Personhood For All of Nature
It was a summer afternoon when a small green beetle caught my attention as it crawled across my windowsill. My typical reaction at that age (seven or eight-years-old) would have been to swipe it away or worse… but something stopped me.
I didn't know bugs could be so shiny — it was so shiny it looked to be made of metal. I drew closer expecting it to appear much more mechanical than it did.
From six inches away, I watched it tentatively step one foot out beyond the ledge of the windowsill, it’s thin foot wheeling slowly through the air reaching to figure out if it could catch another step or if this ledge was really a drop off.
The reaching foot reminded me of a toddler attempting to go down the stairs for the first time, backing down the steps one wheeling foot after another. After a minute of feeble reaching, it promptly pulled it’s leg back up onto the windowsill and immediately charted a new course angling away from the terrifying ledge.
Some might call it personification, but my experience then was that I found this creature less like the soulless robot I assumed it to be and very much an alive being: exploring, making decisions, and trying to avoid dangerous cliff sides.
Quite frankly, how different was it from my own experience of life?
As I watched it march away from me, I could feel how fragile his life was, like my own.
In fact everything felt fresh, fragile, and full of humor all around me, this awareness spilling down the windowsill to the pear trees outside, the grassy lawn, and the neighbor pushing his mower across the street.
Fast forward over two decades and I’m still building my view of the world based upon this foundational moment and many more moments like it; so imagine my surprise, relief, and excitement at stumbling across the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer. Reading her books and listening to her speak has been so affirming and inspiring. I feel as if I’ve finally found my guide who had already put to words everything that I was just beginning to sense and much more.
Ultimately, my mission is to show others that people, animals, plants and places deserve their empathy and care — that little beetles who are swiped from windowsills suffer perhaps in the same way you or I would if injured, that other beings both big and small experience suffering and pleasure just like we do. Isn’t that reason enough to treat them with the utmost kindness?
In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer explores the concept of granting personhood to nature and animals as a way to promote sustainability and empathy. This is a direct challenge to the typical thinking that only humans are considered persons, and that everything else is simply property or resources for our use.
Kimmerer explains that by recognizing the personhood of nature and animals as well, we can shift our relationship with them from one of domination and exploitation to one of respect and reciprocity, acknowledging their inherent value and agency.
One example of this that I heard her speak about is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was granted legal personhood in 2017. Because of this distinction, the river is recognized as a living entity with its own rights and interests, and is represented by two guardians, one appointed by the Maori tribe and one by the government. This decision has been praised as a groundbreaking example of how we can rethink our relationship with nature and prioritize its well-being over human interests (read more).
When we see nature and animals as persons, we are also more likely to prioritize their needs and recognize the interconnectedness of all life. This can lead to changes in how we approach conservation, agriculture, and resource management. Instead of viewing nature as a resource to be exploited, we can see it as a partner as we strive for sustainability.
My hopes are that with initiatives like this one (in combination with a thousand more strategic shifts), we can move toward a more sustainable, equitable, and loving relationship with the natural world.