A journalist who has reported on the rights of nature movement responds to Karl Schroeder’s “The Suicide of Our Troubles.”
In more than 100 countries, citizens have clear constitutional rights to a healthy environment. The United States is not one of them. Nevertheless, for the past few decades or more, people have argued through the courts that the U.S. has an obligation to provide a healthy environment, including addressing climate change, as the Juliana v. United States youth lawsuit has insisted. But simultaneously, an emerging movement is focusing on the rights of nature itself: to grant personhood status to lakes, rivers, and plant species so they might have legal standing in court to defend their rights to exist and persist. If laws are an assertion of a nation’s values, what does it say that the U.S. grants personhood to corporations, but not nature?
In Karl Schroeder’s “The Suicide of Our Troubles,” that concept evolves into a future in which beings in nature not only have personhood, but are personified by A.I. constructs who hire lawyers and coordinate with activists. A large-scale biomass scheme akin to carbon trading means cleaning up pollution is profitable, and A.I. slag piles and mercury poisoning seek out ways to eliminate themselves. While legal personhood isn’t the same as literal manifestations, it’s an inventive way to reimagine how we face widespread ecosystem breakdown. To the question “who speaks for nature?” Schroeder’s futurist piece responds: “Nature.”
While the environment in the U.S. is typically seen through the settler colonial lens of property, personhood subverts this notion of ownership and confers its bearers certain inalienable rights. Often, it is corporations with legal personhood that are doing the most destruction to the rivers, lakes, and forests that lack the same designation. Personhood designation has been done on a large scale before: In Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) in 2017, the Whanganui River legally gained personhood as part of a reconciliation process between Māori and the government of New Zealand. Importantly, the legal designation centered on the relationship between the river and the Māori, and the responsibility that relationship comes with. Similar attempts, successful or otherwise, have happened in Ecuador, India, and Colombia.
Tribal nations in North America have invoked legal personhood as well; in 2019, the Yurok Tribe declared the Klamath River to have rights of personhood. In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe adopted the Rights of Manoomin, extending rights to both manoomin (wild rice) and the freshwater it needs to exist. The rights provide a layer of protection to a plant central to traditional lifeways, and “reaffirms the Anishinaabe relationship and responsibility to wild rice,” Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe) writes. Many of these rights have yet to be challenged in a courtroom, in part because, in the case of the Whanganui’s personhood, the goal was to change how governments, businesses, and individuals engage and relate with the river, not solely as a litigious battering ram.
Non-Native attempts at natural personhood across the U.S. have struggled: Citizen efforts to instill rights to the Colorado River stalled and died in the face of opposition from Colorado’s attorney general. Residents of Toledo, Ohio, made headlines after passing a bill of rights for Lake Erie, who makes an appearance in Schroeder’s story, enshrining its right to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve.” While they hoped it could offer a broad means of addressing toxic algae and long-wrought degradation, the bill was immediately challenged in court by private businesses. A judge invalidated it in February, writing in the final opinion, “this is not a close call.”
In November, Floridians in Orange County passed the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights. But the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has led the charge on rights of personhood initiatives in the U.S., has criticized the bill of rights, saying that it capitulates to existing laws, and that “the fulfillment of ecosystem rights requires the wholesale transformation of existing law—not its reiteration.” It neither decolonizes by dismantling harmful colonial structures nor radically changes the law, and as Florida sinks, that is not enough.
In “The Suicide of Our Troubles,” Nadine, the lawyer, figures out the key to making pollution cleanup profitable. But truly shifting our relationship with nature—not just personhood as legalese—will mean abandoning the cult of capitalism, which will never value the nonmarketable relationship between humans and nature. Market prices don’t capture the whole cost of our system, and those incalculable costs are mounting, whether directly via pollution or more abstractly with climate change. Those costs will be paid by the beings at the center of the rights of nature movement: critical rivers, lakes, and plant species, as well as the ecosystems and human communities they support. The inequity in the distribution of environmental harm raises the question of justice, for both humans and nonhumans. As Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux) writes of the conflict over the corporate-driven Dakota Access Pipeline and the Missouri River in Our History Is the Future, “If the water, a relative, is not protected and the river is not free, its people will not be free.”
The movement toward recognizing these rights and relationships is inherently future looking and aspirational, and we must live up to those aspirations. We are running out of time to do much else.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.