“I guess I’m trying to subjectify the world, because look where objectifying it has gotten us.”
- Ursula K Le Guin
What happens when we start experiencing the world as a living subject? Through centuries, we have fostered a belief system stating the opposite, an idea that came with Christianity where the world was given to us humans as something to satisfy our needs with, ours to control. With the development of modern science, the world turned into a machine where the mechanistic worldview pulled the veil off of nature, wanting to expose her secrets to man.
This mechanistic worldview has then turned forests into tree plantations, water streams to sewers, wildlife to cattle and mountains to mines. It has driven our culture to the brim of a environmental collapse on a global scale, a disruption of the conditions we need in order to live. Earlier this year the IPBES report came out, telling us that we are facing a tremendous loss of biodiversity with one million species threatened by extinction. While we are busy transforming nature to useless things we hardly need on the expense of countless ecosystems, we are losing the living world right before our eyes. It is a collapse with a magnitude hard to grasp.
How can this even be possible?
Around the world, a movement that is asking this same question is gaining momentum: the movement for rights of nature where countries, states and cities are granting legal personhood to ecosystems. As people have, for decades, tried to understand how to protect their natural surroundings and finding the frustrating realisations that the old way of going about simply does not work. Trying to defend the living world, the ecosystems, has proven to be very difficult through the legal system. Something is fundamentally wrong within the system itself.
“We need not only to talk about the environmental harm that is being done, we need to talk about the legal harm”
This is from Mari Margil, from the Community Environment Legal Defence Fund, when she visited Sweden in May 2019. She was invited to speak in a strategic meeting regarding the Swedish Lake Vättern. Margil has been a long time champion in the field of rights of nature, with merits such as being one of the advisors for the Ecuadorian government when rights of nature was written into the country’s constitution in 2008, the first in the world. She was also one of the writers behind the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, written in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba Bolivia in 2010. According to Margil, in order to get to the root cause of the problem of the environmental crisis we are facing today, we need to see that the system itself is at fault. The legal system itself is not about defending nature, it is about regulating the harm done to it. If we ought to not harm nature, we need acknowledge the inherent rights it has to exist in the first place.
In the system we live in today, nature is viewed upon solely as a property that belongs to us. Rights of nature is, on the contrary, a great shift of mentality in our relationship to nature, wherein nature is rather acknowledged as a living entity with its own inherent rights, and something we can have relationship with. There is a world of difference between these two perspectives.
The above mentioned Lake Vättern has, in recent years, received attention due to it being subject to many threats. As the largest sweet water source in Sweden, a country known for its strict environmental policies, it is a ghastly realization to see how the body of water is treated today. This lake, providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people daily and a home for countless species, is being shot at by the Swedish military, which releases large amounts of toxins and violently disturbs the ecosystem. In Norra Kärr, north of Gränna, the canadian company Tasman Metals is planning a day pit mine, just few kilometers from the lake that all likely would leak toxic waste water into the lake.
This has led to growing protest around the lake, with locals closest affected raising their voices and trying to protect the lake. And it has not been easy, or as easy as one thinks it should be when it comes to protecting something as fundamental as a source of water. The example with lake Vättern has led the rights of nature network in Sweden to take interest in it, as it exemplifies how a system is at fault when a lake of that importance does not have legal standing. The network has during 2019 addressed the rights of lake Vättern by writing the Lake Vättern Bill of Rights where the declaration was the basis for a tribunal during the Earth Rights Conference in Sigtuna May 2019.
With the project Jagjord Jagvatten, we are trying to get close to the idea of carrying this movement that is growing both internationally, and in Sweden particularly. Just this year, one of the key people in the Swedish rights of nature movement and of those who we have interviewed, Pella Thiel, was granted the prestigious price of Årets Miljöhjälte, the Environmental Hero of the Year, by WWF for her work with the matter. With the work, we aim at exploring the different levels of the idea itself, what it means in terms of activism, law, art, philosophy and politics. What does it mean when we live in a culture, or at least try to approach it, where the world is a living subject? Where does it take us?
Jagjord Jagvatten is a project run by Arci Pasanen and Phil Jamieson and the name of the project is a tribute to the Maori people, who after more than 100 years got the government in New Zealand to recognize the inherent rights of the Whanganui river. They have saying that goes “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” translating to “I am the river, the river is me”.