A Reevaluation of Environmental Personhood: Rights and Representation for Nature in Law Open Access

Smith, Alyson (Spring 2021)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/3b5919822?locale=en


This thesis challenges the theoretical foundation and practical application of legal personhood for nature by examining the roles of interest, speech, and representation in the conferral of rights on natural objects. I begin by questioning Christopher Stone’s original argument in favor of environmental personhood on the basis of nature’s clearly discernible interests and our ability to represent these interests in deliberative discourse. Then, drawing on the work of Mihnea Tănăsescu and Steven Vogel, I argue that nature’s inability to engage in communicative discourse necessarily prevents the ethical representation of natural objects in law. From this argument, I further contend that any attempt to represent nature’s perceived interests through legal personality distorts or misrepresents the human interests that are always at play in environmental disputes.

In the second chapter of this thesis, I explore the role of human interest in the global trend towards rights for nature and apply my critique of environmental personhood from chapter one to a case study: legal personality for Te Urewera in New Zealand. This discussion demonstrates the popular application of environmental personhood as a tool for ensuring government accountability, resource dispute resolution, and Indigenous cultural recognition. Building on previous scholarship by Glen Coulthard and Mihnea Tănăsescu, I argue that environmental personality for Te Urewera constitutes a flawed method of Indigenous cultural recognition, as it misrepresents customary norms and conceals an entrenched colonial power dynamic beneath the guise of nature’s interests. With this discussion, I conclude that natural entities cannot be ethically represented through legal personhood, as nature’s perceived “interests” are inextricable from the complex sociopolitical interests of human communities. Therefore, the actual interests of human communities in land management and conservation efforts are misrepresented and diminished in the conferral of legal rights and representation on natural entities.



Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Role of Interest and Representation in Environmental Personhood                      

1.    Introduction 1

2.    Christopher Stone and Environmental Personhood 2

3.    Legal Standing and the Proliferation of Rights    8

4.    Speech, Interest, and Representation    13

5.    Conclusion 24             

Chapter Two: The Representational Aspects of Environmental Personhood in Practice                 

1.    Introduction 26

2.    Rights for Nature and Legal Personhood in Practice 27

3.    The Colonial History of Te Urewera 37

4.    Critical Perspectives on Rights for Nature and the Politics of Recognition 40                                                                         

5.    Conclusion 46   


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