Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

Lake Erie’s ‘Personhood’ & U.S. Citizenship

A border patrol boat on Lake Erie, August 6, 2008 (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)

Somewhere between the founding of the republic and the time when a wind from Europe blew Karl Marx’s brain burps over the ocean, “rights” became conflated with “things that are good.” If you have the right to the pursuit of happiness, and taking the subway to see your paramour will make you happy, then you’ve the right to jump over the turnstile.

Does the turnstile have the right to object? Not yet. But soon. From UPI last month: “Voters in Toledo, Ohio, have become the first in the nation to grant a lake the same rights as a human being. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed a special election vote Tuesday, giving the fourth largest of the Great Lakes ‘the right to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.’”

Lake Erie has rights. Ridiculous! you say. Lakes will have rights when fish vote! Shhh. Don’t give them any ideas. You think it was bad when the residents of Chicago cemeteries rose up to cast a ballot for JFK, wait until Lake Michigan is filled with 53 million voters. You’ll have candidates pitching their policies to the Piscine-American community: rod and reel registration, a seven-day waiting period for hooks, punitive bait taxes, and so on. You’ll have community organizers who used to hand out “walkin’-around money” on Election Day taking boats out to throw some coins in the water: swimmin’-around money.

This is where the concerned environmentalist says, “What, a tree doesn’t have any rights?”

No, the rational person says. A tree does not have any rights.

“But it’s a living organism.”

So is the mold on the takeout container in the back of my fridge. That doesn’t mean it can sue me because I threw out its habitat.

“So you’d just, uh, cut down all the trees then. They don’t deserve to live! Who needs ’em!”

(Blank stare.) Yes, that is exactly what I mean. Chop down all the trees for luxury six-ply toilet paper and fast-food wrappers, except for a few reams to print off the collected works of Ronald Reagan. No, that’s not what I mean. I love trees, but they do not have rights. They are not persons.

“Oh, but corporations are persons.”

Yes, in a legal sense whose specific purpose eludes you as a gazelle eludes an arthritic house cat, you addled straw man. But even by your definitions, a corporation is made of persons, whereas a forest is made of insensate cellulose. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect insensate cellulose; I would certainly hold the door open for Barbara Boxer. But trees are part of nature, which is a complex, fascinating system that spends most of its time trying to kill us.

In short, if a lake has rights, if trees and birds and dirt and glaciers and clouds have rights, then they have obligations, and that means I expect them to start cleaning up their act right now.

On my eaves I have icicles, thanks to snow falling from the sky on my property without my express permission. I don’t recall signing anything that let the troposphere empty its celestial bladder over my house whenever it felt a pressing urge. Now, snow might have a case if it wants to claim squatter’s rights — every year I permit snow to reside on my roof and lawn without payment. But I am legally obligated to remove the snow from my sidewalks. Someone slips, falls, cracks a coccyx on my pavement, do they sue the Great Lake from which the moisture may have originated? No, they sue me.

I could sue Erie, but I’d have to prove that it was the origin of the water. It would make a great movie. Julia Roberts, the plucky underdog lawyer defending Lake Erie. Gets a call, meets in a parking lot, a guy hidden in the shadows says Erie’s innocent. The water’s really from Lake Huron. It’s been offloading its vapor off the books for years. All the Great Lakes except for Erie are in on the racket. They’re like a criminal syndicate of powerful families.

The case goes to trial, big dramatic moment when Julia Roberts calls Gordon Lightfoot to the stand to sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and the jury not only acquits Erie, it recommends that Superior be charged with multiple murders.

If the natural world has rights, it seems logical to extend this theory past our own humble rock. Sue the moon for a hostile work environment! Sue the sun for making the tropics hotter than the poles — it’s a disparate impact! Sue the galaxy of Andromeda for stalking! Sue Halley’s Comet for unwanted advances — did it ever once ask for consent to come so close to Earth? Sue dark matter for . . . for something, I don’t know. We don’t even know whether it exists, but if we sue it for collusion with Russia the Democrats will find a way to establish that it does.

Or we could stop equating “sensible, desirable outcomes” with “rights” and “nonconscious entities whose health should be protected” with “citizens of a political entity established for self-aware hominids.” Granting “rights” to nature dilutes the uniqueness of humanity — and for some that’s the point. It’s a feature, not a bug. The world would be better off without people. Lake Erie was here first, you know.

Sure, humanity makes a Beethoven now and then, and we might be the only creatures in the cosmos capable of such a thing. But over the course of uncounted years, a bird might evolve to sing a few notes of “Ode to Joy” as a mating call.

And then a snake eats it. As is its right.

This article appears as “Citizen Erie” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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