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Who Owns The River Don? Exploring Rights of Nature, Self-Ownership & Reciprocal Stewardship

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Personhood Horizontal

In partnership with Dark Matter Labs & The River Dôn Project

What if the River Don was to be recognised as a citizen, just like you and me? To transition from our current human-centric to an ecocentric worldview, and ensure the viability and thriving of all ecosystems, we need to embrace a more-than-human notion of agency and autonomy. For example, for the Karapotó people, an Indigenous group in Brazil, a river is not a resource but a living being — they ask permission to enter, bathe, and fish.

Such Indigenous worldviews and the rights-of-nature movement recognise the personhood of nature (such as rivers, mountains and animals) and act bearing the weight of future generations. They have found ways to be in conversation with nature and include them in decision-making. For many Indigenous cultures (such as the Tjuwa'uvu'uvulj people, Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan), the concept of ownership is envisaged more like stewardship, with a reciprocal balance of rights and responsibilities towards the land, river or other non-human agents.

What if we would embrace a more inclusive definition of legal personhood and citizenship in the UK that extends to our non-human kinfolk, like the River Don? What kind of new relationships, legal frameworks, and governance institutions would we need to recognise their autonomy, agency and voice?

The River Dôn Project

The River Dôn Project aims to explore the potential of the River Don in obtaining legal personhood status. In challenging the current legal model of ownership, we would create the conditions for new legal, economic and democratic frameworks for the Rights of Nature in South Yorkshire.

By attaining enhanced rights for the River Don, we want to change the way we interact with and value the river - socially, economically, politically and environmentally.

Dark Matter Labs

Dark Matter Labs: In a context of climate breakdown and technological disruption, Dark Matter Labs focuses on accelerating societal transition towards collective care, shared agency, long-termism and interconnectedness. Our daily work ranges from policy and regulation to finance and data, from governance and democratic participation to organisational culture and identity.

We organise our work around what this transition needs, and the things we want to see in the world. To keep that transparent, we undertake open work in collaborative partnerships to provoke alternative visions of the future, designing how they might look in practice, and experimenting in context to reveal how they could work and enable the necessary change.

This event is part of the series of 5 events around the theme of beyond property and ownership. The other 4 events are Verbs not Nouns - The Role of Language in Scaffolding Alternative Worldviews and Futures, Who Owns the Land? A New Theory of Rights & Responsibilities, Everyday Life as a Knot of Flows: Conversations Along the River Don, Everyday Life as a Knot of Flows - Collective Mapping for River Don Entanglement. You are encouraged to participate in them all but it's ok if not. Each event will recap the previous ones and some parts will be documented.

Lawyers for Nature

Lawyers for Nature is a Community Interest Company whose origins lie in the successful legal assistance given by our co-founder, Barrister Paul Powlesland, to a grassroots campaign to save thousands of street trees from being felled in Sheffield. We aim to democratise access to legal support for those seeking to defend the natural world.

Friends of the Cam

Friends of the Cam are a Cambridge based campaigning group committed to restoring the health of the river Cam and its tributaries for the benefit of nature. We are pledged to ending pollution of the river and overabstraction linked to unsustainable growth in the area. We have developed a charter to express these commitments which we invite others to sign.

Part of our 2023 festival strand


How can we respond to the climate crisis and biosphere collapse?