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The art of environmental personhood and the possibility of environmental statehood


Ward, Devon


This paper examines the impact that the concept of environmental personhood has had on art and culture, and suggests that projects such as The Embassy of the North Sea hint at the possibility of environmental statehood. First, it reviews how the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 – which granted juridical personhood to the Whanganui River in New Zealand – inspired the creation of new works such as Weathering, Embedding: Ochopee Trail, terra0, A Voice for the Eel, and F/EEL. Next, a heuristic model called the agency-personhood continuum (APC) is used to identify the aesthetic tropes of environmental personhood. Analysis indicates that artworks that represent environmental personhood often utilize strategies of amplification, translation, performance, time compression, and metonymy. Finally, this paper seeks to encourage new discussions by suggesting that The Embassy of the North Sea and “Theatre of Negotiations” anticipate the concept of environmental statehood, which has the potential to provide greater protections for natural entities that span multiple countries – such as the Amazon River, the Andes, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. Theoretically, environmental statehood could also provide greater representation in supra-governmental assemblies such as the UN General Assembly. Ultimately, this article suggests that the culture-law feedback loop for environmental personhood presents a new ontological paradigm that provides greater recognition of the agency, identity, and sovereignty of natural entities.