Can a River Identify as a Person?
This should be a stupid question, but, can a river identify as a person? Can it assert its personal rights in a court of law? What might those rights be? Freedom of speech? Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure or maybe from cruel and unusual punishment?
These and other questions come to mind in light of the spectacle transpiring in U.S. District Court in Denver as green loonies press their case to have the Colorado River declared a person with enforceable rights. It’s necessary to protect the essence of nature, they argue. People have rights. Corporations have rights. Natural resources need rights too, to balance the consumptive rights of people and to protect the earth.
Here’s the problem with that exotic thinking: Trees, mountains, rivers, and other gem components of nature don’t have minds to reason or mouths to speak. Any purported recognition of rights in nature necessarily creates a power struggle over which humans will define and advocate those “rights.” That reality highlights another reality: Nature is not comprised of moral actors with assertable feelings. It is a vast and diverse non-sentient resource of which humans are inhabitants and stewards.
Different societies in history have had varying understandings of utilization, consumption, preservation, and conservation. Varying systems of custom and law developed to embody the societies’ values and conclusions.
Here in the United States, for example, there is a complex web of different entities, groups, and authorities with an interest in human activity along major rivers such as the Colorado. There are property owners, cities, counties, and states. Land managers. Environmental regulators.
The latter groups in particular enforce various standards of cleanliness and orderliness, including laws addressing clean air, clean water, solid waste, development and construction, recreational activity and more. Societies come together politically—in the sense of civics and government—to set standards and priorities and to balance the array of human interests in natural resources.
Further, concerned citizens who believe property owners or government officials are falling short of agreed environmental standards usually have private standing to enforce those standards. They may bring citizen lawsuits to enforce laws about clean air, clean water, endangered species and more. The values that society has recognized all have advocates with the interest to protect those values.
The mystical invention of personhood for a river would simply invite one more voice clamoring for the interests that voice holds—and a power struggle over who that voice will be. Do rivers like fishing? Or rafting? Or do they want all people to be excluded from their banks and tributaries. Has the Colorado River weighed in on this? Perhaps Colorado’s recently stained Animas River has taken a recent intense dislike to bungling EPA bureaucrats and contractors and wants to banish them from the state.
Alas, since no one we know speaks River, we’ll probably have settle for the old system of muddling through based on accepted rights, interests, and laws.