NY Times Op-Ed: ‘Personhood Rights’ for a Lake

By Tom Gilson Published on April 19, 2023

A team of researchers out of Brigham Young University wants the law to recognize Great Salt Lake’s “right to exist.” Its water levels are dropping badly: You can see the dry boat docks in the photo above, taken in 2021. The lake had its water long before humans started taking any of it, so it has a stronger claim on it than we do.

This isn’t states’ rights, it’s lakes’ rights. And why not? Lakes are people, too, right? So says Terry Tempest Williams, writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School, writing in a New York Times op-ed (free version here). “The Rights of Nature is now a global movement granting personhood to rivers, mountains and forests. In Ecuador, they have granted constititutional rights to Pachamama, Earth Mother. … Why not grant personhood rights to Great Salt Lake?”

Why not, indeed? Well, first we’d need to know what lakes’ rights would mean. Would lakes have authority to hire attorneys and sue people? If it won a cash settlement, could it go out shopping? Once it starts participating in rights, would it would have to respect others’ rights, too? What if a lake kills someone? We’d be hard pressed to build a big enough jail, but we could still sentence it to community service, or force it to cough up any sunken treasure it might have stored up from its own legal victories.

Ridiculous? Obviously. Don’t blame me, though. I’m just asking what it means for lakes to have rights. I’ll tell you the real answer, though: People who campaign for the “Rights of Nature” are mostly itching for their own right to sue people over those “rights.” The lake controls nothing, but they sure can. The lake pockets no money, but you can bet their lawyers aren’t working pro bono.

What Rights Used to Mean

If it’s hard telling what lakes’ rights might be, it’s even harder explaining why the government grants them. Or why it should grant any rights at all, actually. Anyone who opens a debate over the government granting rights is simply demonstrating they don’t know what the word means.

Our nation’s Founders never dreamed they or the state could grant anyone any rights. They saw rights instead as humans’ inherent possession, a natural endowment given us by the Creator. You see it in the language of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, for example, doesn’t say, “The people shall be granted the right to free speech, free religion, free press, and free assembly.” The Founders would have said that about as likely as the farmers among would have said, “We’ll grant sunflowers the right to grow several feet tall.” No, sunflowers grow tall because that’s part of what it means to be a sunflower.

Just ask the guy who tried granting his beans the right to grow tall like sunflowers. “They’d be so much easier to pick that way.” The farmer knows what sunflowers are and what beans are, and he knows it’s his job to nurture them to be what they’re meant to be. That includes not stomping on them.

The Bill of Rights Grants Us No Rights At All

Likewise, just as growing tall is inherent to sunflowers’ nature — it’s part of what “sunflower” means — humans have rights because it’s inherent to our nature. It’s part of what it means to be human.

Our Founders knew the state was a lousy farmer, so on their original drafting of the Constitution they carefully avoided giving government the job of nurturing. Then, in the Bill of Rights, they added the part about “not stomping”: keeping the state out of humans’ way as much as possible, so we can be free to be what we’re meant to be. We use the phrase “constitutional rights,” but that’s short for “constitutionally-protected rights,” not “constitutionally-granted rights.”

We use the phrase “constitutional rights,” but that’s short for “constitutionally-protected rights,” not “constitutionally-granted rights.”

So that’s what “rights” originally meant, and what it still should mean. Nowadays, though, we treat “rights” as super-laws instead. Whereas the Bill of Rights was written to keep us from getting stomped on by the power-hungry state, “rights” have now turned into a legal shortcut for power-hungry judges, lawyers, and legislators to stomp on anything they want.

Human rights still exist, thank God, and we’ll always need constitutional protection from big-footed, state-sponsored stompers squashing them. That includes state-sponsored inventors of new “rights.”

These “rights” always function as super-laws, often with constitutional status, and never by the expressed will of the people. There is literally no way the state can grant rights without assuming unto itself the power to grant them. “Rights” like that are always wrong.

Rights Are for Humans

But misunderstanding rights is only part of the problem. The rest of it stems from not knowing beans from sunflowers. Or lakes from humans. Ben Abbott, lead author of the above-mentioned BYU report, has said, “The water law of prior appropriation says these water rights originally belonged to her [Great Salt Lake] as a sovereign body.”

“Sovereign,” he says. What on earth is he talking about? The word literally means being in charge. I’d like to know the last time he saw Great Salt Lake make a decent leadership decision. Or even a bad one. You might as well make a declaration granting beans “tall and yellow rights.” You can spout words like that all year round, but they’re still going to grow leafy, green and close to the ground. Or you can enact laws declaring a lake “sovereign,” and it wouldn’t make that true, either.

News flash: Lakes are not humans. News update: Some people are mighty confused about that.

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I’m serious. They don’t see anything special or different about humans. I call that losing touch with reality. You expect to hear it from folk or tribal religions, maybe (hence, “Pachamama”). What’s more surprising is hearing it from atheistic humanists. You’d think a name like “Humanist” would mean they recognize what it means to be human. To some degree I’m sure it does, but their atheism confuses them.

That’s how TheHumanist.com, voice of the atheistic American Humanist Association, could publish a call for “sentient rights.” The authors argue that if a creature is sentient (basically, if it can experience feelings), then it deserves rights the same humans do. Sentientism “expands and updates humanism,” they say. No, it shrinks humans. That’s standard fare for atheism.

I’ll Be Open to the Debate When …

Wesley J. Smith, always an excellent writer on what it means to be human, explains nicely how this “personhood” proposal for Great Salt Like amounts to “Nature-Worship Mysticism.” It “violates human exceptionalism,” he says, and “devalues the vibrancy of rights.” It “would cause profound harm to human thriving,” “would be incapable of nuanced enforcement,” and “is unnecessary to proper environmental protection.” Other than that? “By all means,” he says, “act to protect the Great Salt Lake. But turn it into a ‘person’ with enforceable rights? Absolutely not!”

I disagree. A little bit. I say we should grant the lake human rights, or at least give it a fair hearing, as long as we make it clear exactly what we’re doing. So let’s start first by granting beans the right to grow very tall and bear huge flowers with big yellow petals. Let’s enforce lakes’ rights, too — as soon as beans make their own sovereign decision to become sunflowers instead, and then prove they can do it.

That’s when I’ll consider lakes’ rights an open debate. But not before then.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.kj

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