Life As We Knew It

The government does funny things when your back is turned. Back in January, reading Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street, I learned that the government treats corporations as people. It assigns certain rights and privileges to these collectives so that business can thrive without interference. A recent article by Chip Colwell in The Conversation asks, “What if nature, like corporations, had the rights and protections of a person?” This isn’t merely an academic question. As Colwell points out, New Zealand has recently accorded a natural area personhood status to protect it from exploitation. Meanwhile we in the United States live in a country where companies—those nasty people—are chomping to get their teeth into the “natural resources” of our national parks and wilderness areas. Not because it’s best for the planet, but because their corporate person has one of humanity’s greatest evils—greed. Gluttony used to be a deadly sin. Now it’s called economy.

One thing this corporate person doesn’t understand: we have only one planet and it belongs to everyone. Or no one. Our capitalist outlook has given an undue sense of entitlement to those who have the means to take without asking. They can frack the ground under your feet and you’ll never know it. Until the earthquakes or sink holes come. Meanwhile natural areas—as Colwell indicates, considered sacred by many Native Americans—are unprotected from fictional persons that have immensely more power than any individual. We know what happens when the sacred is engaged in battle by the economic. It’s an unfair fight.


When the crush of work stress gets to be too much, nature is our balm. Many times my wife and I will head to the woods on a weekend just to regain the balance that is stolen by what we call civilization. Manhattan has its wonders, to be sure, but they pale next to a simple stretch of “undeveloped” land and a path to walk through it. There’s a reason that corporate executives have their vacation houses far from the towers they build. It’s not a question of whether the sacred forests are valuable, but rather who gets to own them. With the legalization of fiction—corporations are not people, no matter how logic may be distorted—we have doomed fact. The earth is our fact, and, at this moment our only fact. As Colwell suggests, if it were treated like a person we’d have to show it some respect. And with respect true civility can thrive.

3 thoughts on “Life As We Knew It

  1. There was a law in England from centuries past. It might have also existed in other countries. Objects and property were legally considered to be entities or potential entities and so legally to be held responsible for their actions. It seems to have been a carryover of Pagan thought.

    If a loose rock fell from a wall and hit you on the head, if a barrel rolled over your child, you could bring a case against the object. And if you won the case, the offending object I believe was claimed for the public in order to be destroyed, used for compensation, or to be sold to fund some kind of public good.


    • I recall reading about that, now that you mention it. I remember court cases being brought against animals as well. Funny how scientists tend to label such things as anthropomorphisms and claim they’re childish.


      • I knew I had posted about it before in my blog. But I was only able to find it when I remembered the name of the English law, deodand. In the post, I offered some passages from books that described it and related legal practices.

        On a related note, it is odd that we now think that this kind of thing sounds absurd, even as many of us have come to accept legal personhood as normal. I sometimes wonder if, on a psychological level, legal personhood is a unconscious carryover of the same Pagan thought — just unconscious and unacknowledged.

        We forget the power of metaphors used repeatedly to the point we begin to forget that they are metaphors. But what if we followed these metaphors to their literal conclusion? If a corporation is a person, then we should be able to deport them, imprison them, sentence them to capital punishment, etc.

        The question is who stands for the corporation when it is treated as a person. Does the CEO get deported, does the board of directors go to prison, do the shareholders get sentenced to capital punishment? And if these responsible people don’t get the punishment for their actions and complicity on behalf of their corporations, why should they get the benefits and privileges of corporate personhood?

        Anyway, here is the post and the passages I mentioned:

        Animism – The Seed Of Religion
        by Edward Clodd
        Kindle Locations 363-369

        In the court held in ancient times in the Prytaneum at Athens to try any object, such as an axe or a piece of wood or stone which, independent of any human agency, had caused death, the offending thing was condemned and cast in solemn form beyond the border. Dr. Frazer cites the amusing instance of a cock which was tried at Basle in 1474 for having laid an egg, and which, being found guilty, was burnt as a sorcerer. ” The recorded pleadings in the case are said to be very voluminous.” And only as recently as 1846 there was abolished in England the law of deodand, whereby not only a beast that kills a man, but a cart-wheel that runs over him, or a tree that crushes him, were deo dandus, or ” given to God,” being forfeited and sold for the poor. The adult who, in momentary rage, kicks over the chair against which he has stumbled, is one with the child who beats the door against which he knocks his head, or who whips the ” naughty ” rocking-horse that throws him.

        Architectural Agents:
        The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings
        by Annabel Jane Wharton
        Kindle Locations 148-155

        The deodand was common in medieval legal proceedings. Before the recognition of mitigating circumstances and degrees of murder and manslaughter, causing the death of a person was a capital offense. At that time the deodand may well have functioned as a legal ploy by which the liability for a death might be assessed in a just manner. Although the deodand seems to have almost disappeared in England by the eighteenth century, the law was revived in the nineteenth century. With industrialization the deodand was redeployed as a means of levying penalties for the many deaths caused by mechanical devices, particularly locomotives. 9 Legislation was passed to protect industrial interests, and the deodand was eliminated by an act of Parliament in 1846. Premodern intuitions about the animation of things allowed those things a semblance of the moral agency associated with culpability. With the rational repression of that intuition in modernity, the legal system required revision.

        Liked by 1 person

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