Bushfire devastation pushes the case for Environmental Personhood


F Molloy

Sunlight shining through trees, Kamay National Park NSW

Bushfires across Australia burned more than 11 million hectares and killed over a billion animals during the 2019/2020 summer — prompting calls to consider “environmental personhood” and justice for non-human life.

“Environmental personhood is a legal mechanism to recognize that an ecosystem is a self-governing entity,” says Dr Christine Winter, who is a lecturer at the University of Sydney researching intergenerational, Indigenous and environmental justice.

This recent climate crisis has highlighted the need to make sure that the rights of the natural world are considered to be equal to the rights of humans, said Dr Danielle Celermajer, a professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

“We need to redesign our democratic system so that beings other than humans also have a representative voice,” said Celermajer, speaking at the “Future Thinking” segment of “The Bushfire Catastrophe: What Now?” panel discussion at the Sydney Opera House.

“I know that’s a radical proposal, but we’re in a radical moment,” she says.

In order to properly address and prevent future environmental catastrophes, such as bushfires, we must thoroughly understand and meet the needs of non-human beings.

The idea of ‘environmental personhood’ – that animals, plants and other life should have legal or other rights – has been around for thousands of years and is core to many cultures.

Today it is recognized in organisations such as the Bawaka Collective, a research collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, human and non-human contributors, of which Bawaka Country in Australia’s Northern Territory is listed as the first and foremost member.

The Ecuadorian government has also adopted this concept in their new Constitution, approved in 2008, which granted nature its own set of inalienable rights.

These legislative changes were made with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in Pennsylvania, which aims to “change the status of ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.”

The ideology of environmental personhood has become more relevant in today’s discussion.

In 2017, the Te Awa Tupua river in New Zealand was declared by Parliament as an “indivisible, living whole, and henceforth possesses ‘all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities’ of a legal person.”.

This also became true for a national park, Te Urewera, and a mountain,Taranaki.

To the Māori tribes, this Whanganui River has always been a person – a tupuna, or ancestor.

They argue that reinstating environmental personhood serves as a means of mending the environmental injustice that has been inflicted by governments colonizing the 100+ tribes of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

According to Dr Winter, the deliverance of personhood to Te Awa Tupua, Te Urewera, and Taranaki is “more about acknowledging significant wrongs done to Māori by the government over the past 150 years, and about acknowledging the legitimacy of Māori relationships with the nonhuman realm.”

Similar action has been applied to the sacred Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, as well as to Lake Erie by voters in Toledo, Ohio.