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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Corporations and Nature as People

What do Santa Barbarans, Google Inc., and New Zealand’s Whanganui River have in common? They are all legal persons.

We live in an interesting age, when some people are considered “illegal” while some entities are considered legal people.

Rattlesnake Creek shows flair for the dramatic.
Rattlesnake Creek shows flair for the dramatic. (Karen Telleen-Lawton)

The weirdness trend continues in New Zealand and India, where rivers and other natural entities are earning the status of “legal person.”

Corporations as people began almost 200 years ago in the United States, when an 1844 Supreme Court ruling pronounced corporations to be “citizens” of their states.

The Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad v. Letson case ruled that a citizen of one state could sue a corporation in another state.

Corporations have been granted other rights through the years.

The latest expansion was the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling that corporations should have “essentially all of the legal protections afforded to individuals.”

The 5-4 majority was convinced that the country’s founders intended corporations to enjoy the same rights as natural persons: free speech, privacy, not to self-incriminate, and government lobbying.

Opponents argued that these effects, including the right to spend unlimited money in elections, would corrupt democracy.

The corrupting influence of money is obvious to me, but I can understand corporations as people in one sense.

Sometimes, when I find a company’s product to be faulty, I feel personally wronged. My Cuisinart blade slowly broke off tiny bits into my meal ingredients. More than six months later, I have not received the promised replacement.

Cuisinart’s very public announcement of a voluntary recall resulted in no action. I feel like a long-time friend betrayed me.

Nature as a person is a newer concept to Western society. People seeking to protect the environment aren’t likely concerned with a river’s abusing free speech or intimidating candidates.

Rather, New Zealand’s Whanganui River on the North Island can now own property, incur debts, and petition the courts.

These rights also are afforded to an area of forested hills in the northeast. Te Urewara, also on the North Island, used to be a national park but became a person for legal purposes in 2014.

Both areas are sacred to the New Zealand native tribes, or iwi. For the Whanganui iwi, the idea of the river as person is natural. A local proverb proclaims: “I am the river and the river is me.”

The new law, the culmination of a 140-year ownership dispute, acknowledges the river as a “living whole” which cannot be divided.

India is working in the same direction. Within the same week as the Whanganui’s protection, an Indian court declared the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to be “people” as well.

The ruling assigned legal “parents” (the director of a nonprofit and a state official) to protect and conserve the rivers’ waters.

The rivers’ defenders hope they will no longer have to prove that discharges into them harm anyone, since polluting the waters will now be a crime against the river itself.

Rivers as people makes more sense to me. Rattlesnake Creek is as close a friend as one can have without words. It gives me a welcoming gurgle whenever I come (absent drought) and listens when I need a comforting ear.

The creek offers refreshment and performs duties like filtering impurities from water with no complaint.

Still, declaring either corporations or nature as “people” seems arcane and convoluted. The point is to recognize homo sapiens are not the only entities due respect.

If we are stuck with this human-designed legal system, though, I’ll gladly recognize Mother Nature as a person.

Necessity is the mother of invention. In the necessity to improve our care of Mother earth, perhaps nature-as-people is a reasonable invention.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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