|Upper Yarra River, Australia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.|
In the Yoder Lecture, which I delivered on October 15, 2017 to the American Folklore Society as "Ecojustice, Folklife and a Sound Ecology," I said that “In extending the idea of ecojustice to the Earth and all its beings, the ecojustice movement would in my view do well to consider these beings—including plants, nonhuman animals, landforms, and so forth—as persons, with the justice and rights that persons deserve. Needless to say, this is not how we in the modern, Euro-American world usually think of justice. We extend only limited rights to beings outside the human world, as for example in our laws against excessive cruelty to the higher animals.” After the lecture, one of the two discussants pointed out that there was, also, a downside in considering these beings persons; namely, that in bringing them into the legal system it would also risk subjecting them to adverse judgments, to obligations that accompany rights, and to other encumbrances of the law, which seemed unwise. I’d spoken about traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledges of nature in that lecture, but did not have the time to speak a rejoinder and say that for many Indigenous peoples, nonhuman beings are like persons, in some ways are kin, and do have standing. In the meantime, I’ve thought more about this issue, but only recently learned that it has been pursued in the courts and legislature in Australia, in response to Aboriginal peoples’ activism. Indeed, it was in 2017 that the Yarra River Protection Act was passed in Parliament, which recognizes the river as a living entity. The Yarra River runs some 150 miles through the Yarra Valley and into Melbourne before flowing into Hobson’s Bay. For the Australian settlers, this recognition fits within the scientific portrait of the river as an integrated ecosystem. But for the aboriginal Wurundjeri the river means something more than that, which also is carried in the concept of personhood: the river with its fish, and its birds, and its land corridor, is a relative, their kin, a sacred, life-giving ancestor. Personhood, in this sense, carries with it a good deal more than mere legal standing and the right to protection.