Legal Rights for Nature

By Madronna Holden

10/6/2012 update:

New Zealand grants river rights of personhood at the instigation of an indigenous people

“In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, legal personhood. The decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway.”
-Stephen Messenger

“Today’s agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally.
Christopher Finlayson, quoted in “Agreement Entitles River to Legal Identity” by Kate Shuttleworth, in the New Zealand Herald.

1.27.2011 update:

Plants as Persons

The groundbreaking Plants as Persons, by botanist Matthew Hall, recently put out by SUNY press, explores the philosophical perception of plants, beginning with the ancient Greeks.  His conclusion: plants deserve moral standing for a number of solid scientific reasons, in spite of the fact that they have often been excluded from such consideration by Western dualisms that shape human-nature interactions in a way that excludes plants from community with us.

UPDATE : (4.22.10)

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia has passed a people’s agreement as a proposed part of the “Universal Declaration of  the Rights of Mother Earth” which include:

  • The right to live and to exist;
  • The right to be respected;
  • The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue it’s vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;
  • The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;
  • The right to water as the source of life;
  • The right to clean air;
  • The right to comprehensive health;
  • The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;
  • The right to be free of alterations or modifications of it’s genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;
  • The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.

(Thanks to Andy Sinats at the British Columbia Environmental Network for passing this news along to us. See the link above f0r more info on the peoples’ declaration).


Discussion:

“We talk about the state sovereignty and the tribal sovereignty, but those ant communities under the big fir trees are sovereign too.. some nights you can’t see the stars at all [because of city lights]. That’s wrong.  Those stars are sovereign. They have a right to be seen”.

Billy Frank, Jr., in Messages from Frank’s Landing


In order to respect the sovereignty of the natural world as expressed in this quote, we must treat “earth others” (as ecofeminist Val Plumwood has termed them) as agents. We must honor them as having a purpose and place in the natural order–a life of their own with all the rights attached to this. The partnership worldview expressed by Billy Frank’s Nisqually people sees all members of the natural community, human and more-than-human, as agents acting in reciprocal mutuality with one another. This is the perennial view of our human ancestors in indigenous societies.

Such peoples characteristically recognize the rights of self-determination of all natural life. As agents,  that is, “earth others” have the rights of subjects–and cannot be ethically treated as mere objects for human use.

In the modern industrial context which divides the world into active subjects and passive objects in hierarchical fashion, it is rare that even all humans are treated as agents.  To do so would make considerable inroads against racism, sexism, and classicism.

And  “deontological” (duty-based as opposed to risk-benefit based) standards of business ethics stress that others should never be treated as mere objects to be used for gaining profit. This idea is related to the current move to allocate legal responsibility of businesses to “stakeholders” (all those effected by their actions) as opposed merely to stockholders” (those who might profit from an action).

Legal suits redressing “chemical trespass” and upholding the “precautionary principle” (which prohibits harm to others both now and in the future and adds community decision-making into its process), are based on the premise that we have an obligation to respect all those whom our actions effect as subjects in their own right.

The Alliance for Democracy tracks such suits on its website. It alsogoes further, arguing that the extension of the rights of agency not only to all humans but to all natural life is an essential way of protecting the commons upon which earthly life depends.

Legal scholar Christopher Stone’s work is seminal in arguing for the rights of nature. Stone soundly critiques the agency legally allotted to that artificial human creation, the corporation, while asserting the agency of both of human and more-than-human life.  William O. Douglas’ dissenting Supreme Court decision asserting the rights of trees used Stone’s ideas.

Environmental philosopher Thomas Berry also emphasized the rights of natural life. Here is a summary of Berry’s stance on this point:

Berry stated that all earth others, including not only plants and animals but natural landscape features such as rivers, have three essential rights: the right to existence, the right to habitat, and the right to “fulfill their role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community”.   Human rights do not cancel out the rights of earth others to exist in their natural state. Indeed, human rights are limited in a community which recognizes the rights of all life.

Whereas Berry saw the rights of nature as enduring, he also noted that they are  limited to the unique identity of those involved:  rights of a river or a tree are specific to themselves.  It would mean little to a river, for instance, to have the rights of a tree—or a human or an insect. Thus these rights are not in competition with each other, but an expression of the interdependent cycle of life in which each plays a role. In this context humans also have a right to wonder, beauty and intimacy that only our connection with a vital earthly community can fulfill.

Recognizing agency in  “earth others” is also emphasized by Val Plumwood. She sees objectifying others and objectifying the natural world as resulting in multiple devastations–and a way to counter this  is  treating all earth others as subjects rather than objects.

After  Christopher Stone’s rush to get his article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” published in a law journal in 1972– so that it could weigh in on a Sierra Club suit, a flurry of suits were quickly filed in behalf of other natural “others” –including a polluted river, a marsh, a brook, a beach, a national monument, a town commons and an endangered Hawaiian bird.

Arguments against Stone’s theory on the legal standing of trees express the contemporary industrial worldview.  One writer railed against Stone’s idea on the basis of the fact that giving rights to nature would bring down the capitalist system of ownership–since it implied those who share the earth with us are not owned by humans but own themselves.

A persistent legal argument against those who filed suits on behalf of certain “earth others” was that those who brought such suits had no compelling self-interest in these cases.  In our modern system legal suits are supposed to express such self-interest.  This is in decided contrast to Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker’s emphasis on becoming a “voice for the voiceless”.

As a recent Boston Globe article notes,  the idea that humans must prove harm in order to bring suit on behalf of more than human life  leads to some convoluted legal argument.  In  bringing suit against the bludgeoning of baby seals for their fur, animal welfare advocates  first argued that this action harmed them by robbing them of their rights to view the seals in the wild.

Christopher’s Stone response: ” “Oh, for Pete’s sake, just sue in the name of the seals.”

Stone also points out that under our current legal arrangement, when suits  behalf of nature prove successful, it is human persons who are compensated,  rather than nature that is restored.

Meanwhile, the recognition of more than human agency has been put into law with striking success in the Pacific Northwest.  To remedy the devastation of the salmon runs resulting from dams on the Columbia River, the Pacific Northwest Power and Conservation Act of 1980 specifically designated migrating fish such as salmon as “co-equal partners” with human interests of energy production on the Columbia River. Not incidentally, this perspective came partially from the understanding of the billions of dollars lost in the careless devastation of the fish harvest to gain “cheap” electricity. The council that resulted from this law continues to be a powerful and progressive force in the Pacific Northwest today.

In another legal precedent, the Swiss Constitution guarantees three distinct rights to all natural lives (including those of plants):  the right to species protection, the protection of biodiversity, and the right for their natural “dignity” to be considered in their treatment by humans.

Since this provision was put into the Swiss Constitution three years ago, a few researchers have complained that it stymies their research projects, but others have argued that if research projects destroy biodiversity or species outright, they should not be carried out.

What the “dignity of natural creatures” means in the modern context is more complex.

The question as to whether genetic engineering violates this law resulted in a complex legal document which concluded that gmo research would only be legal  in Switzerland under two conditions. Firstly, it must not damage existing biodiversity. This is a serious issue, for instance, in the contamination of non-gmo seed–since genes from this seed migrate in ways that are not understand, much less controlled, by gmo users.  This the reason for the current contamination of organic yellow corn by gmo seeds.

Until such contamination can be contained, gmo research is illegal in Switzerland.

The second condition for the legality of gmo research under Swiss dignity of natural life” laws is that no “terminator genes” may be used.  These are genes that cause a plant– or anything fertilized with it– not to be able to reproduce. The Swiss legal decision finds  patent-protecting insertion of this gene not only dangerous in the context of uncontrolled gene migration, but going against the natural cycles in which plants partake.

Switzerland is not the only European nation to move to protect the rights of more than human lives.  Almost two years ago,  the Spanish Parliament granted great apes the same rights as humans.

Such modern laws indicate a profound change in the Western worldview, in which humans formerly held unquestionable rights to treat other nature life as objects in whatever way they saw fit.   Such laws indicate a growing awareness that respecting other natural life is part not only to the better aspects of our humanity, but our survival within vital ecosystems.

Altogether, the indigenous idea of agency in the more-than-human world touches the modern world in a number of ways—perhaps most strikingly in the new Ecuadoran constitution, influenced by the Pachamama, an activist group started at the initiation of indigenous elders. Pachamama is an indigenous term for the (sacred) personhood of nature, and in the Ecuadorian constitution, Pachamama and her natural cycles are given comparable legal standing to humans.

Here are words from the Constitution of Ecuador, overwhelming passed by Ecuadorians in fall of 2008:

Rights for Nature (translated from the Spanish)

  1. Art. 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.   Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public bodies. The application and interpretation of these rights will follow the related principles established in the Constitution.
  2. Art. 2. Nature has the right to an integral restoration. This integral restoration is independent of the obligation on natural and juridical persons or the State to indemnify the people and the collectives that depend on the natural systems. In the cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including the ones caused by the exploitation of non renewable natural resources, the State will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration, and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.
  3. Art. 3. The State will motivate natural and juridical persons as well as collectives to protect nature; it will promote respect towards all the elements that form an ecosystem.
  4. Art. 4. The State will apply precaution and restrictive measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles. The introduction of organisms and organic and inorganic material that can alter in a definitive way the national genetic patrimony is prohibited.
  5. Art. 5. The persons, people,communities and nationalities will have the right to benefit from the environment and from natural wealth that will allow well-being.  The environmental services cannot be appropriated;  their production, provision, use and exploitation, will be regulated by the State.

A revised edition of Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?” is due out from Oxford University Press in 2010 and currently some dozen US communities have ordinances giving legal standing to nature.  In February of this year (2009), the town of Shapleigh, Maine passed into law an ordinance stating that “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.”

A parallel move to give legal rights to natural systems  is underway in Europe, garnering  support for a UN Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights on  the model of the current Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though some critics of allocating legal rights to nature raise the issue of how we know what nature wants, it appears fairly clear the above seals would prefer not to be bludgeoned to death.

Berry’s philosophy addresses this issue by  stating that aspects of nature have a right to fulfill their historic natural role in their ecological communities.

And perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to spend some time and energy trying to figure out what nature really does want–as did religious leaders of peoples on the Middle Columbia  or the Klamath Rivers, for instance, who acted as ambassadors between human and more than human spheres–and controlled the salmon runs accordingly.

Following such leadership resulted in practices on the mid-Columbia River that sustained salmon runs at seven times the modern take.

We could do worse– for both nature and ourselves.


A number of other philosophers speaking out for the rights of nature are represented in the Alliance for Democracy’s “Tapestry of the Commons” site.

Caring and the “Fore-caring” of Precaution: Watching over the Commons

By Madronna Holden

One day when I visited a Chehalis grandmother that I sat and spoke with many times, she called my attention to the prairie in front of her house. She loved that prairie which brought her the smell of wild strawberries in June and remembered images of her ancestors with their slender digging sticks prying camas up carefully, so carefully, so as not to “disturb the prairie”. Over generations, the careful work of her people and that of other indigenous women resulted in the camas flowers everywhere on the prairies pioneers nicknamed “camas lakes” for their stunning visual effect.

But that day the prairie this elder loved was full of shoveled mounds of dirt.  It seems that some people on a quest for wild foods had been seeking camas and had tunneled away, turning over and uprooting soil everywhere.  It was something I myself did not at first notice, but it was immediately apparent to this woman who in her eighties watched over the prairie just as she watched over the Chehalis children playing outside the tribal hall during recess from the Headstart Program.  She had an all too extensive recollection of the assaults on Chehalis identity and language during the boarding school era, but observing these children who “knew who they are”; she could finally say of her people, “I guess we made it”.

She had strong eyes with which to do all that watching:  ones that could warm you even in the coldest days. Others (non-Indians) advised me to wear a coat when I came to see her in her unheated cedar house.  But sitting there before her bright watching eyes, often flashing with glee at a joke, I was never cold.

She had plenty of vision with which to observe that those folks armed with shovels had “really messed up the prairie”.  This violated her ethic of non-disturbance the same way the sloppy leavings of a modern hunting camp violated the same ethic in Henry Cultee’s eyes.  You should take and use all of what you shot-and should there be something you couldn’t use of the animal that had given its life for your survival, you should respectfully bury it. Honoring the life you had taken and leaving the land just as you found it.

In this sense the “precautionary principle”, which mandates that we take special care not to disturb other lives now or in the future, is nothing new.

Caring for the land and for the people is anciently intertwined in traditional indigenous views in which animals were hunted so that meat could be shared. In some areas of California, the hunter never ate any of his own meat.  He could justify taking the life of another natural creature only by giving it away to feed others. In the same way, girls who harvest their first roots berries on the Mid-Columbia River never consume these themselves-but instead give them away.  In wisdom gleaned from observing the reciprocity of natural systems, they realize that the one who gives away her first harvest will see nature return the favor to her in future years.

What we share of nature and society expresses the content of what environmental philosophers term the “commons”.  The commons includes things like air, water, transportation and storm water systems upon which modern developers depend-and for the Chehalis grandmother, the prairie in front of her house. That commons differs radically from “private property”. What was truly “private”shouldn’t matter to anyone else.  Thus the grandmother above thought it as peculiar as it was insulting that social service folks had knocked on Indian doors with the purported purpose of teaching Indian women how to arrange their housekeeping.  Once the word got out, the Indian women they targeted didn’t let them in the door.

Digging up the prairie by any means convenient and intruding on the home life  of Chehalis people to proffer their re-arrangement both violate the ethic of non-disturbance shared by many native cultures and the modern precautionary principle–originally called “fore-caring”, in that it was caring for the future.

It was the same kind of violation that saddened the Chehalis grandmother when she had, years before, gone to visit someone at the state mental institution at Steilacoom.  She was indignant that the inmates could be “paraded around like that-human beings!”  She did not recall that there were many who were “lost to us that way” before contact, but when there were, her people would work to “bring them home again”.

To bring them, that is, back to a place of honor and belonging, to include and embrace them rather than to isolate and regiment them.

There is exemplary tenderness in this stance:  in the stance that honors all life exactly as it is– and understands disease as lack of belonging.  Instead of remaking the world for its own purposes, this stance attempts to enlarge itself to embrace those who have been left out, thus bringing them home again.

Imagine a science that worked with this kind of tenderness toward our world. It is a possible vision. Indigenous Community Conservation Areas now account for a substantial portion of the world’s lands (up to an estimated twelve per cent), and they include global areas with the largest cultural and biological diversity (“biocultural diversity”). Such areas are managed in terms of the ancient partnership between native peoples and their land.

Imagine if global development and technology turned to such tender caretaking:  what if we defined “progress” as enlarging ourselves, embracing others (including natural systems) as they are?

What if we exhibited such tenderness and watchfulness over our social and ecological worlds?

What if we instituted the precautionary principle in all aspects of our lives, combining the stance of non-disturbance with intimacy (so that we have the knowledge to understand whether or not we are disturbing others) and the watchful protection that many indigenous worldviews have modeled?

If we honored our own potential in this way, then perhaps we might begin to expect our actions in this vast mysterious world to yield unexpected positive consequences rather than the unintended negative ones we all too often face  today.  Like those in the community of Gaviotas in Colombia, who have worked  so carefully to be in harmony with their environment that thousands of acres of recovered rainforest have serendipitously risen up in their wake.

Imagine what daily life might be like if we expressed such tenderness towad our environment that we woke up each morning expecting wonderful surprises– and secure in the sense  that those who followed us would inherit an even more vital world than the one that sustains us.

This is a vision that all of us might work to make a reality.


As a point of information, I have not used this wise Chehalis elder’s name since, in keeping with her traditional values of humility she asked me to “use my words but don’t mention my name”– even as she asked me to pass on what she and others told me– to “make a book of it.”

Partnering with the Natural World

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By Madronna Holden

In 1927 Chehalis elder Mary Heck testified on behalf of her people before the U.S. Court of Claims. She spoke in Chehalis, enumerating the things a non-Indian court might count in terms of value.

She listed the houses that had been destroyed by pioneers who wanted the cleared land on which they stood. She told how long it took her people to build each of those great cedar houses that stood for generations unless they were destroyed by fire – the white tool of choice in this matter. She spoke the names of villages erased from maps that set down straight lines over lands and waters that contemporary Chehalis elders told me were traditionally navigated by “streams of trees” and “fish trails.”

But Mary Heck had something else to say as well, something she deemed important to place on the record alongside the list of the destroyed homes of her people: the destroyed homes of the beaver, devastated by pioneers as they drained her people’s lands for their farms.

Even in translated court transcripts, her tone comes through. She is speaking up for the beaver who shared a partnership with Chehalis women in their root digging grounds. Mary Heck credits the beaver for sustaining the wetlands and fertile ground the Indian women favored for these crops. In relating the destruction of the beaver’s homes, Mary Heck mourned the loss of a friend.

Just as the otter is a keystone species in Pacific Ocean ecosystems, the beaver had a central role in ecosystems both east and west of the Cascades. Indeed, in taking beaver and otter, the early fur traders could hardly have picked two species whose depletion had more profound effects on local ecosystems. Beaver dams helped create and sustain the wetlands that are now ninety-nine per-cent gone along the Willamette River, wetlands which married the river to the land, providing habitat for a proliferation of plant and animal species, containing and filtering storm water, and keeping ground water tables charged.

Across the Cascades, along the Crooked River, for instance, innumerable springs dried up when the beaver dams were lost in the wake of the fur trade. Then the once fertile lands that spread out beside that river shrank as the formerly meandering waters stayed to a deeply cut bed. In this sense, the concerted policy of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators John McLoughlin and George Simpson to stymie competitors by creating a “fur desert” in the Pacific Northwest had an ironic ring. In accomplishing their goal of depleting the otter and beaver, they enlarged dry land areas throughout the Northwest.

We can set Mary Heck’s story of the beaver alongside the modern ecologist’s story of the sea otter in expressing the dynamic interplay of species in a resilient ecosystem. Her perception, in turn, derives from the “partnership” worldview in the indigenous Northwest. With this point, I want to take up where many natural resources managers, including innovative ones such as “resilience” thinker Brian Walker leave off.  I want to shift from questions about how we “manage” natural resources to how we manage ourselves to support nature’s resilience.

The issue of partnership takes up a theme in a paper I recently gave on resilience thinking, in which partnership was one of four strategies I proposed for managing human behavior in ways that support the resiliency of natural systems.

The first step in establishing a partnership is treating our partners with comparable respect to that with which we treat ourselves.  In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, the Pacific Northwest’s diverse indigenous cultures did this by treating all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. [i]

Parallel recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

A partnership worldview inherently promotes respect for diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life”.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the relational manner of Brian Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system… inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves. Thus, for instance, the pesticides and fire retardants released into our environment have become ubiquitous in U.S. breast milk.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Take for instance, the case of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Respecting the salmon as partners with humans, for instance, resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

Since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that one should develop an ethics of consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. Drawing on this perspective Yurok elder Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Lucy Thompson’s insights stand beside those of all the indigenous peopled cited above in illustrating how the partnership view implements both intimate knowledge of natural systems and careful monitoring of the results of human actions on those systems. Thus is the alternative to the Not in my Backyard attitude which separates the consequences of environmental decisions from those who make them.  Ecofeminist Val Plumwood points out the fundamental irrationality of the modern global system in this respect, in which those who have the most power to make environmental decisions are the least likely to be visibly  and immediately affected by them. This broken feedback/ethical loop must be repaired by remedying a sense of “remoteness” from particular places (as the bioregional movement sets out to do), from the future (in the effects of our actions on future generations) and from those “others” which a hierarchical worldview renders invisible or inconsequential.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.” [ii]

Modern Westerners cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the paradox of domination. This paradox flows from the fact that the more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock‘s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work.

This is the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills-and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we share our world?


[i] “Western Columbia River Sahaptins,” Eugene Hunn and David H. French in Handbook of North American Indians v. 12.

[ii] Quoted in Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing.

A slightly different version of this essay appears as “Partnership and Resilience” in Ecotrust’s online journal, People and Place.