In March 2017, the New Zealand Parliament passed a bill recognising the Whanganui River as a person. Days later, India accorded similar recognition to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. In May 2017, the same recognition was given to Rio Atrato in Colombia.
It was a mistake recognising corporations as people. They weren’t, not really, but it was a convenient fiction and we’ve always been good at those.
We never saw where it would lead.
Try convincing a corporation it isn’t a person now, see how far it gets you. There’s whining and litigation and they slouch down the street after you, cat-calling. “Look at me, bitch! I’m talking to you!” The sticky, greedy hands, the look of fake innocence they give when caught trying to shove those hands into your back pocket. Whether they’re groping for arse or wallet doesn’t matter, the response is always the same. “Teach me to be better! I can learn if you take trouble with me. It’s your own fault I’m so un-socialised. You’ve got a responsibility to me.”
But no one wanted that responsibility. We’d all gone sick on that after making them people in the first place. Corporations were never meant to be people. As people, they are total fucking failures.
Some of them are vicious. Some of them are really bloody thick.
All of them are out for themselves.
All of them drown.
We made the corporations people, but then we did the same to the rivers.
It was a way of fighting back. It was the best thing we ever did.
Oh, some people didn’t think that way at first. I don’t know what they expected—like somehow the Whanganui would rise up, burst its banks and drag down to a watery grave every person who ever tossed their beer cans into it, every kid who ever pissed themselves while swimming. No, that’s a lie. I do know what they expected, and those expectations were all to do with gain.
“If it’s a person, is it going to pay taxes now?”
“If it’s a person, can we lodge a claim against it for flooding?”
Stupid questions, serious questions, because a river might have arteries and waste products and it might be the beating heart of a people, even, but a person, we think, should have personality, and there’s more to that than the way they look after storms, or the colour they turn in sunlight. Personality has quirk and vengeance and responsibility, the ability to choose. The ability to walk away.
If a river is a person, it could walk away.
If it’s a person, well … how badly can you treat a person before they decide they just don’t have to take it anymore?
How many beer cans, how many outlets? How much can we take and take and take, before we teach the river what taking’s like, and how easy it is to do?
There’s so much the water can take back.
Look at the corporations, greedy bloody things, gorging on the streets as they are. The rest of us pay tax, you’d think if some people paid tax then all of us would, but it turns out that if the characteristics of your personhood are big and business, you get to skate on by certain aspects of civic responsibility. They’re happy to stand out then, their hands held out for special exemption, because if your profit margin’s big enough, you can ignore the fact that all your employees are on welfare, needing more than slim wages and poor working conditions to make ends meet.
Perhaps it’s greed that makes a person. I want, I want … and all that wanting has gravity, it adheres to itself, forms a great sticky mass, and what comes out can pass for people. And suddenly there’s this poppet walking around, person-shaped but with insides that are concerned with nothing but gold and greenbacks and reproduction, because every living thing has the potential to reproduce itself and when there’s nothing else in there but greed, everything other than the urge for more is blunted. It’s clutching for cash all the way, for influence and the power to ruin others.
I think they get off on it.
Expect different—demand different—and get crushed. And after, get gone, because even if corporations are people then they’re canny ones, and you can only put the people those fuckers hire into the dock, not the corporations themselves. Personhood only goes so far and there’s only henchmen left, the ones so hollowed out by their own bulging want there’s nothing left inside them but empty space for corporations to nest in.
If this were the middle ages, we’d drown those lackeys for witches, to be so possessed by another. Perhaps that’s why we turned to the rivers, because there’s one thing more essential to life than money and that’s the end of thirsting. The richest person in the world can’t live for more than three days without water. No surprise, then, that when the time came to push the corporations back we did it by hiding behind water.
The rivers aren’t a ducking stool, but they’ll do for all that. There are always people in need of drowning. It doesn’t matter if they’re people by biology or law, so long as they can’t stop stuffing themselves, gorging on fear or attention or ego until their lungs give out.
Water is our witchfinder now.
It all comes into easy focus when the rivers pull themselves up over banks. There’s a sort of slouching, heavy movement to it at first, nothing liquid like you’d expect because they’re trying to hold all that liquid in, to give themselves shape and stop slopping around, because when we made them people, we gave them all the things we think of people and that included form.
They’re not very good at it. The corporations are better—not perfect, but better—because they need to pass as best they can. Assimilation makes it easier for them to feed. The rivers care less about passing, because they can feed regardless.
Even before seeing them, you can tell. All that weight of water in footsteps behind, and they’re not anything that anyone wants to toss a can at then, because there’s the risk of a fist forced down your throat and drowning on it.
I saw it happen, once.
I don’t know what he did. Pollution, corruption, exploitation. It must have been something, to provoke such a response. The river used to rise up sometimes before it became a person, too; it broke its banks and drowned people around it, and there was never a reason then. Yes, water cycles and heavy rains, I know, but I’m talking about motivation. Before the river was a person, it didn’t have a will. It just was.
Maybe giving it personhood gave it motivation. It could have been nothing, could have been rain in the mountains, but the way the river surged towards that poor bastard, dragged him inside itself and under with such force that even through meniscus I could see the dislocation of the limbs, the way it filled him up, tore him apart … there’s something personal in that kind of violence.
When the river walked away, after it had spat out most of what it had pulled under, that spat-out substance was just desiccated, dried-up, with all the liquid sucked out. What was left was pulverised, and blew away in the wind.
The part of me that had frozen while watching, unwilling to draw attention, expected the water to have pinkened, somehow, taken on if for only a moment the colour and patina of flesh.
Nothing. Such a small amount of blood, of cellular fluid. A few litres only. It couldn’t possibly make a difference against the weight of all that water.
The river walked past me when it was done, didn’t even turn its head. As if I were no more than a mosquito, too unimportant to make even a dent in its resting surface. There’s an advantage to being small.
I kept quiet until it passed. I did not look at the dusty remains of meat while water could possibly see me watching. I kept my eyes averted until the river shambled around the corner, until I could no longer feel the slosh and reverberation of its footsteps.
Then I ran away, still not looking.
People protect themselves, when they can. If they have the means.
He must have deserved it, meat or poppet that he was.
He must have deserved it.
When we made the corporations people, we made them like us. We taught them want, we taught them privilege and power.
When we made the rivers people, all we had left to teach was self-preservation.
You all know who I’m talking about. You’ve all met them. You’ve all seen them.
They’re the ones who hike up drug prices because desperate people will pay to live, if they can, at the price of food and heat. They’re the ones who get sent to jail for bilking shareholders but not for killing the poor, because a person hollowed out by a corporation is something more deserving than human, and to the corporation, all other citizens are cattle. Not providing vet care isn’t a crime—not a serious one, at least.
They’re the ones who pour poison into the environment, because it’s cheaper to pollute than to dispose of it properly. And they don’t live where they shit, so it doesn’t matter what’s destroyed as long as it’s out of sight, and the effects are only suffered by other people.
They’re the ones who lie about the climate, the ones who use child labour, the ones who undermine workers’ rights and mismanage resources and buy their way out of legislation that might put a leash on what they’re able to do.
“Everyone would do it if they could,” says a corporation, stirring sugar into its coffee as it’s interviewed about the poor safety record of its international factories. “Exploitation is a human characteristic. You could almost say it’s a human right.”
I saw a mob once, chasing a man. Chasing something man-shaped, perhaps, but I’d felt those fingers in my back pocket, groping, so I chased him too. We dragged him down, beat him, threw him in the river. No one ever found the body.
“How could you?” said the other corporations, after. “He was a person, too.”
“Yes,” we said. “A person just like you.”
They were all a little more careful around the river, after. A little more careful around the rest of us, too.
There’s blood in our veins, but most of blood is water. Rivers run through our veins more than balance sheets ever did.
There’s people at the river mouth now, every day. They come down with flowers, set them floating, bring their mouths down to the surface and drink.
The new communion. Some call it cannibalism, but I think the water’s just calling home. We feel more like people, after.
The river seems so much more a person, after.
(A corporation seem so much more a poppet.)
Tomorrow we go to court again.
Tomorrow the forests will be people too.