Wild Council

Should a Tree Have the Same Rights as You?

Seeing the world through the eyes of another can be a very challenging thing for those of us who live in the West and it can be completely baffling for those of us who are making important global and local decisions that affect every single being on the planet. Our current paradigm show us the irrelevance of asking a tree how they would cope being pulped for sawdust before they were cut down, asking a river how they feel about becoming toxic to all life forms before being polluted or finding out whether an elephant has children, a mother or other kin whom they would sorely miss and who would miss them before a trophy hunt.

If indigenous people know how to ask these questions then, why don’t we? Perhaps because recognising the sentience and personhood of trees, rivers and elephants is all such risky business. After all, to recognise that we are endangering other sentient beings’ livelihoods is to understand that almost every single move we make, every breath we take – at an individual, communal, national and global scale – is threatening the animate world around us and by default, our own livelihoods too; to take action upon this knowledge is a very tough call indeed.[1] Yet if we were able to hear what the animals on our plates, the rivers flowing out of our factories, the fields being earmarked for open-cast mining actually had to say about the situation they find themselves in, then the current world order would automatically be turned upon its head.[2] In order to keep the status quo therefore, the animate world remains mute and dumb to us and the people who are trying to represent that animate world – yet are marginalised – are rendered mute and dumb too. And for all of our ‘best interests’ in this mass-consumed, limitlessly-supplied world we live in, it is crucial that we all perpetuate and uphold the lie that humans are unable converse with non-humans in any meaningful way.

I know beyond doubt however, that it is possible to hear the voices of the animate world, that interspecies intuitive communication is a real thing and I believe that one day, we will – out of either dire need, compassion or both – make it a priority to hear the voice of every single being (human and other-than-human) with equal validity. Before then however, it is crucial that we protect and advocate for the people who are still able to talk to the non-human world, to aid us in the process of overcoming our forgetfulness.

I have a dream[3] that one day, hopefully very soon, every beings’ point of view will be heard, understood and acted upon as if their lives matter as much (and perhaps even more) than ours. I live an hour’s drive away from the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland and one day, I believe a Council of All Beings will be sitting in the UN assembly rooms in conference with men and that representatives will be translating the voices of the Cree Nation, the Tree Nation, the Ursus Nation, the Tunumiit Nation, the Pongo Nation, the Lun Bawang Nation, the Filoviridae Nation and the Ashanti Nation – to name but a few – in matters most urgent and current to The Planet Earth. I know this scenario sounds like it has been plucked from a sci-fi novel about alien colonies trying to reform and govern after an apocalypse[4] but I want to stress most vehemently that we are already, right now, living within a story such as this and it is no longer science fiction.

I am under no illusions about the urgent work that needs to be done before non-human beings even get inside the walls of the United Nations, let alone find representation; that is why I am here to spread a seed that has the potential to change the order of things for the better:

It is possible to set up a dialogue with another without using words. In fact, there is no more eloquent a conversation than one that never uses words.

How could it be any other way? Imagine the challenges of war, poverty, hunger, education, clean water and energy, economic growth, climate change, extinction, justice, equality, environment, business and politics all being tackled with the input of our non-human relatives without the use of words; where we understand and realise what elegant, intelligent and exquisitely refined healing would be able to be given to this planet … for the good of All.

What would the world look like if bees, orchids, swallows, earthworms, grasses, poppies, rabbits and weasels were consulted before any new housing block was planned, any factory foundation laid, any pipeline constructed, any airport or mining project started? It would look like Paradise on Earth. Yet still, we are hell-bent on destroying it all because we do not understand how to make peace with ourselves long enough to be able to hear the voices of our fellow beings who live, breathe, love, hope, cry, feel pain and despair just like we do.

When we are no longer able to hear their voices, we are no longer able to feel responsible for our actions and therefore, we no longer need to care. I hope that I will be one among many present at the Council of All Beings[5], representing those who are unable to speak a human tongue and I also hope that by then, an interspecies communicator will be as common as a solicitor, lawyer or translator is now. Plants, animals, insects, even single-celled organisms converse continuously and effortlessly with each other (and have been doing so long before we invented language) and if we, as modern humans, can come to the table with enough humility, openness and respect for the intelligence of all these forms of life and let those people who live closer (and wiser) to the earth lead us, we could slip the constraints of our current paradigms and allow this way of conversing to blossom again within us.

The sub-heading was inspired by this article: Should this Tree Have the Same Rights as You? by Robert MacFarlane in the Guardian Newspaper 2019.

[1] Take the situation at Standing Rock for example, “[t]he native people, with support from allies and indigenous environmental groups protested the pipeline by putting their own bodies in-between the construction workers and the land and building an indigenous camp at Standing Rock to create material and spiritual resistance against the pipeline and to sue for Native sovereignty. They were met with attacks from police dogs, water cannons in freezing conditions and brutal treatment from armed soldiers and police.” Rebecca Tamás in Strangers (Makina Books, 2020).

[2] Progress is being made; the personhood of nature is slowly starting to be recognised. In 2017, after 140 years of negotiation, the Whanganui iwi tribe from the North Island of New Zealand won the right to recognise the Whanganui river as an ancestor and it now holds the equivalent legal standing as a human being.

[3] In fact, I HAD a dream; one night, in that time between waking and sleeping; my body turned around and I saw a group of animals standing in front of me in a semi-circle as if standing at a watering hole. I immediately received from them the impression of expectancy, watchfulness, urgency and potential. There were no words exchanged between us but I saw in the body language of the wolves, giraffes, beetles, pangolins, sparrows, owls, snakes and crocodiles standing there, that they were waiting for me to represent them and give them a voice. This vision was so clear that it could have taken place in the real world and although it lasted for a second or two, it has stayed with me ever since.

[4] The books of Ursula Le Guinn would make a good place to start.

[5] This title was used for a communal ritual created by Joanna Macy and John Seed in 1985. They wanted to include a ‘ “deep ecological” group experience to directly challenge the anthropocentrism of industrial society.’ Described as follows, The Council of All Beings allows participants to: ‘step aside from their human identity and speak on behalf of another life-form. A simple structure for spontaneous expression, it aims to heighten awareness of our interdependence in the living body of Earth, and to strengthen our commitment to defend it. The ritual serves to help us acknowledge and give voice to the suffering of our world. It also serves, in equal measure, to help us experience the beauty and power of our interconnectedness with all life.” This work is expanded upon in their book written with Pat Fleming and Arne Naess: Thinking Like a Mountain (New Society Publishers 1988).

Further reading:
The UK Animal Sentience Bill Is Good, But Animals Deserve Better – Sentient Media, May 18th 2021.
On Consciousness” – Alterity Journal 2020.