In 1982, filmmaker Godfrey Reggio released a film called KOYAANISQATSI. The title is the Hopi word for ‘life out of balance,” and it deals with the relationship between man and nature. From Reggio’s perspective, “There seems to be no ability to see beyond, to see that we have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself. We do not live with nature any longer; we live above it, off of it, as it were.”
I was reminded of this film when I read the news item about the government of New Zealand granting legal personhood to the Whanganui River.
The Whanganui, New Zealand’s third longest river, was determined, in a landmark decision, to be a person, “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests.” This should put to rest a longstanding dispute between the indigenous Maori iwi (group) of the Whanganui and the government.
The settlement establishes the river as a protected entity that both the government and the iwi will oversee.
“Today’s agreement recognizes the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river,” said Christopher Finlayson, New Zealand’s Minister for Treaty for Waitangi Negotiations. Waitangi is the historical treaty, signed in 1840, that defined the relationship between the newly formed government and the Maori people.
The new agreement means that, in essence, when it comes to the law, the river will be treated as a person. There is another side to the agreement as well.
“Whanganui Iwi also recognize the value others place on the river and wanted to ensure that all stakeholders and the river community as a whole are actively engaged in developing the long-term future of the river and ensuring its well-being.”
This might seem to us to be at some crazy extreme end of the spectrum that runs between man and nature. But, if it is, then the other extreme would have to be the world that we live in, the world where a corporation, which is, in fact, really nothing more than an idea, is also considered a person.
As David Suzuki says in Tom Shadyac’s excellent film, I Am (which can be seen in its entirety here), “If you read the Wall Street Journal, they treat the market and the economy as if they were some thing. Wait a minute; the market is not some natural force of nature. We created the damn thing. And I believe that part of our problem now is the separation of humanity from the natural world, and the sense that the economy is the most important thing in our lives.”
Balance. This is all about balance. Calling a river a person is certainly no more crazy than calling a corporation one. Native Americans have a word for a type of mental illness called Wetiko, named after a cannibalistic mythical creature that “takes and consumes without giving anything back, continually draining and impoverishing the planet of resources.”
How does that compare with the Wall Street banks, for example, that, according to David Korten in June 2009, had outstanding, over-the-counter derivatives, a form of phantom wealth, in an amount equal to ten times the Gross World Product. Which one is scarier?
New Zealand’s legal action was not a first. Back in 2008, the government of Ecuador passed a law giving rights of personhood to tropical forests, islands, rivers and air. According to the law, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights.” That inalienable part sounds familiar.
Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. If corporations are people, then certainly those things that in the long run will be far more important to all of our survival should, at least, be considered their equal.
Perhaps it all comes down to something Henry David Thoreau once said. “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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