Earlier this year, the New Zealand government bestowed the legal standing of personhood on the Whanganui River, granting it all of the same rights as a person in legal matters. This isn’t the first time that a country has done something like this: in 2008, Ecuador voted to give its rivers, forests, islands and even its air “similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans“, agreeing that “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.”

In a recent First Things article titled “Old Faithful Should Not Have ‘Rights’,” Wesley J. Smith explains just what these new “nature rights” mean:

Promoted most prominently by the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund, the laws center around “the rights of people, natural communities, and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish” — in essence, a “right to life for nature.” When these rights are deemed to come into conflict with human activities, nature must be given equal consideration. If there is no other way to mediate them, the disputes will go to court with environmentalists acting as nature’s “guardians.”

Smith finds such thinking disturbing, for it amounts to nothing less than a direct strike at the concept of human exceptionalism, i.e., that human beings have a higher moral standing than the rest of nature. “Nature rights” seeks to address that imbalance “by elevating the natural world to moral equality with human beings—effectively diminishing us to merely another animal in the forest.”

Though the concept of “nature rights” might strike many as odd, Christians will likely take a special umbrage at the concept, for we believe that humanity, and humanity alone, has been created in the image of God. Though Christians have long debated how, exactly, that works, the general consensus has been that our possession of the Imago Dei differentiates us from the rest of creation, and bestows upon us a different status. In other words, we are definitely not “merely another animal in the forest”, to use Smith’s verbiage.

As I read about the development of “nature rights”, I wonder how much of it is driven by “the abandonment of faith in the increasingly secularized West” that Smith mentions, and how much of it is, at root, a reaction to Christians failing to live up to the calling that God gave humanity at the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1:28 (ESV):

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

All too often, we place an inordinate emphasis on the words “subdue” and “dominion” in that verse, an emphasis that can manifest itself in a sentiment similar to this Ann Coulter quote: “The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.” I’ve always been troubled by that sentiment, Coulter’s hyperbole aside. Why would God, who had deemed His creation to be “very good”, want such a creation to be abused and degraded by an aspect of it? Furthermore, why would Christians willfully mistreat something that we believe our own Heavenly Father made, and thought was great?

What would happen if Christians understood that verse, and the concepts of subduing and dominion more from the standpoint of stewardship — or a gardener, for that matter? That God’s very good creation has been given to us, not to be simply used and abused as mere raw material for our own pleasures and ambitions, but rather, to be enjoyed, tended, and yes, even defended at times. Not because it has some intrinsic rights of its own, but rather, because God Himself declared it to be “very good” and if God believed that, than we should too. Would “nature rights” even be an issue were Christians laboring to protect nature and help it to flourish — again, not because we believed that the creation had rights in and of itself, but rather, because we believed that doing so was nothing less than an act of worship to the Creator?

For more on the challenges faced by traditional notions of human exceptionalism, read my piece titled “Scientific Advance, Art, and Horsing Around With Humanity.”


  1. It would be cool if rogue geneticists developed non-human animals with human-like intelligence, sentiments, abilities, and even an attractive appearance–like Disney characters perhaps. Christians could then use this kind of argument to deny such creatures rights. We could breed them, enslave them, teach them to look after our children. We could have them referee our football games and moderate our Presidential debates and confine them to their cages. We could enjoy the insights of their film and literary reviews and then slaughter them, or just poke them with sticks, if they annoy us. We’d enjoy all the practical advantages of barbarism, prejudice and slavery without the moral downside. How cool is it that only humans beings are made in the image of God!

  2. I see this less as an refutation of human exceptionalism and more as a way (although, in my opinion, a confused one) to provide some sort of legal, foundational underpinnings to protecting natural resources.

    A move like this undercuts those who would argue that “I don’t drink out of this river, so it’s not my problem what my factory dumps in it”. Or more accurately “it doesn’t matter if that tree has been around for 250 years, it’s on my property so I’ll do what I please.”

    The latter is hard to argue with, on legal grounds at least (which is where enforcement necessarily must take place), if there’s foundational reason that nature should have “rights.”

    I’m not arguing that giving nature the same rights as a person makes any more sense than it does to give a corporation the same rights as a person, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  3. @ Craig: like the House Elves at Hogwarts?

    Okay, well, on the serious side, I see two pretty obvious problems with the idea of natural rights for, um, “natural objects.”

    1. The New Zealanders have forgotten their Heraclitus. What exactly does a “river” include and exclude in a strictly legal sense? How, pray tell, does one distinguish a river from its immediate environment, as one can pretty easily distinguish a human being’s body from its immediate environment? It would take a pretty long, dense legal document to even establish the identity of a river, much less articulate its bill of rights.

    2. Human rights are generally recognized in beings who also have (or will soon have) clear moral responsibilities and even legal duties. If a river can be defended against incursions by virtue of its rights, could it also be prosecuted for vandalism or even murder after a major flood? Could it be cited for negligence during a drought? Could it be taxed? It seems to me that the more something is treated like a person, the more it CAN be treated as a person.

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