Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), is a famous United States Supreme Court case on the issue of standing in environmental lawsuits. An excerpt of William O. Douglas’ dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton:
“Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. The ordinary corporation is a “person” for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.
So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.
The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.
Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water – whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger – must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.”
The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled. This sentiment is growing in today’s world, as discussed in the BBC article “The New Zealand river that became a legal person” by Kate Evans, text below:
In 2017, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River. Since then, other nations have followed suit in an effort to protect the environment.
Flowing through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, the Whanganui River is one of the country’s most important natural resources. The river begins its 290km journey on the snowy north-western side of the Mount Tongariro active volcano, winding between green hills and mountains until it meets the Tasman Sea. Revered for centuries by the Whanganui tribes – who take their name, spirit and strength from the river they live near – it became the first river in the world to be recognised as a legal person in 2017, bringing closure to one of New Zealand’s longest-running court cases.
The Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, had been fighting for more than 160 years to get legal protection for the river. The Whanganui tribes have nurtured a deep connection with the waterway for at least 880 years – more than 700 years before European settlers arrived. They have relied on it for much of their food, travelled it by canoe and built villages on its banks.
In Maori culture, tupuna, or “ancestors”, live on in the natural world and it is the community’s duty to protect both the landscape they inherited and those who came before them. Humans and water are especially believed to be intertwined – a traditional saying is, “I am the river, the river is me”. Having the river recognised as a legal person means harming it is the same as harming the tribe. If there is any kind of abuse or threat to its waters, such as pollution or unauthorised activities, the river can sue. It also means it can own property, enter contracts and be sued itself.
Environmental personhood has been studied as a way of protecting nature since at least the 1970s. In his book Should Trees Have Standing?, American law professor Christopher D Stone argued that environmental interests should be recognised apart from human ones. His work influenced Maori academics James Morris and Jacinta Ruru, who wrote Giving Voice to Rivers, making a case for why waterways in New Zealand should be seen as legal people.
The Whanganui River is not the only instance of a natural resource being granted legal personhood in New Zealand. In 2014, the Te Urewera park, the ancestral home of the Tuhoe people, became the first natural feature in the country to be recognised as a legal person. In 2018, Mount Taranaki – a 120,000 year-old stratovolcano sacred to the Maori – was awarded the same status. But the Whanganui River has been perhaps the most influential: following the decision in 2017, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India and all rivers in Bangladesh also received legal rights – although, in India, the decision was later revoked.