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Personhood for Nature?

The current laws that are supposed to protect burial grounds and sacred sites in nature are woefully inadequate.

Demonstrators in San Francisco, California march in solidarity with the occupation of Standing Rock in a protest on September 8, 2016. (Photo: Peg Hunter)

The company behind the Dakota Access pipeline resumed digging trenches and laying pipe again in North Dakota on Tuesday, triggering a new phase in the fight to stop the pipeline project from going forward.

Energy Transfer Partners started working again just days after a federal appeals court ruling on Sunday allowed construction to resume within 20 miles of Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.

The pipeline has been criticized for its proposed route underneath the Missouri River in part because the Missouri River provides drinking water for 18 million people, and in part because of the climate impacts of the pipeline project.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

But beyond that, this project threatens a number of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s sacred sites, and Energy Transfer Partners has already callously destroyed a sacred tribal burial ground.

What’s worse?

The company destroyed the sacred burial ground JUST ONE DAY after the tribe had filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the destruction of sacred sites.

For months — Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been locked in a legal fight over one section of the National Historic Preservation Act.

But while the lawsuit proceeds, Energy Transfer Partners has shown that they will use any trick in the book to get this pipeline built, no matter what sacred lands are destroyed in the process.

Chip Colwell at the Guardian raises an interesting question though: “What if nature, like corporations, had the rights of a person?”

I wrote in my book Unequal Protection about the history of the 14th amendment and how the courts have twisted the amendment’s words to recognize corporations like Hobby Lobby, Chik-Fil-A, Enron and yes, Energy Transfer Partners, as “legal persons” protected under the US Constitution.

So if we’re fine with saying that Hobby Lobby can be a “Christian person” — even if they aren’t a human and can’t be baptized — why aren’t natural monuments and nature itself protected as persons under the US Constitution?

It sounds radical, but we wouldn’t be the first country to do so.

In 2014 the government of New Zealand set a stunning legal precedent when it passed the “Te Urewera Act,” which grants the legal protections of a person to 821-square miles of forest that the Tuhoe people consider sacred.

The Te Urewera Act recognizes that for the Tuhoe people, this forest “is an ancient and ancestral homeland that breathes life into their culture. The forest is also a living ancestor.”

The act recognizes that the forest “has an identity in and of itself” and must be recognized as its own entity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”

It’s a worldview that’s completely outside of the experience of our younger culture, but it is pervasive throughout the views of Indigenous peoples and older cultures around the world.

In my book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, I wrote about how older cultures (such as Native American societies and countless other Indigenous societies around the world) view humanity as part of nature, and our purpose as humans is to cooperate with nature, not to dominate it.

The older culture view of nature and our world is that we are made of the same flesh as other animals — that we share the same air, water, soil and food with every other lifeform on the planet, and that when we die, we become part of the soil that will nourish future generations.

Older cultures view every lifeform as having its own special purpose, and as a result, every lifeform is considered every bit as sacred as human life, which, after all, can’t even exist without the existence of other lifeforms.

In our western, younger culture though, we see nature as meaningless except when it is exploited for profit — especially since “Greed Is Good” became an US business mantra during the Reagan years.

Instead, our younger culture worships corporations as the engines of our economy, and corporations in turn only see nature on its face as “wasteland” and “untapped potential” that a little capital can transform into a lot of profit.

But we can’t eat, breathe or drink profits, and our worship of corporations and economic growth threatens our survival as a species because it is at direct odds with our relationship to nature and our attempts to maintain the environment around us.

That conflict is what we’re seeing right now in the struggle to stop the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, it’s what we’re seeing in the fight to register Bears Ears as a national monument and protect it from unscrupulous mining companies, and it’s what we’re seeing in the fight to stop offshore drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal and countless other practices that exploit the natural world for the sake of profit.

The current laws that are supposed to protect burial grounds and sacred sites in nature are woefully inadequate, as we saw in September when Energy Transfer Partners callously destroyed sacred Standing Rock Sioux burial grounds.

In New Zealand, the Te Urewera Act empowers offers more protections than the National Historic Preservation Act does here, but it also allows for certain human activities in the ancestral forest.

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