What does the river want?

September 14, 2023

This is a lecture given at the Festivaletteratura, Mantova, Italy, in September 2013, about legal personhood, non-indigenous species, terraforming, colonialism, floods, and more-than-human relations. It was given without notes and the transcript below has only been loosely edited for clarity, so please forgive mis-speakings, typos, confusions, and lack of references.


Hello. Thank you for that introduction, thank you very much for having me; it’s a real pleasure to be here. I’m here representing my most recent book which is called Ways of Being in English and Modi di Essere in Italian and it’s a book about realizing that we are surrounded by all forms of intelligence that manifest not just in humans but in animals, plants, microorganisms of all kinds; perhaps also in in natural systems, in ecologies, in the very fabric of the world around us. Essentially, intelligence is not something that only happens inside human heads – it’s a thing that doesn’t just happen inside heads at all – but it happens when bodies meet, when we meet the world, and it’s a process by which we can come to know the world better.

There’s a lot of stories about that in my book – I talked about some of them on Friday evening if some of you were there. I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about this afternoon but I thought I’d tell a couple of stories – some of which are in the book some of which aren’t – and also to try and bring them together with some more recent thinking that I hope is interesting… so I’m going to do that.

This is the Whanganui river in the North Island of Aotearoa, or New Zealand. It’s a huge river, it’s about 300 kilometers long, it drains a watershed of some 7,000 square kilometers, and if you’ve heard of it at all it’s probably, as I did, because in 2017 it was granted legal personhood: the river became a person under the law.

What does this mean? It means that historically when we have tried to relate to the environment through legal structures and by extension through social and political structures we’ve treated the environment as being a series of objects; a series of objects largely on which humans act: mine; extract; in the case of the river: divert; draw water; pollute and so on and so forth and so the only way to address the damage that might be happening to the river is essentially to to find the people who are doing it and find ways of changing them and punishing them because the river itself is just a thing: it doesn’t have any legal standing.

There’s this growing movement in in ecological law around the world to give non-human beings of all kinds – animals, plants, whole ecosystems like the river – their own kind of legal standing so that instead of saying it’s our responsibility to protect the river we say the river has its own rights. The river has its own right to life, to flowing, to be clean, to be healthy, to support all the communities, human and non-human, which live alongside it. And this attempt to give some kind of real meaningful recognition to non-humans plays out in different ways depending on the legal systems, the local traditions. There’s a big movement in the US for example to give zoo animals legal personhood and to say they have the right not to be imprisoned. We could go further and say animals have the right not to be kept on farms, not to be killed for food, these kind of questions. Legal personhood would reshape our relationship to non-humans in really important ways.

I often think that those are also kind of insufficient because we know that the law always lags behind what we need from our relations. It’s taken us thousands of years to get to where we are now which barely includes most humans; many, many humans are still excluded from our systems of law in various ways and the law has always been late coming to that and I don’t think legal personhood is some magic way that will solve that problem. But I think it’s interesting and it’s particularly interesting in the case of the Whanganui river because this wasn’t just a case of an existing legal system expanding to sort of grudgingly include the river but it was a result of centuries of protest by the Maori peoples who lived alongside the river and who have always considered the river to be a person. So under the Maori cosmology the river was also – has always been – a being that they have lived alongside and have had reciprocal relations with and have had a responsibility towards, and after a couple of hundred years of campaigning what happened was some of those Maori principles became incorporated into the colonial law of New Zealand to shift the kind of ways in which the river was thought about.

So while again imperfect in all kinds of ways, one of the main things is that the river now has representation within human communities, both in the law but also in the form of a couple of Maori Elders who speak for the river to bring another perspective on what is good for the river and how we could live with it better. There’s a beautiful line in some writing that I was reading about the river from one of the activists involved in the campaign to give the river personhood, where they said that what’s happening when you make this change in law but you also set up the culture that makes that law possible through the appointment of these kind of Guardians, the people who might speak for the river, is that you move from a position of saying “what do we want for the river?” to a position of “what does “the river want and how do we get there together?”

So this change that gives the river this idea of personhood is a shift in thinking to a position where we acknowledge that the river has its own needs and desires and that those matter – and of course that they matter to us as well; that by being in this kind of reciprocal arrangement we might actually change our relationship to the Earth in in far more broad ways.

A smaller example of something similar is happening on the River Aller in Somerset in England, where I come from, where a stretch of the river several miles long has been – one of the terms for this is rewilding – essentially the people who manage the area have said that they’re not going to decide what happens to the river anymore, they’re not going to bridge it, they’re not going to embank it, they’re not going to stop it flowing in any particular way; in fact they’ve cut channels into the side so that it changes its flow or it starts to change its flow and then they are going to let it do whatever it wants: they’re going to let the river flow wherever it wants.

This river for probably thousands of years has been shaped by human activity. People have moved it because they want to grow crops or grow trees, they’ve poisoned it in all kinds of ways, but this decision has been made to say we’re going to let we’re going to leave it alone and find out what the river wants. And even though this has only been going on for for five years or so the results are also already kind of amazing: the river has started to create new wetlands, it has started to stay longer in the soil so it doesn’t dry out in summer, so you have much more verdant fields, more things growing, it floods a little but less and in a way that is far far less destructive to the ecosystem around it and it’s home to vast amounts more life. The biodiversity increase is incredible. If you go there and walk around it, as you approach it, the sound of life gets stronger you can hear creatures buzzing and as you walk grasshoppers flow around your feet and the difference between that and the kind of agricultural land that surrounds it is huge, and the river is becoming healthier and in turn that affects the kind of human activity around it as well. Organic farming increases and other kinds of things because they have to in order to protect the river and respect its rights in this way. So changing the river is also a change in ourselves.

This is a friend of mine who I meet regularly, and who’s interesting to me. This is a lionfish – has anyone seen a lionfish before or know what they are? They’re very interesting, very beautiful, very strange creatures. I live on an island called Aegina which is near Athens in the Saronic Gulf in Greece, at the top of the Aegean coming off the Mediterranean, and I go diving and I meet these guys quite regularly – but I shouldn’t because they’re not from here, they’re very new to the place. Lionfish are indigenous to the Indian Ocean and for 10 million years that’s where they lived, that’s where they evolved, that’s where they changed, but for the last 20 or so years they’ve been spreading through the Mediterranean, and that’s the result of a few things.

Well, really, essentially, two things. They are what’s called Lessepsian migrants: Ferdinand Lesseps was the name of the French engineer who built the Suez Canal. When the Suez Canal was constructed humans basically cut through several millennia of geological separation between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and over the last hundred years or so hundreds of different species have been making their way up through this new passage into the Mediterranean. And the other reason that they’re doing that of course is climate change. The Mediterranean is getting warmer and so it’s becoming more hospitable to all of these various species.

The lionfish were first spotted in the Mediterranean about 20 years ago in a very small population, but they’ve been spreading slowly and surely. They’ve now been found as far west as Sicily and they only actually made it up into the Aegean Sea five years ago, they were first spotted off my island three years ago, but now if you go diving you’ll see half a dozen of them on a particular dive. This human activity is completely reshaping the Mediterranean and these creatures have arrived and they are spoken of in in the terminology you’ve probably heard of: of invasive species, this terminology that implies that these creatures are alien, that they don’t belong here, that this is not the place for them and we should be doing all we can to eradicate and destroy them.

Now that’s a language that’s familiar for most of our relationships, again not just to the natural world but also to other humans. We see that there’s some kind of stable state and we we don’t like the change and we don’t like the others who are coming in. Much of the discussions in biology around non-indigenous species tries take pains not to use human terminology for these creatures and I think that’s bad, as I might say a bit more about later, but even so I have a real problem with that narrative just from the perspective that I see them and I meet them on a regular basis and I am also new to this place. They arrived on this island the same time that I did, three years ago. Who am I to tell this creature that it doesn’t belong here, not least down to the fact that I am deeply responsible for it being there.

The lionfish are in the Mediterranean and around my Island because of a history of colonialism and imperialism, through the building of the Suez Canal, that I am, particularly as a British person, deeply involved in and also because of the current human activities of climate change. There’s a line that I always come back to from the British Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan who wrote of colonial relationships in Britain from the perspective of non-indigenous peoples: “we are here because you were there.” These migrants are coming here because we went elsewhere and changed the world in ways that they are responding to and that’s the same for these of these creatures. We have to work out other ways of living alongside this change that is occurring, that doesn’t repeat those same mechanisms of treating the other essentially as something unwelcome and to be destroyed.

Of course you have a local variant of that here in Mantova: the lotus flowers that are growing in the lake, which are fascinating and beautiful like the lionfish, and also of course quite recent arrivals. I heard the beautiful story last night on a boat on the lake that the arrival of the lotus flower was in part the result of a love affair; that the botanist who first introduced them to the lake did so as part of their relationship with the person who was responsible for the water quality of the lake itself – that it was an act of love and beauty to introduce these things that are still seen as beautiful but also now regarded as some kind of pest.

It’s quite extraordinary – to me at least, coming to that ecosystem fresh – the extent to which it’s an entirely artificially created space. Not only have the lotus flowers only been there for a hundred years, the fish that swim under them were introduced by German sport fishermen, apparently the Ibises that fly and wade amongst them and wade are escaped zoo animals – good for them! – so this entire landscape is as far from any historical idea of somewhere natural as we could possibly imagine. And yet we still think that we can manage it in this way, that we can control the landscape in this way, in ways that will only ultimately result in more confusions like this occurring.

And it strikes me particularly what a long, ongoing process this is because of course it’s not just the introduction of the lotuses into the lake. The lakes themselves are entirely artificial creations, created back in I think the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries for the defense of Mantova. The draining of the swamp was an act of geoengineering, of transforming the landscape that is just as transformative as present climate change in terms of the biodiversity that it destroyed, the way that it reshaped the landscape [and human livelihoods]. We’ve been doing this for some time.

It reminds me particularly of another landscape from England, again from where I’m from originally from, the east of England, an area known as the Fens. For again most of history, or the most of history in which Britain was an island which is actually not even that long, the east of England was very wet and boggy and marshy and this was this area known as the Fens, which was underwater a lot of the time much like the area around here would have been a thousand years ago. In fact these processes happen at the same time and for the same reasons: politics and defense and controlling the landscape.

So between the 1100s to about the 1600s this landscape, the Fens, which was thousands and thousands of square kilometers of marsh, of bog, of these kind of wetlands that were incredibly productive in and of themselves, areas not just of biodiversity but of huge ranges of human habitat, of different kinds of ways of living, they were were drained. The water was put into canals and rivers and lakes like it was here and those landscapes were transformed. And that was done for a couple of reasons: it was done in part for agricultural reasons, that even though the these marshes were incredibly bountiful and the people who lived in them harvested all kinds of fruits and grains from them that grew there naturally, they farmed them, they grazed animals seasonally, they used the rushes to make baskets and housing – again just like was done here – the modern monocultures of wheat agriculture and so forth were instituted instead because the land was enclosed by landlords who could make more money out of it and selling it that way.

And that is destroying the land. The land around here is becoming exhausted, the use of fertilizers and so forth is destroying the soil, the crops won’t actually go on much longer. But it was also done for political reasons: it was done because the people who lived there were rebellious and they didn’t like being ruled by the king and they frequently retaliated against the tax collectors who came in and so on and so forth. And so the pacification of the landscape, the way this landscape was destroyed, was also a pacification of the people. It was a way of bringing those people under control, turning them from free people into serfs, peasants who lived under landlords and owed all their labour to them. It was one of the earliest transformations of Capitalism, which has not been around forever but has been a deliberate process of turning people from people who lived in reciprocal relationships with the land in which they found themselves into producers of capital for the for the upper classes who took over and transformed those landscapes.

What’s particularly fundamental for me about that story – as well, again, as a British person – is that’s how we learned to do colonialism. We developed the techniques of colonialism internally within Britain: the peoples of the east of England, as well as the peoples of Scotland and Wales and most of the rest of the islands were the first people to be colonized by the British – which is not quite the same as all the people who live there – and they practiced it there not just through this transformation of landscape but also through things like collective punishment, of destroying whole villages because they would try and stop the waterworks and so on and so forth. So these changes in landscape have always been tightly tightly tied to political processes, and there is no transforming once again our relationship to landscape and our understanding of landscape and our living and our health within landscapes without political processes as well.

What we do to the Earth we do to one another. The climate catastrophe is pretty much first and foremost a kind of colonial, Imperial catastrophe that builds on what we’ve been doing to the Earth for centuries long before just fossil fuels and so on and so forth and that’s what I meant when I said that it’s vitally necessary to rethink how we think about something as particular as invasive species – or non-indigenous species I should keep calling them and try to remind myself to do so – because for a long time I was very like scientists who work on this, I was quite nervous of making this explicit connection between non-human and human migrants because it’s all too easy to dehumanize people already and if you start to say “well, you know, the lionfish or the lotus flower they belong to the same category of things” it might increase that dehumanization. But I think that’s just a symptom of having it the wrong way around: we are capable of treating the Earth in this way because we are capable of treating each other this way. Racism is the first thing that then goes on to produce speciesism which ultimately produces our sense of human superiority that allows us to treat the Earth as a kind of resource to be extracted, as a thing to be to be used for our own benefit, not to be considered a person, a thing with its own life that in turn produces among other things the climate and biodiversity crisis of the present moment. These things are all deeply, deeply connected.

This has been brought home to me in violent form; it keeps being brought home to me in violent forms in various ways. After a summer of wildfires in which my island luckily escaped fire, but was repeatedly engulfed in smoke and ash – we had days in which it hurt to breathe outside, friends have lost their houses – last week my house, my garden were under about a meter and a half of water. You might have heard of the floods that have been occurring in northern Greece, which are horrific. They weren’t as bad on our island but this was the result of the same storm that sent down a meter and a half of rain over a few days, that washed out quite large areas of the island. I don’t know if anyone here has experienced flooding and if you haven’t I really hope you don’t.

I had never experienced anything like this and it was deeply frightening, on a deep, physical, bodily level, to feel as if the Earth itself was trying to hurt us. It was hard not to personify in such a strong way when the roads and streams and the hillsides next to your house which all summer have been dry turn within minutes into rivers. The question of “what does the river want?” becomes quite powerful, becomes quite serious, because in that moment the water wants to get to the sea and it quite obviously doesn’t really care about anything that stands in its way. It felt like a very violent and direct reassertion of the willfulness, of the personhood, of the beinghood of the Earth, but not one with which I or anyone else was in very good relationship with. We were not having a good relationship in this moment.

And yet in some way, on another level, even while this was occurring – and this is the feeling that I tried to hold on to – on another level I was entirely not separate from it, or this was an emphasis on the complete inability of ourselves to separate ourselves from it. While feeling this fear, this physical, animal terror at the actions of the weather, I both felt it as a being – I managed to hold on to that feeling – this is not chance, this is a process, this is a system of things that are happening, this is an event that is part of a climatic system, that is part of a global system that includes us and our actions and the lives and livinghoods of everything else that lives there. And it’s a system of which I am fundamentally a part; that I am utterly Inseparable from, that we are all inseparable from.

We are the weather. We are the river. We are the Earth, that is part of this process that is happening. And I don’t yet know entirely what that means for us. I know that feeling and that understanding is fundamentally important. I know that continuing to ask the question of “what does the river want?” will remind us that the other beings that we share the world with have their own needs, desires, hopes, fears, and by listening to them and working with them we will in turn shift our own relationship towards them, that will in turn, in time, and not without some quite terrible things happening in the future, shift the whole system of the earth towards some kind of better place. But at the moment that system is in huge turmoil. It’s trying to shift in all of these frightening ways into a kind of new relation but we are part of that system. We are the weather, we are the water, and we are the world, and we need to shift ourselves along with it and change our place within it if we hope to make any kind of better relation in the future.

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