The Whanganui

I never appreciated the term “natural resources,” precisely because it reduces everything, from individual animals to entire ecosystems, down to dollars and cents. Through the subtle power of language it implies forests contain only wood, and rivers only water, ignoring their ecological complexities or intrinsic values, defining them instead by their human utility. It suggests, to one degree or another, that our regional environment is inanimate, an object worthy of no more legal or moral consideration than a warehouse from which we take regular inventory.

Not everyone using this term actually thinks this way, of course, but when I hear it come from the lips of government or industry I cringe, fearing the lack of respect and responsibility it implies. This minor war of words might sound insignificant to you, even granola, but in my time covering conservation issues I’ve seen it often – the whims of industry placed ahead of the integrity of nature, precisely because of this widespread “natural resources” mindset. If sustainability is our overall goal, then our laws and language must evolve in stride, acknowledging these treasures in all their lively aspects.

Thankfully, exactly this sort of revolution it taking place worldwide. The rights of nature have been added and outlined in a couple foreign constitutions now, and legal battles everywhere are redefining animals as conscious, living things who deserve consideration unto themselves, altogether signaling a radical change in our global mindset. But of all these victories, none shatter the idea of “natural resources” quite so thoroughly as New Zealand’s Whanganui River.

Last year, a legal battle between the New Zealand government and the local Māori tribe concerning this river came to an overdue end, resulting in Whanganui being declared a legal person. This was a global first.

To be clear, the river hasn’t been granted human rights, such as the right to free speech, but instead legal personhood, meaning it can represent itself in court and defend itself independent of any environmental legislation which may or may not exist to protect waterways. Legally, the river belongs to the river, and like any member of society who can’t physically speak in court, Whanganui has been appointed legal guardians to speak on its behalf, both from government and from the aforementioned Māori.

The Whanganui River is no longer a natural resource, but an individual, capable of contributing to society through its various bounties, but granted the same protection and respect as any human being. It’s a bizarre yet transformative perspective on our relationship with the natural world, one I believe could balance our treatment thereof.

Like all expansions of legal rights this one has received its share of ridicule, but as one such move builds upon another, and the societal benefits demonstrate themselves time and again, I’m confident this will gain traction. Even I considered this idea outlandish when I first came across it, but in time I have become excited and supportive of the idea, my mind pried open by the opportunities therein.

Since this move one year ago other rivers have become legal persons, and there exists a region in New Zealand, previously a national park, which received exactly this legal treatment, shedding management by the government and taking ownership of itself. In search of candidates locally, I would consider the St Mary’s River for personhood, among the most beautiful and bountiful I’ve ever encountered. Consider also the St Lawrence, its value, and exploitation, beyond debate.

You don’t have to love this idea – you may even dismiss it as tree-hugging nonsense – but I encourage you to sit with it a while and consider the context. Corporations near and far are legal persons, making use of this handy legal tool for representing entities rather than human individuals. Do our most exceptional natural systems, species or processes not deserve the same legal standing as corporations?

This idea is extremely new, and we here in Nova Scotia are still wrestling with the rights of our citizens to a health environment, let alone the rights of the environment itself. But it’s still deserving of some honest thought, a worthy replacement for the myth of “natural resources.”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the South Shore Breaker.

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