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Must Read for The Week: The Guardian’s Op-Ed on Granting Nature Legal Rights

In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Chip Colwell– a lecturer at University of Colorado, Denver– poses the question: “What does it mean for nature to be a person?” At first read the question seems a little odd: typically, in discussions of Civilization versus Nature, the focus is on how humanity attempts to distinguish itself from Nature but, ultimately, always seems to find itself subject to Nature’s laws. Musings tend to fixate on how humans have separated themselves from Nature, or where– as we move increasingly into a built and virtual environment– to draw the line between ourselves and Nature. But where Colwell’s piece brings in a fresh take is in questioning not how humans inevitably succumb to the laws of Nature, but rather how Nature might succumb to the laws of humans. In America especially, personhood is more and more a flexible idea, as corporations assume more and more rights before the law. America is also a peculiar case in that the land itself (before it came to be known as the United States) was once a much more honored ground, understood through the tenets of the indigenous populations who still reside there today. New Zealand (a country with a similarly contentious history between colonizer and colonized) has recently made a revolutionary decree in declaring a forest a legal person. Colwell, accordingly, speculates on how America might benefit from a similar decision, both environmentally and (for Native Americans) spiritually. From Colwell’s article:


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The American west has a long history of battles over the control of land. We’ve seen this recently from the Bundy family’s takeover of the federal wildlife refuge in Oregon to the current fight over turning Bears Ears – 1.9 million acres of wilderness – into a national monument in Utah. Yet often these battles are less about the struggle between private and public interests, and more about basic questions of nature’s purpose. Do wild places have intrinsic worth? Or is the land a mere tool for human uses? Much of my research has involved documenting sacred places because they are being threatened by development projects on public land. The Zuni’s sacred Mount Taylor, much of it managed by the US National Forest Service, has been extensively mined for uranium, and is the cause of violent disputes over whether it should be developed or protected. Even though the US does not legally recognize natural places as people, some legal protections exist for sacred places. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, for example, the US government must take into consideration the potential impacts of certain development projects on “traditional cultural properties”. This and other federal heritage laws, however, provide tribes with a small voice in the process, little power, and rarely lead to preservation. More to the point, these laws reduce what tribes see as living places to “properties”, obscuring their inherent spiritual value.

Read the full article here.

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