Resistance, a “radical environmental movement dedicated to stopping the murder of the planet,” was part of an effort seeking to grant ecosystems the same rights under the law as a person. Securing environmental personhood, or the Rights of Nature, allows for a forest—through a human spokesperson—to bring a lawsuit against someone who wants to cut down its trees or a mountain to sue someone who wants to develop a strip mine. In other words, any natural feature or landscape that stands to be polluted or otherwise adversely impacted by human activities could go to court in its own defense.

A colonialist mindset, central to our country’s foundations, views the world as a bank of commodities: It sees not a forest, but rather lumber to be harvested, and not a river so much as water for fields and hydropower turbines. But indigenous frameworks have long viewed the world more as something humans have a relationship with. Environmental personhood imports some of that essence.

“The problem is to make certain that the inanimate objects, which are the very core of America’s beauty, have spokesmen before they are destroyed."

Proponents say it’s a critical shift in focus from simply protecting commodities to protecting the wellbeing of ecosystems and the planet as a whole.

“One of the really horrifying things about the way that we’ve protected—supposedly protected—the environment so far is that even where we most stringently protect it, that tends to play out in the form of bans and limitations,” says Gwendolyn Gordon, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Gordon studied how entities other than people can be recognized as persons in the legal system and how that principle might transfer to the environment.

The status quo approach to protecting the environment often leads to businesses doing the bare minimum to avoid problems, or, Gordon says, essentially asking, “How much of this can we ruin without ruining the whole thing?”

The Rights of Nature movement seeks to invert that system and ask, instead, what’s necessary for ecosystems to flourish and thrive.

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