A New Zealand River Has Human Rights. Now Will Modern Law Come to Its Senses?  Humanity is slowly reawakening to the simple logic that Mother Earth’s rights must come before human rights

River Human Rights.jpg

It was a stunning breakthrough in a rights issue that could be a crucial step toward ensuring a human future. In March, New Zealand passed theTe Awa Tupua Bill making New Zealand’s Whanganui River the first river in the world to hold the same legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities as a human person. For the Maori people, it was the culmination of a 140-year struggle to gain recognition of the river as an ancestor of the tribe.

The victory quickly had a major consequence far beyond New Zealand’s borders.

Only two weeks later, citing the New Zealand law as precedent, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand gave the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, the status of living human entities. Henceforth, polluting or damaging these rivers will be a legal equivalent to harming a person.

I learned of New Zealand’s breakthrough from my longtime friend and colleague Shannon Biggs, executive director of Movement Rights and co-founder of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Biggs and her Movement Rights co-founder, Pennie Opal Plant, traveled to New Zealand last November as guests of the Maori to learn and share with the world the lessons of their historic victory. Biggs further elaborates those lessons in her report published in Earth Island Journal.

Humanity is slowly reawakening to the essential truth that nature—the living Earth—is the source of human existence and is essential to our nurture. It is simple logic that the needs of Mother Earth must come before ours.

That, in turn, implies that Earth’s rights must come even before human rights.

Modern law has the rights issue exactly backward.

This logic has sweeping implications for a modern system of law that gives corporations more rights than people and nature no rights at all. Just as our human existence depends on the health and well-being of a living Earth, the existence of corporations depends on the health and well-being of human society.

So at its foundation, modern law has the rights issue exactly backward.

Significant as New Zealand’s action is, it represents only a first step in an essential rethinking and restructuring of a system of law crafted by the rulers of an Imperial Civilization to secure their own power and privilege. The system is ill-suited to the needs of an Ecological Civilization that is expected to meet the needs of all in a balanced, co-productive relationship with a living Earth.

We organized around the rivers, forests, and prairies.

In our transition from Imperial Civilization to Ecological Civilization, we have much to learn from indigenous people as humanity’s elders—keepers of our human memory of a time when we saw ourselves clearly as part of nature.

Earth cared for us, and we cared for her. We organized around the rivers, forests, and prairies. We depended on them for our means of living. We honored them as our ancestors. This was a time when no one had yet invented an exclusive claim or right to own, destroy, or sell a portion of nature’s territory in disregard of the present or future needs of others.

Living in balance with nature came easily when our dependence was self-evident. Now that, despite our technological sophistication, we have reached and exceeded the limits of Earth’s capacity, shouldn’t our dependence once again be self-evident?

Perhaps the anomalies created by giving a river the rights and liabilities of a living person will force us to rethink and revise the foundational principles of modern law. What is the river’s liability to a person whose lands it floods or the swimmer it drowns? How are the seemingly intractable conflicts between legally proclaimed territorial rights of nature, humans, and corporations to be resolved?

My thanks to the Maori people who persevered to compel us all to address these essential questions.

Imperial Civilization

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Relationships hold the key. Imperial Civilization  organizes around hierarchies of domination and exploitation. The few at the top use their power to control and exploit the gifts of nature and the labor of the many in a ruthless competition for ever more power. The ultimately self-destructive competition attracts those among us who are driven by immature and narcissistic egos that feed on crushing enemies, displays of opulent consumption, and grand monuments that bear their names.

This competition drives a downward spiral of rule or be ruled violence that destroys Earth’s capacity to support life and divides people by nationality, religion, class, race, and gender and pitted one against the other in a self-destructive competition for power and what remains of Earth’s ability to provide the essentials of living. 

Historical Roots

Imperial Civilization was born in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile river valleys when our ancestors established rule by kings and the institutions of monarchy. This gave a few at the top extreme power and privilege. Those at the bottom were forced into lives of submission and desperation. Wars between imperial city states created a win-lose competition for resources on an ever expanding territorial scale and produced ever more devastating social and environmental consequences.

Once Empire’s pyramid of domination was in place, the resulting rule or be ruled, kill or be killed competitive dynamic left the individual with few options. Choosing to form and live in caring community was rarely among them. As indigenous people the world over learned, such communities were routinely targeted by imperial powers for colonization and destruction. As democracy came to limit the powers of monarchy, imperial corporations gradually replaced imperial kings as the oligarch’s  favored instrument of imperial rule.

For so long as Empires were confined to specific places on Earth, the damage was localized. By contrast to imperial states, imperial corporations are defined not by territory, but rather by pools of financial assets. Their global reach has removed geographical constraints to the environmental and social devastation of imperial rule.

For all the seeming recent human advances in democracy, civil rights, and gender equality, Imperial Civilization prevails to this day under the global rule of transnational financial markets and corporations.

War Against Life and Democracy

It is the root cause of the violence, alienation, and excessive exploitation of Earth’s life support system that now threaten the human species with environmental and social collapse and blocks the efforts of citizen groups to stop and reverse the damage. 

Environmental Collapse

Growth in human consumption resulting from a combination of population growth and growth in per capita consumption is depleting the natural life support system of the planet, disrupting natural water cycles and climate systems, and threatening human survival.

From the perspective of our Earth Mother the burden of accommodating human needs and excesses has for millennia been little more than the normal nuisance a mother expects from young children. That changed dramatically during the last half of the twentieth century when we experienced explosive growth in both the human population and per capita human consumption. Somewhere in the early 1970’s we passed a threshold. Our human consumption became more than a nuisance, it began to exceed what our Mother could sustain.

We see the results in climate chaos, depletion of fresh water and fertile soils, the collapse of fisheries, the erosion of denuded forest lands and melting ice caps. We are building up toxics in the water, soil, and air. We are killing our Earth mother and thereby ourselves. As a species, we must grow up fast and accept our adult responsibilities. The implications are pretty straight forward.

Social Collapse

An already unconscionable global concentration of financial power continues to grow at a breathtaking pace, driving ever more intense competition for a declining base of material wealth. This in turn drives an unraveling of the social fabric of mutual trust and caring essential to healthy social function, undermines the credibility of public institutions, and spreads the desperation and hopelessness that creates fertile ground for terrorist recruiting.


We are told that economic growth is essential lift the poor to prosperity. All too often economic growth lifts the yachts and swamps the naked swimmers struggling to stay afloat.  Our real resources are shrinking, but the rich easily buy whatever resources are left and see no problem.

A few years ago a book on the lifestyles of very rich noted a billionaire’s comment on the rising price of oil. “Last year it cost me $30,000 for a tank of diesel for my yacht. Now it costs me $60,000. Its no big deal.” And for the super rich, if we run out of oil, there is always ethanol. Meanwhile desperate mothers watch helplessly as their babies die for lack of food.

A few statistics tell the shocking story. Forbes Magazine counted a total of 1,826 billionaires in the world in 2016, with a combined wealth of $6.5 trillion. This is up from 691 billionaires in 2005 with an estimated combined wealth of $2.2 trillion. And 1,250 billionaires with an estimated combined wealth of  $4.4 trillion in 2008. According to a United Nations study, in 2006 the richest 2% of world’s people owned 51% of all the world’s assets. The poorest 50% owned only 1%. That seemed unconscionably extreme at the time. Yet, only ten years later in 2016, it was estimated that the richest 1% owned more wealth than all the other 99% of humanity combined!

According to a global study cited in an Oxfam report, “The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much.” A study released in 2016 found that in the United States, “over the last 30 years the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%.”

When the rich own everything there is nothing left for the poor to own. Say a poor family wants a small plot of land to grow some food to survive and a billionaire wants that land for a 20,000 square foot vacation home he may reside in for no more than a few days a year. These are not equivalent needs, but it is a virtual certainty that the billionaire will get the land for what most economists would call a “higher economic value use.”

Mar-a Lago. Donald Trump’s 118-room mansion and exclusive private club in Palm Beach

Most growth in consumption in recent years has not been at the bottom where it is needed. Its been at the very top among the already super wealthy.

Economic growth as we know it will not lift the poor out of poverty. The only way to end poverty and heal our social divisions on an already over stressed planet is through a redistribution of resources from rich to poor and from nonessential to essential uses. The right wing PR machine would dismiss this as Communism.

Actually it is  call to reclaim an important American ideal.  I grew up with the patriotic story that the United States is a middle class democracy without the extremes of class division that characterize other societies. That story once made us proud and the envy of the world.

Equity is an essential foundation of true democracy and of our national ideal and self-image. It can also be defended on the grounds of rightful inheritance and property rights, if viewed from a justice perspective. The argument is quite basic. Natural wealth was created by our Earth mother and is therefore a common heritage of all her children, including all non-human species. None of us has a right to abuse that wealth or to monopolize it to the exclusion of our sisters and brothers.

We cannot expect the institutions that got us into the crisis to get us out of it. 

Corporate Rule

We might wonder how such self-destructive injustice could happen in a world governed by democratically elected governments. The answer is simple and alarming. Our world is not governed by democratically elected governments. It is ruled by global financial institutions in the service of financial speculators who exchange trillions of dollars daily in search of instant unearned profits to increase the fortunes — and the power— of the richest people on the planet. They bring down governments that displease them, and buy and sell other corporations as if they were commodities.

Goldman Sachs Tower NYC

The most powerful institutions on the planet, global financial markets and the transnational corporations that serve them, are institutional creations of Imperial Civilization. Dedicated to growing the consumption of Earth’s real wealth to grow the financial assets of the rich, they convert real capital into financial capital to increase the relative economic power of the owning class, while depressing the wages of those who produce real value through their labor.

It is stunning to realize that the behavior of the governing institutions to which we give the power to set our priorities and our collective course fits the psychological profile of the psychopath who is incapable of compassion and care for the wellbeing of others.

Even in the United States, democracy remains more aspiration than reality. We are governed as a plutocracy—a system of rule by members of a wealthy class that controls our means of living. They create an appearance of democratic accountability through periodic elections, but limit our choices to candidates selected and approved by political parties that serve their interests.

The Ecological Civilization to which we aspire must be governed by deeply democratic institutions that support an equitable, non-coercive ordering of human relationships based on mutual caring and accountability. As Imperial Civilization features domination, Ecological Civilization will feature partnership.

Additional Resources

Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” video animations makes the connection between material consumption and environmental devastation in a clear, simple, and entertaining way.

We humans now consume at a rate 1.7 times what Earth can sustain and the richest 8 of us own wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.7 billion. We face a choice. We can continue Imperial Civilization’s drive to environmental destruction and wealth concentration. Or we can create an Ecological Civilization that secures material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all in balance with the regenerative systems of a living Earth. Our species survival hangs in the balance. 

Our future turns on a simple, nearly forgotten, truth. We humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Our health and well-being depend on her health and well-being. As she cares for us, we must also care for her.

This is a foundational premise of the emerging vision of the possibilities of an Ecological Civilization grounded in a New Enlightenment understanding of the beauty, wonder, meaning, and purpose of creation.

A Vision of Human Possibility

Adjustments at the margins of the failed cultural and institutional system of Imperial Civilization will not take us where we must now go. The system’s cultural beliefs and institutional structures must be retooled and its resources reallocated to realign the defining purpose of human society from making money to supporting every person in making a living.

Hope resides in humanity emerging vision of an Ecological Civilization grounded in our deepest human understanding of creation’s purpose, life’s organizing principles, and our human nature and possibility as discerned by the converging insights of indigenous wisdom keepers, the great spiritual teachers, and leading-edge scientists. Some call this emerging 21st Century intellectual frame, the New or Second Enlightenment.

Naming the future, calls us to envision it. Naming it a new civilization evokes a sense of epic transformation. Identifying it as ecological evokes a New Enlightenment understanding of life as complex, intelligent, conscious, and self-organizing.

Earth Charter

The Earth Charter—the product of a broadly participatory global process begun at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit—was finalized and launched in 2000. A 2002 paper suggested the Principles of the Earth Charter, be considered principles for an Ecological Civilization


In 2012, China officially adopted Ecological Civilization in its Chinese Party Constitution and mandated its incorporation into “all aspects of economic, political, cultural, and social progress.” China is a country of 1.3 billion people with a Communist government and the world’s 2nd largest capitalist economy. It faces extreme environmental crises. Experiencing the benefits and burdens of both capitalism and communism, its attempts to deal with its environmental crisis uniquely position it for global leadership toward a new human framework that transcends both. The Guizhou Institute of Environmental Science Research and Design is working with the Global Footprint Network to develop the metrics for an Ecological Civilization for China.

Parliament of the World’s Religions

Ecological Civilization has also been embraced by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which in 2015 issued a consensus Declaration on Climate Change that concluded with these words:

The future we embrace will be a new ecological civilization and a world of peace, justice and sustainability, with the flourishing of the diversity of life. We will build this future as one human family within the greater Earth community.

This statement clarifies the relationship between Earth Community and Ecological Civilization. Earth Community refers to Earth’s interdependent community of life self-organizing in concert with Earth’s geological structures and processes to create and maintain the conditions essential to the existence of all Earth life. Ecological Civilization refers to the human subsystem within the meta-system of Earth’s community of life. Coincidentally the two terms share the same acronym (EC), which can be used to refer to either or both. 

Claremont Conference

In 2015 an international conference held at Pomona College in Claremont California on the theme Seizing an Alternative — Toward an Ecological Civilization drew 1,500 leading thinkers, authors, academics, activists, theologians, philosophers, and scientists. Shortly thereafter, sponsors of the Claremont conference launched Toward Ecological Civilization (EcoCiv), a think and action tank dedicated to identifying “how social, political, and economic life needs to be organized if humanity is to achieve a sustainable, ecological society over the long-term.

Grounded in a 21st Century Enlightenment

The Enlightenment of the 18th Century raised our human recognition and understanding of the role of physical mechanism, causality, and order in the universe and became the foundation of what academic philosophers call Modernism. It strengthened the authority of science, challenged traditional religious and political hierarchies, and unleashed dramatic advances in technology, democracy, and individual liberty.

This opened new human possibilities, including technological advances that with time virtual eliminated geographical barriers to human communication and exchange. It supported the spread of democracy and human liberty and medical advances that significantly increased human life expectancy and unleashed a dramatic growth in our human numbers.

Concurrently, in its denial of conscious intelligence and agency, it stripped life of meaning and absolved us individually and collectively of responsibility for the consequences of our human choices. Our new abilities supported a fragmentation and monetization of human relationships and eroded our sense of connection to family, community and living Earth.

We grew the power of our instruments of war and our ability to dominate and exploit one another and nature to support previously unprecedented levels of material extravagance by the few at the expense of the many. During the latter half of the 20th Century, our material consumption exceeded for the first time the limits of Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The institutions of democracy became subverted by global financial markets and corporations for which people and Earth were nothing more than a means to profit.

We lived an illusion of growing prosperity for all in the midst of a reality in which fewer and fewer control and consumer more of a shrinking pie of Earth’ real wealth.  The disastrous consequences now threaten to drive a massive dieback, if not the extinction, of the human species.

The rapidly deepening human crisis cannot be resolved with the same mindset and institutions that created it. Hope lies in the new understanding of the now emerging New Enlightenment. Grounded in traditional understanding, the wisdom of the world’s great spiritual traditions, and dramatic breakthroughs in the findings of quantum physics and the biological and ecological sciences, the New Enlightenment recognizes conscious intelligence as the ground of all being.

Our primary sources of knowledge and understanding are converging to affirm that there is far more to what we experience as material reality than material mechanism and chance. Consciousness, intelligence, and agency are integral and pervasive.

Living Earth: A Superorganism

The wonder of organic (carbon-based) life is that every living organism, from the individual cell to living Earth, maintains itself in an internal state of active, adaptive, resilient, creative thermodynamic disequilibrium in seeming violation of the basic principle of entropy. It takes a community of organic life to create and maintain the conditions that carbon-based life requires. Earth itself exemplifies this principle.

According to evolutionary biologists the first living organisms appeared on Earth some 3.6 billion years ago. We still have little idea how it happened. We do know, however, that as their numbers, diversity, and complexity increased, they organized themselves into a planetary-scale living system comprised of trillions of trillions of individual choice-making living organisms. Together, they worked with Earth’s geological processes to filter excess carbon and a vast variety of toxins from Earth’s air, waters, and soils and sequester them deep underground—preparing the way for the emergence of more advanced species.

In a continuing process—and with no discernible source of central direction—Earth’s community of life continues to self-organize to renew Earth’s soils, rivers, aquifers, fisheries, forests, and grasslands while maintaining global climatic balance and the composition of Earth’s atmosphere .

Likewise, the human body is best understood as a self-organizing community of tens of trillions of individual, living, choice-making cells that together create and maintain the superorganism that serves as the vehicle of our agency and houses our individual consciousness. Each cell is making constant decisions that simultaneously balance its own needs and those of the larger whole on which it depends and which in turn depends on it. It all happens below the level of individual human awareness.

Science has only the sketchiest idea of how it works beyond a recognition that organic life organizes not as hierarchies of central control, but as holarchies of nested, communities that self-organize from the bottom up. We humans must now learn to do the same.

By the understanding of the New Enlightenment, we humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth, itself born of and nurtured by a living universe unfolding toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. Creation thus reveals its purpose—a quest to know itself and its possibilities through an epic journey of self-discovery thru a process of eternal learning and becoming.

This restores a sense of the purpose and meaning of life that the 18th Century Enlightenment stripped away. And it provides an essential frame for a Great Turning to a New Economy that meets the essential physical needs of all people within the regenerative capacities of a healthy, finite living Earth community of life.

An Epic Challenge and Opportunity

We humans are now a truly global species. Our common future depends on our successful transition to an Ecological Civilization that works in balanced and harmonious relationship with Earth’s living systems to provide every person with a means of living adequate to their health and happiness.  Yet we remain burdened by a 5,000 year cultural and institutional legacy of an Imperial Civilization that divides us by nationality, religion, class, race, and gender and pits us against one another in a violent competition for wealth and power.

The challenges of the transition are summed up in a paper by Chris Williams, “How will we get to an ecological civilization?” Williams concludes that:

It will not only be a question of constructing a new society, but deconstructing the old one. It is not enough to take over and reassemble the state,…; we will need to reassemble the whole world – every single aspect of humanity’s relationship with each other and the natural world. Just like the state, an infrastructure designed to dominate nature cannot simply be appropriated and used to good ends.

Ultimately, it is vital that fighters for social emancipation, human freedom and ecological sanity recognize that capitalism represents the annihilation of nature and a functioning and diverse biosphere and, thus, human civilization. A system based on cooperation, genuine bottom-up democracy, long-term planning and production for need, not profit,… represents the reconciliation of humanity with nature.

To achieve this future, we must navigate a successful transition from:

  1. Transnational corporations to national governments as our primary institutions of governance,
  2. Competition to cooperation as our dominant mode of relating, and
  3. Growing GDP to meeting the spiritual and material needs of all within the limits of what living Earth can sustain as the economy’s defining purpose.

Base on the deepening understanding of the New Enlightenment, the governing institutions of an Ecological Civilization will support national and bio-regional self-reliance, the free sharing of information and technology, and balanced trade in goods for which one nation has a natural surplus and another is unable reasonably to produce for itself.

An authentic economics for an Ecological Civilization will be grounded in the scientific understanding of how living communities of trillions of individual living organisms self-organize to create and maintains the conditions essential to life’s existence. It will measure economic performance by indicators of the healthy function of individuals, families, communities, local biosystems, and Earth’s global biosphere.

Consistent with these truths, the legal principles of an Ecological Civilization will recognize that:

  1. Individual persons possess both rights and corresponding responsibilities.
  2. Governments must be accountable to the people who form them.
  3. Corporations are created by government to fulfill a public purpose within that government’s jurisdiction and are accountable to that government for fulfilling that purpose.

Other Resources

Sam Gmall, “Interpreting Ecological Civilisation,” Part I of a three-part series.

Zhu Guangyao, “Ecological Civilization: Our Planet,” UNDP.

Zhang Chun, “China’s New Blueprint for an Ecological Civilization,” The Diplomat

Thomas Berry, “The Determining Features of the Ecozoic Era,” conference handout 2004. What Berry called the Ecozoic Era was pretty much synonymous with the concept of an Ecological Civilization.

Three Overview Presentations

David Korten,, “Birthing an Ecological Civilization: Overview” This is a short-overview introduction to the human transition to an Ecological Civilization written for a for a general readership.

David Korten, “A Living Earth Economy for an Ecological Civilization,” 2017 opening keynote presentation to the 20th annual International Week, hosted by the Global Education Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Explores implications for the academy and institutions of higher learning.

David Korten, “A Living Earth Economy for an Ecological Civilization,” 2016 keynote address to the Donghu Forum on Global Governance in Wuhan China addresses a high level Chinese audience and makes the case that among the world’s nations, China is positioned to take the global lead on advancing an Ecological Civilization.


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