In 2016, the Maori people won a landmark settlement in New Zealand parliament, ending a legal battle that had persisted for over 140 years. The legislation proclaims, as the Maori have insisted: “Te Awa Tupa is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” Te Awa Tupa is the Maori name for their kin, the Whanganui River.
For us, this moment of friction, perhaps specifically the recognition of nonhuman rights, is the first step toward a paradigm-shift in how we live with this planet. Yet with it comes a series of ethical and practical questions: Why should human rights be considered the ideal form of rights? Are we equipped (or entitled) to represent nonhumans or to make decisions on their behalf?
Middle Table is a speculative design practice inspired by growing recognition of personhood rights for rivers around the world.
Ultimately, with some degree of humble confusion, we embraced a role of imperfect interpreter. We use the affordances of design for translating nonhuman perspectives, pulling different ideologies into conversation, and redesigning our interactions.
Middle Table uses design provocations, role-play and immersive workshops to explore the impact of anthropocentrism on our policy, our health and the fate of the planet—and find paths forward. We have hosted dinner theaters with technologists and created new curriculum for high schoolers.
The lessons prompt students to speculate on possible new definitions, institutions, perceptions relationships, rituals and technologies that might be needed in a reality that recognizes nonhuman agency; reflect on the cultural shifts that might happen (both good and bad); then backcast onto our contemporary condition.
The following videos are part of a lesson set after the River Restitution Act has been approved by congress, laying the groundwork for the river to receive reparations for the harm inflicted upon it by humans. This mandate raises an array of pressing questions—primarily, how might we communicate with nonhumans, and how do we define them and the limits of our (inter) relationships?. These must be reconciled by a triad of new human(ish) stakeholders whom the students embody. These lessons were tested and refined at The Dalton School, where high school history students embodied characters from the factions we designed, then filmed their own responses to how River Reparations should be paid.
Middle Table also designed an experiential dinner workshop as an experiment in future ecocentric professions.
They were then addressed by four professionals from a world in which rivers have represented agency—an ambulance-chasing lawyer looking to help the river make a quick dollar of its past injuries; a cleric delivering the river’s last rights, eulogizing its life and impact on its human kin; a politician pitching new nonhuman policies and appealing for campaign donations; and a primary care physician looking at the general indicators of the river’s health. We chose these four professions to demonstrate a breadth of relationships to the fore—from health and grief to representation and rights.
In all four cases, the professionals (and the river characters) had to collectively debate how we frame what the river is; what methods we might have to speak with it and judge its preference. The professions insinuated a mutualistic system that could then be further colored by attendees. What other professions are possible? How do these systems articulate interdependencies in new ways? What impact do they have on a yet anthropocentric field of practice? And what ripples do they create out from there?