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What if legal personality included plants, rivers and the planet?

A new podcast explores the nature rights movement and its potential to evolve Western legal doctrine around environmental protection.

“People think laws are so objective and serious, and almost divorced from social norms,” says investigative climate journalist Amy Westervelt. “But it’s really only a handful of people’s beliefs that have been incorporated into the law.”

Discovering what beliefs shaped existing environmental law led her to report on an emerging legal arena that is making headlines around the world: rights of nature laws. To explore the fascinating stories and characters behind some of the 200 cases currently underway, Westervelt is launching a new podcast today titled damagedescribed as “Law and order responds to the climate crisis.

The idea behind the rights-of-nature approach extrapolates the Western legal system’s insistence that a society is viewed as a person. If this is legally true, then why not grant legal personality to a watershed or a forest? For those who grew up indoctrinated by the existing legal system, Westervelt says their initial response often comes with a taunt: “So what could a tree sue me for?”

But beyond that initial skepticism, she sees a lot of practicality and possibility in the approach. Take, for example, a polluted lake. “It’s almost impossible to say that my cancer was caused by this chemical in the water,” she says. “But it’s super easy, scientifically, to say that this chemical in that water is destroying that watershed.”

And in this way, granting nature its own rights could provide a way to protect specific environments – and the communities that depend on them. Because, she points out, “humans actually need ecosystems to live much more than we need businesses.”

The proof is in the repression

When it comes to protecting the environment, most existing laws are human-centric. They focus on people’s rights to a healthy environment. Westervelt says more than 100 countries have such laws on the books. Yet, since they require establishing a direct causal link between a pollutant and an effect on human health, it can be difficult to win a case in court.

Natural rights cases, on the other hand, “play the long game,” as Westervelt puts it. They approach legal arguments with a completely different philosophy and timescale. According to Westervelt, integrating the rights of nature into the constitutions of municipalities, states, and countries could change the fundamental approach to how environmental affairs are handled.

And it could work well. She says the proof is in the repression.

“We’re starting to see preventative laws being passed to block rights of nature legislation,” Westervelt says. Ohio, Florida and, more recently, Missouri have passed laws to this effect, a backlash she explores in Episode 5 of the podcast. “That’s always a key indicator that something is working, isn’t it?” said Westervelt. “They don’t pass preventative laws against calling your representatives, let’s put it that way.”

The other strength of this rights-of-nature approach to environmental protection lies in the surprising coalitions it creates. “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights isn’t a bunch of hippies in San Francisco. It’s suburban moms in Toledo, Ohio,” Westervelt says. industry and the right on how [rights of nature laws have] has progressed in this country is that you really see it appear in the Rust Belt, in the working-class towns of the Midwest.

Take fracking, for example. A person in Pennsylvania might be upset that their neighbor has a fracking well that has destroyed water from surrounding wells, rendering their land essentially worthless. So, says Westervelt, you have right-wing, anti-government libertarians fighting in defense of private property alongside Indigenous leaders who are defending the watershed’s right to life.

The motivations can be very different, but Westervelt says the results they’re fighting for are actually quite compatible.

Take the example of the Te Urewera rainforest in New Zealand, which Westervelt examines in Episode 4. She says this case is one that international organizations point to as a key success story for the rights of nature, because the government recognized the rainforest as its own legal entity and the Tūhoe people as its legal guardians. In many ways, it’s a victory, but in the end, it’s still a compromise on what the Tūhoe really want: simply the return of their land.

The idea that the government had to grant these land rights is almost offensive to those who live there, says Westervelt. Still, she sees these cases, which aim to bring an Indigenous approach to both nature and justice, as a way to “give Western law an instant upgrade on the environmental front.”

Wild rice for victory

A unique aspect of Westervelt’s podcast is how it frames Indigenous science, which she says is too often dismissed as myth or “woo-woo mystical nonsense.”

Westervelt shares an example of a water protector she spoke with in Hawai’i who was working to protect her people’s sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. He told her that the reason it’s sacred is that half of the island’s ecosystems are affected by it. Western watershed science eventually came to the same conclusion, but centuries later, after colonization had already done great damage.

The same goes for why wild rice is sacred to the Ojibway: it’s an indicator species. They knew of its ecological importance and therefore came to reflect this in their cultural values.

In this way, Westervelt says, storytelling — whether through Indigenous knowledge sharing or a podcast — is an effective way to explain why it’s important to protect water.

On that note, she kicks off the first season of the podcast with episode 1: “Manoomin c. Minnesota.“This case is about the rights of wild rice to survive and thrive in local waterways, which the Ojibway people added to their 1855 treaty with the U.S. government. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe, based in what is now Minnesota, has since sued Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline, which they say will violate rice rights and threaten the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

The reason Westervelt is starting with Wild Rice is because of the impact this case could have on so many other potential pipeline fights across the United States.

“Whatever decision they make will be pretty monumental,” she says. The case is currently before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and if its decision is appealed, Westervelt says it could be “another case where the Supreme Court decides whether the United States is going to honor these treaties.” And it has far-reaching implications for the treaty rights of tribes across the continent.

“Every time I tell people, ‘Yeah, wild rice sued the state of Minnesota,’ it helps get people to let go of the idea that the way things are are the way they always have been and should be. always be.” said Westervelt. She thinks exposing people to this idea through a story is less threatening than talking to them about water clarity or carbon emissions. “Showing people a different perspective and what it might look like, I think, is helpful in opening people up to other possibilities.”

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Breanna Draxler

is Managing Editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Indigenous rights. She has nearly a decade of experience in editing, reporting and writing for national magazines, including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine who won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She holds a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Breanna is based in the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held management positions at biographics, science popularizationand Discover the magazine.