We have been reading books recently that got us thinking about the role of humans among the other beings and features of Earth. Becca got about 20 pages into Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, with the God character’s exhortation to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Nate’s is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in which a lawyer experiences an epiphany while reading an article titled “Should Trees Have Standing?” — meaning: Should trees have legal standing? Should trees, water, fish, bats, bees have rights?

Well, should they? It’s not a new idea, though if you haven’t encountered it before, it can seem otherworldly. A skeptic might assert that it would be absurd to grant rights to nonhumans. Except that we, under our current legal system, grant rights to corporations, estates, municipalities, and other nonhuman entities all the time. One might also assert that trees can’t act in their own interests. This would be factually false, as decades of research have confirmed that trees exhibit complex behavior in response to their environment and their needs, cooperate with other organisms, and generally act in ways that serve both themselves and their forest communities. (These arguments are addressed and disputed in the actual 1972 article “Should Trees Have Standing?” by Christopher D. Stone.)

Movements around the world are afoot to grant rights and/or personhood to rivers and other nonhuman features of the Earth. In 2008, Ecuador passed the first national constitution to grant rights to nature, rooted in the worldview of the indigenous Quechua people of the Andes. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court granted rights to the Atrato River. These movements seem strongest in South America, which is where the food sovereignty movement began as a way of reclaiming local control over global commercial interests.

Which brings us back to Rockland. Rockland resident Jesse Labbe-Watson introduced some of these ideas into public conversation during the debate over a local food sovereignty ordinance, and we thought we’d ask him what he thinks of granting rights to some of our local nonhuman entities, including trees, the bog and, of course, Rockland Harbor. The conversation began as an inquiry into what a rights-based approach to the natural world might accomplish in Rockland and took a twist into the functioning of our city government.

Along with many other members of the community, Jesse attended the City Council goal-setting meeting on December 16. Jesse and others spoke powerfully of the need to confront a future of climate change and attendant economic and social disruption. During our conversation for this column, Jesse mentioned the comments of Rockland resident Steve Carroll, who observed (correctly) that prior councils, city plans and ambitions have come and gone to little effect. Without sustained effort and commitment, goals amount to nothing.

This seems built into both the human condition and representative government: people live and die, representatives come and go, and our ideas float on the wind. How can we escape this cycle? A partial answer might be: by binding our ambitions, and even our dreams, to entities not encumbered by human thought or human frailty.

Granting rights and legal personhood to such aspects of the physical world might be a way to escape the forgetfulness of human organization. If a tree can exist in the same place for centuries, and humans are empowered to defend its rights to health and even existence via the mechanisms of human law, then whatever the vicissitudes of proximate human society, that tree could impose a continuity of purpose and protection that human activities notably lack. 

On the other hand, we humans in our Western societies haven’t shown ourselves very capable of even taking care of other humans. Our track record often re-enacts calcified vestiges of Western societies, which have, for centuries, valued domination over cooperation. Our legal system is similarly faulty. But we must work toward a world where we expand our sense of community and compassion to include all that surrounds us.

What could this look like in Rockland? Imagine if we granted rights of health, freedom from intrusion, and freedom from pollution to Rockland Harbor, so that anyone could bring legal complaints against anyone who threatened the harbor. Offenders would not merely pay a fine, but could actually be tried as if they had directly harmed another human. Imagine if we granted rights to the bog, or to Lindsey Brook, so that legal protections would inhere in entities that will (hopefully) outlive us by hundreds of years. Let’s act as companions with the rest of the beings of Earth, not as masters imposing dominion.