Should Natural Ecosystems Be Granted Legal Personhood?

By Nora Lowe

Last year when I was a freshman, I eagerly joined the debate team. This activity was one that allowed me to engage in friendly argumentation with others who shared my interests while also providing interesting topics to research and learn more about. Over the summer, along with a few other members of the team, I attended a debate camp at the “National Symposium for Debate” (NSD). The topic was “Resolved: The United States ought to grant legal personhood to natural ecosystems”. The purpose of this article is to analyze this resolution so you can formulate your own opinions.

Learning what the topic was mere days before camp was understandably stressful, considering I was generally confused about it. What was legal personhood? And, how could that possibly relate to our environment?

The Legal Information Institute of Cornell defines legal personhood as “a human or non-human entity that is treated as a person for limited legal purposes. Typically, a legal persons can sue and be sued, own property, and enter into contracts”. In other words, giving our environment legal personhood means that it would be able to defend itself in court through a representative.
Although it sounds impractical, this opens the door to many new ways to protect nature. For example, if a company was dumping chemicals into a river, conservationists could sue the company for harming the “personhood” or breaking certain rights of the river. Currently, our Earth is facing many major threats as human action perpetuates global warming. Granting legal personhood to ecosystems offers a powerful method of protecting our planet.
These difficult concepts are easier to understand through example. Smithsonian Magazine reports that when India’s government gave legal personhood to the Ganges River, there were many benefits. The magazine shares that “They appointed three officials as custodians of the rivers and ordered that a management board be created within three months…” Furthermore, the Ganges River, which has religious importance to many of India’s people, is now able to “flow freely—as was intended in its nature”.

Surprisingly, the benefits of granting legal personhood extend far beyond its positive effect on the environment. Many native tribes and indigenous people now have a way to protect their land and defend their beliefs. According to Yale Environment Magazine, the Mapuche tribe in Chile is using legal personhood as a way to protect their rivers. These rivers are very important to their religion because “Each river nook and eddy has its own [spirit] ngen, meaning a single watershed and its people can be protected by hundreds of spirits. Contaminate or dam a river, even a small tributary, and the ngen will leave, abandoning the place and its people.” Legal personhood has served as a vehicle for them to preserve their religion.

Debate is a platform that encourages students to discuss and advocate for different policies, which is very important when it comes to conserving our environment. Sammy Hadiono, BHHS sophomore and team member who attended NSD elaborates: “debating this topic really opened my eyes to the danger of climate change.” Furthermore, it provided concrete examples of how “Ecosystems are being exploited and abused. We must make a change to save our planet.” On the other hand, there are some interesting reasons as to why granting legal personhood to our ecosystems might not be the best idea.

Numerous important American industries depend upon using the environment’s resources to earn money and support our economy. As a result, heavy regulations could cause major unemployment. The Atlantic notes that “regulations that seek to make air and water cleaner can also cause concentrated job losses in certain industries and locations. These losses are painful for the people they affect, who often have a hard time finding new employment, especially in regions where a newly-regulated industry is concentrated…it’s not easy for people to uproot their families and move to those other jobs, even if they can find them.”

Other arguments related to the enforcement of the policy itself. Obviously the ecosystems cannot vouch for themselves, so they rely on representatives. Who is to say that they are qualified, or even have the environment’s best interest in mind? Also, why not simply enforce the abundant amount of environmental laws that already exist rather than creating an entirely new policy that could fail just as easily as the rest?

Part of debating is deciding where you stand on a topic. Lily Guizatoullina, a sophomore from Syosset who also attended NSD, shares that she would “affirm, because it’s our only way of preventing corporations from causing environmental destruction.” After debating this topic, I truly appreciated it more. It help me to figure out where I stand on this topic, which is ultimately on the affirmative side. The evidence suggests to me that legal personhood is a tool that could help our environment in a powerful way. The importance of certain arguments and the needs of our environment really resonated with me, as I hope they do with you too.

Talia Dinstein, a junior and mentor to the novices, tells me that “this topic gave us a unique opportunity to discuss environmental issues and possible solutions.” Additionally, debating as an activity requires its participants to stay up to date and informed with current events. This encourages us to “understand what is going on” in the world that we live in.

If you found this article interesting, or wanted to learn more about debate, feel free to reach out to myself or the debate coach, Mr. Andriello. Debate offers a variety of engaging activities. I personally like Lincoln-Douglas debate, which is a one-on-one event. However, there are many different options to choose from including Public Forum, where teams of two go head to head. For those who are looking for even more flexible choices, there is the speech team which offers countless different events. Lia Aldea-Lustig, a BHHS sophomore and Speech Captain, shares that what attracted her to the debate team was that “ there is an activity for everyone. If you are an actor, there are events that you can participate in for acting. Events like LD provide great research opportunities. If you are nervous of speaking, there are even events for you too!”