Mom, I Think I Might be Anthropocentric: an Update on my Fulbright Project.

FYI: This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

Kia ora from New Zealand!

After the first official week of my Fulbright project and master’s degree, my thesis is beginning (I have created a word document entitled ‘Outline’) to take form.

Here’s an overview of what I’m working on: Basically, New Zealand is in the process of ratifying a pretty unique piece of legislation. The Te Awa Tupua, or Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill, proposes to recognize the Whanganui River, the country’s third longest river, as a ‘legal person.’ In the wording of the act itself:

‘Te Awa Tupua is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person…Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.’

This landmark piece of legislation, which finds its philosophical foundations in a 1974 paper by Christopher Stone entitled ‘Should Trees Have Standing,’ has been praised by indigenous groups and environmentalists alike. The intuitive appeal is clear: In a world in which nature is often framed as purely instrumental, as a resource without any rights of its own, this act provides new conceptual foundations from which to base appeals to protect the environment. The legal interests of the Whanganui River will be represented by a two people: member of the local Maori Iwi and a member of the current government, who, much like a guardian is appointed to represent a child, will be tasked with deciding what is in the best interest of the river. The act promotes sustainability as well as driving towards cultural goals, integrating a more holistic Maori conception of nature into a legal system dominated by western ideals; rivers-as-persons promotes a new way of talking about nature that imports a sense of value not obtained by traditional economized resource-rhetoric.

First, though, we must inquire into the real impetus for the act, the actual motivations behind such (literally/figuratively) watershed legislation, and whether it actually has the potential to create positive change in the divisive debates surrounding water policy and rights.

First, the act serves an apologetic function: in a country with a history of tense indigenous relations, recognizing a nature-as-persons view is an attempt to repair longstanding tensions between Maori and Pakeha, acknowledge that a Maori worldview has been consistently overlooked in policy.

Secondly, and a bit more cynically, the Act might be more politically motivated. In many cases, Maori people have been claiming actual ownership of NZ’s waters, suggesting that their right to manage and ‘own’ water has not been extinguished due to colonial occupation. The Crown, who maintains that no-one owns water, conveniently can maintain this position while simultaneously paying lip-service to Maori understanding of water.

Thirdly, the act might be motivated by environmentalism, an attempt towards a shift in consciousness in the way we understand our relationships and obligations to nature. As Stone argues, just as we began to see slaves and women differently when they were afforded rights, so too might we begin to conceive of natural entities in a new fashion following this act.

Finally, there might be a functional, pragmatic purpose to the act: it might serve some actual legal purpose, bring about a measurable environmental situation that would not have occurred otherwise. Leveraging the ‘river as person’ might provide the argumentative power needed to prevent certain acts of pollution or destruction, hold humans to a higher standard of river care.

In brief overview, this is the intellectual ecosystem that I have entered with this project, and what I’ve described to you here is the tip of the iceberg, or, for a more fitting metaphor, a mere tributary in the enormous (and living/metaphysically whole) river.

Instinctively, I am attracted to this idea. Finally! The rights of nature codified into some statute, this strange intrinsic value that I feel is correct finds a stronger foothold in the legal system! What I’m realizing, though, is that part of being a philosopher in a more academic setting is providing justification for these intuitions. Many of our intuitions are not grounded in real reasons: we’ve had moral or intuitive responses to things that we’ve since, generally, deemed to be something we don’t want to act on. The ‘yuk’ reaction that was common towards interracial or gay marriage has since been decisively proven to be outside the bounds of reason, the warm and fuzzy happy feelings of those tourists trying to take photos of a lion also have no connection to reality. My upbringing finds me sympathetic to the notion that nature has more than instrumental value, however I think it remains to be seen whether this act is the right way to realize such value, whether nature-as-person is the right way to recognize such intuitions, or whether perhaps my warm-fuzzy nature feelings are myth as well.

As a delve deeper into the potential effects and of the Act, though I have begun to tend towards critical, both of the act itself and towards my longstanding (within the scheme of my 4ish years studying philosophy) position of anti-anthropocentrism. I feel a remarkable tension between what I want to beleive (river is valuable independently of its use to humans, this should be recognized) and the puzzles, contradictions, and indeterminacies that flow through the act. The beginning of my set of questions looks like this:

Is characterizing the river-as-person enough to produce some change in the way we talk about nature? We give corporations legal personhood but it certainly does not mean that I’ve begun to regard Mcdonald’s as more valuable in its own right. Similarly, is ‘humanizing’ nature in this way really even how we want to go about the task of departing from nature-as-resource-speak? What rights does the river actually have? The right to vote? The right to some sort of welfare? The right to healthcare and education? It’s a real question: what would it mean to provide healthcare to a river, given that it supposedly has all the rights of a normal person. What about when these rights come up against the rights of actual or (strange use of this term here) ‘natural’ persons. Throwing another wrench in the whole operation is the fact that NZ does not actually have a bill of rights, so there is no coherent piece of law which lists what rights each person (legal or natural) actually has in the world. Is the ‘apology’ function enough to justify this legislation? Can one take up claims against the river? How do private rights to the bed of the river (which are maintained even given the river’s new legal status) interact with the new statute? How does river-as-person change throughout time? What about when conditions of scarcity are introduced? These remain open questions to me, and, it seems, to New Zealand lawyers and intellectuals.

As I wrestle with these quandaries, I am reminded again and again of the multitude of ways that we speak about and interact with nature. The arguments of environmental ethics, which traditionally seem divided along the lines of ‘anthropocentrism’ (nature is valuable b/c it is valuable to humans) and ecocentrism (natural has non-instrumental value), seem simplistic and ideological, unable to capture the real ‘nature’ of our conversations, obligations, and decisions. Taken as a ‘metaphysical whole,’ a full-bellied discussion of the issues at play in this Act cannot be reduced to a binary of human vs nature centeredness. I am finding again and again that a commitment to ‘ecocentrism’ is perhaps unwarranted: not because I do not care about the environment, not because I do not staunchly believe that it should be protected, but because the intellectual commitment to arguing against anthropocentrism in all its forms, even the most banal, diverts our attention from the more interesting, albeit complicated questions. It feels more important to me now to show, not that nature has some strange value regardless of our presence, but to show that issues of the environment are wrapped up in our well being and vice versa, even if it means deferring to a (gasp!) position of weak anthropocentrism. In our current climate (politically and literally) it’s more relevant to show the ways environmental and social values are connected rather than ways they are not, provide justification, philosophical or otherwise, for the famous Maori claim ‘I am the river and the river is me,’ and to do justice to the intersectional nature of environmentalism. Whether ‘river-as-person’ provides a better conceptual apparatus for more precisely discussing and acting on our questions and obligations remains to be seen.

Hopefully I’ll be back soon with some answers, but for now I’ll be embracing the NZ work-life balance by taking an extended coffee break and deciding between Times New Roman or Arial.