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Dawn of Modern-Day Animism

On February 26, 2019, a lake became human. For years, Lake Erie has been in ecological crisis. Invasive species are rampant. Biodiversity is crashing. Each summer, blue-green algae blooms in volumes visible from space, creating toxic “dead zones.” In August 2014, Lake Erie was so fouled that the city of Toledo lost drinking water for three days in the hottest part of the year.

Toledo residents were so appalled by the lake’s degradation and exhausted by government failures to improve Erie’s health that they acted. In December 2018 citizens wrote an emergency “bill of rights” for Lake Erie. It had a radical proposition: That the “Lake Erie ecosystem” should be granted legal personhood and accorded the consequent rights in law – including the right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

There have been cities in the United States that have passed ordinances making polluting illegal. But no American city or state has changed the legality of nature effectively giving personhood to a gigantic lake. Citizens could sue a polluter on behalf of the lake, and if the court finds the polluter guilty, the judge could impose penalties

The bill illustrates a movement around the world--all seeking to recognize interdependence and animacy in the living world. These are known as the”‘rights of nature” movement. Animists believe that everything that exists is alive in some way:

“Nature’s capacity … to encounter us … is the ground tone of its spiritual, vibrant power. Indigenous peoples celebrated relations with other-than-human beings that are alive with spirit, emotion, and personhood. This personhood includes ‘bear persons’ and ‘rock persons’ along with ‘human persons.’ In other words, all things are persons, only some of whom are human.”


Robert Macfarlane, “Should this tree have the same rights as you?” The Guardian (11-8-19); Mark I. Wallace, Green Mimesis: Girard, Nature, and the Promise of Christian Animism (Michigan State University Press, 2014)

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