The classic philosophical definition of a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature.” A person possesses a center point of being, autonomy and self-sufficiency, which irrational beings do not have. To be a person, one must have a nature capable of self-consciousness, self-possession and self-control.
Definitions like this have long dominated the philosophical discussion of personhood. Since the person is the smallest component of the social units that make up society, defining the person is important. If agreement cannot be reached on such fundamentals, then the whole foundation of society and law is thrown upside down.
The classical idea of a person is now being challenged. Today, one does not have to be a person to have personhood. Anything can be a person. It need not be living or rational. Existence seems to be the only requirement—for now.
Indeed, philosophy matters. It is no wonder society is so chaotic when people do not know what things are.
Can Rivers and Rice Have Rights?
The Yurok Tribe in northwestern California has declared, for example, that the Klamath River now has the “rights of personhood.” Eco-media are all aglow with reports of the tribal council’s resolution to give personhood rights to the river. The move fits the current eco-crisis narrative.
What prompted the tribal action were low water flows, diseased salmon and canceled fishing seasons over the past few years. The tribal elders decided the river’s rights were violated by unnamed assailants that must be brought to eco-justice.
By providing personhood to the river, Native American lawyers hope to establish new legal frameworks that go beyond the normal environmental protection that have long been in place. Non-human things will no longer be considered resources but right-holders enjoying equal legal standing with humans. This new status supposedly corresponds to traditional indigenous relationships with Nature.
The Yuroks join other tribal groups declaring such rights. In 2017, the New Zealand government negotiated with Maori tribes to give legal standing in court to the Whanganui River.
Rights need not be limited to geographic locations. In 2018, Minnesota’s White Earth Band of Ojibwe declared the human rights of wild rice (manoomin) and the freshwater places where it grows. Manoomin is the first plant species to claim human rights, although no one has tested the decision in tribal court.
Following the Left’s Eco-Agenda
The declarations of river and rice rights are not empty claims made by isolated tribes. Such pronouncements coincide with the left’s climate emergency agenda. From New Zealand to California, a “Rights of Nature” movement is forming that will destroy the traditional Christian notion of personhood. It also destroys the Catholic concept of the order of the universe in which humans have dominion over the lower orders of Creation. It enthrones a pantheistic notion of Mother Earth as a living being to which all things belong equally.
The movement enjoys support from the United Nations and the global ecological movement. Activists can cite the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as a foundational document that guarantees their right to protect Nature in their domains. They also enjoy the full collaboration of liberal media that never tire of spreading the eco-message, far and wide, especially when it involves “oppressed” Indigenous peoples.
Establishing Roots inside Legal Systems
However, the most important accomplishment of the Rights of Nature movement will be to establish powerfully subversive roots inside the world’s legal systems. By giving human rights to Nature, activists can challenge the rights of those who wish to develop nature to serve humanity. They will have at their disposal powerful legal tools to pursue their ideological agenda and hamstring entrepreneurship.
The movement is already changing the law. An Argentine judge recently granted personhood rights to an orangutan named Sandra, which was moved to a special sanctuary in Florida as part of those rights.
Soon judicial activism will be used to open up avenues by which liberals can implement radical measures in the name of “climate change.” Such legal measures can be abused by overzealous activists—some of which advocate the extinction of the human race!
Manipulating Irrational Clients
The legal abuse of human rights for Nature is compounded by a philosophical error. Rivers and rice will be granted rights that are reserved for living, rational beings that are self-conscious, self-possessing and self-controlling. Non-rational beings like rivers have no means of expressing themselves rationally. They cannot understand much less plead their cases in court.
It is thus left to savvy Indigenous lawyers and international NGOs to perceive the violated rights of their unknowing clients. Through their proxies, rivers can claim damages against a consumer society for anything that impedes the free flow and natural evolution of their waters. The self-proclaimed river interpreters can claim the river’s right to a stable climate free from alleged human-caused climate change. “Rivers” can demand reparations for past violations, demand sanctions and penalties against present offenders, and veto future developers.
Such sweeping indictment powers become blank checks in the hands of activists who can use (and cash) them to change society to accommodate a supposedly aggrieved Nature. The Rights for Nature movement weaponizes law against humanity. It becomes one more tool in a revolutionary arsenal that seeks to destroy the order God put in Creation. It smothers the remnants of Christian civilization and true progress with Gnostic pantheism.
A World Gone Mad
The world is mad when any non-human thing can be granted personhood rights. Such claims are a blatant denial of reality. Non-people are not and can never be persons. Rivers and rice must be treated according to their nature, not human nature.
The only thing more tragic is that today, another class of beings is denied personhood rights--humans. Activists declare that some people are not considered persons. The unborn child is truly “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Yet attempts by pro-life activists to secure their personhood rights from conception to birth fall on deaf ears.
The same eco-activists that defend Nature’s pseudo-personhood deny unborn babies their true human personhood in the natural setting of their mothers’ wombs. They are not allowed the “free flow and natural evolution” of their development as humans. Unlike rivers and rice, babies have beating heart, feel pain and have immortal souls. But the new Rights for Nature movement pretends not to notice.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.