If Corporations Are People, Then Why Not Rivers?

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.”


[Image credit: Keene and Cheshire County NH Historical Photos: Flickr Creative Commons]

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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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

11 responses

  1. This is a great comment from “spots_the_difference” on Reddit:

    “People really are supposed to be liable for their decisions. It’s called “piercing the veil of corporate fiction”. A member of a corporation (e.g. director, corporate officer, employee) is deemed as an agent of the corporation so generally, its acts are considered as acts of the corporation. There shouldn’t be personal liability. It’s only when the agent exceeds its authority or commits fraudulent or illegal acts that they become personally liable.
    This is sound and efficient commercial practice and is what makes a corporation a corporation. If you make all of the members of a corporation automatically personally liable for all and any act of a corporation, then it will pretty much make make the whole corporate system complicated, inefficient, and burdensome. No one will want to become a corporation. No one will want to invest in corporations. The country loses what is considered the most versatile business vehicle in commerce.
    Look, corporate personhood isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually necessary and unavoidable when it comes to corporations. Having a juridical personality separate and distinct from its members is pretty much what makes a corporation a corporation. The problem is with recent developments in corporate law (e.g. Citizens United case). U.S. case law keeps on establishing new rights that add to the traditional rights of corporations. They keep treating corporations more and more like natural persons and not just juridical persons. Couple that with the fact the corporations have huge clout and influence in politics means that they can easily abuse the system.
    But again, corporate personhood isn’t per se a bad thing.”

    1. If an “agent of the corporation” were responsible for the actions of said corporation, then we’d have far fewer crimes, don’t you think? Having an agent not be responsible for the actions of the corporation is like saying a shooter is not responsible for the gun in his/her hand.

    2. The problem with many corporations, is the lack of accountability. They have evolved to become -single minded – short sighted without taking any responsibility for the results of their actions. Much like the rest of us.

  2. just a small correction, fyi: it was not “determined in a landmark decision”. read the link you put that to: it is the result of an negotiated agreement similar to the grievance settlement process that has been going on in Aotearoa NZ for many years, directly between the gov’t and Maori tribes. there have been many court cases as part of the Whanganui river grievance, but this was not determined by a court, as you suggest. apart from that, yes, it is a great result with some interesting possible implications. cheers.

  3. This article is stupid. Corporations are people because they are composed solely of people. Corporations are the shareholders, employees, and customers. When you tax a corporation those people pay the taxes. Corporations are nonexistent without these people. You can’t tax the building the corporation owns, just the people that compose the corporation.

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