Culture & Ethics
Let’s Declare the Great Salt Lake a Person?
The nature rights movement keeps making inroads into establishment thinking — and people keep ignoring the threat.
The concept has now been advocated in a major opinion piece in the New York Times. Utah’s Great Salt Lake is shrinking — a legitimate problem worthy of focused concern and remediation. Utah native and Harvard Divinity School’s writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams — who focuses on “the spiritual implications of climate change” — makes a strong case that the lake is in trouble.
A Conservationist Approach
Her proposed remedies reflect a proper conservationist approach worthy of being debated:
Scientists tell us the lake needs an additional one million acre-feet per year to reverse its decline, increasing average stream flow to about 2.5 million acre-feet per year. A gradual refilling would begin. Two-thirds of the natural flow going into the lake is currently being diverted: 80 percent of that diversion by agriculture, 10 percent by industries and 10 percent by municipalities. Water conservation provides a map for how to live within our means. We can create water banks and budgets where we know how much water we have and how much water we spend. Public and private green turf can be retired.
If only Williams had stopped there. Alas, she plunges into environmental radicalism, urging that the Great Salt Lake be declared a person and granted rights. She quotes ecologist Ben Abbott to the effect that the lake owns its water:
“If we believe in the Western water doctrine of ‘first in time, first in rights,’ then the water law of prior appropriation says these water rights originally belonged to her as a sovereign body,” said Mr. Abbott.
Please. This is nature-worship mysticism. The Great Salt Lake is a geological feature. It is not a living being. It is not sentient. It cannot own anything.
Nor should it be granted human-style rights. But don’t tell that to Williams:
The Rights of Nature is now a global movement granting personhood to rivers, mountains and forests. In Ecuador, they have granted constitutional rights to Pachamama, Earth Mother.
In the United States, Lake Erie was granted personhood in 2019, allowing citizens to sue on behalf of the lake. Although this right was invalidated by a federal judge, this is the new frontier of granting legal status to a living world. Why not grant personhood rights to Great Salt Lake, which in 2021 was voted “Utahn of the Year” in The Salt Lake Tribune? This is not a radical but a rational response to an increasingly wounded Earth.
Wrong. It is radical. And it is profoundly subversive of Western civilizational values:
- Nature rights violates human exceptionalism: Human exceptionalism appeals to our exclusive capacity for moral agency. Only human beings have duties, one of which is to be responsible stewards of the environment and to leave a verdant world to those who come after us. That duty is expressed by conservation efforts and proper environmental regulations. In contrast, nature-rights ideology rejects the traditional hierarchy of life. In rightists’ view, humans are no more important than any other species or life form and, it increasingly seems, even non-animate features of the natural world. Those approaches — conservation versus rights — are profoundly different and would have equally divergent consequences.
- Nature rights devalues the vibrancy of rights: Granting rights to nature means that everything is potentially a rights-bearer. If everything has rights, one could say that nothing really does. At best, nature rights would devalue the concept in much the same way that wild inflation destroys the worth of currency. Indeed, if a squirrel or mushroom and all other earthly entities somehow possess rights, the vibrancy of rights withers.
- Nature rights would cause profound harm to human thriving: Granting rights to nature would bring economic growth to a screeching halt by empowering the most committed and radical environmentalists — granted legal standing to act on “nature’s” behalf — to impose their extreme views of proper environmental stewardship through the buzz saw of unending litigation. At the very least, liability insurance for such endeavors would become prohibitively costly — indeed, if underwriters permitted policies to be issued for such projects at all. Of course, that is the whole point.
- Nature rights would be incapable of nuanced enforcement: A conservation approach allows the natural world to be harnessed for human benefit, mediated by our responsibilities to engage in proper environmental policies and practices. In contrast, nature rights would have all the nuance of handcuffs that could never be unlocked. Under such a regime, nuanced husbandry practices would yield to the “right” of “nature” to “exist and persist.” The human benefit from our use of the natural world would, at most, receive mere equal consideration to the impacted aspect of nature’s rights — and this would be true no matter how dynamic and otherwise thriving the potentially impacted aspects of nature might be.
- Nature rights is unnecessary to proper environmental protection: We can provide robust safeguards for the environment without the subversion of granting rights outside the human realm. Yellowstone National Park, for example, is one of the great wonders of the world. It has been splendidly protected since 1872 (when it was made a national park) and in a manner that has protected its pristine beauty and allowed people to enjoy its incredible marvels — without declaring Old Faithful a “person” entitled to enforceable rights.
Consequences of the Rights Approach
When we dig to the intellectual core of the movement, we find that the controversy isn’t about “rights” at all. Rather, we are having an epochal debate about the scope, nature, and extent of our responsibilities toward the natural world. The rights approach would impose such extreme duties on us we would hurt ourselves.
So, by all means, act to protect the Great Salt Lake. But turn it into a “person” with enforceable rights? Absolutely not!
Cross-posted at The Corner.