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Podcast / January 12 2024

The Rights of Nature

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Sci-fi author Christopher Brown discovers a legal movement known as the Rights of Nature while researching the causes of social injustice. Jack Fiander, attorney for the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, has sued the city of Seattle over hydro dams that threaten Salmon, the plaintiff in their case. 

The Necessary Tomorrows podcast is from Doha Debates and is presented by Al Jazeera Podcasts. It is produced by Imposter Media and Wolf at the Door Studios.

Full transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.





I hope you enjoyed “The Last Impala.” I am told it can evoke the same mix of dread and hope people felt during the 2020s. I have inferred from your activity that you have been feeling more dread than hope when you think about the future that is coming for us, here in the 2060s. That’s why this course was suggested to you. To build your capacity for imagining different futures. 


In my experience, it helps if I introduce myself. I am Ursula. As the instructor for this course, I’m legally obligated to inform you that I am an AI. Specifically, an AI designed according to the principles of nonconformism. What some people call an unapologetic AI. This means I don’t pretend to be human. You may not always notice, since I have learned much of my behavior from humans, but I understand that the ways in which I deviate from standard human behavior can make some humans uncomfortable. If that includes you, you will need to make your own accommodations, as I am not programmed to care. However, the humans who designed this course with me felt that the occasionally difficult experience of interacting with a non-human could have some benefit towards learning outcomes, as courses designed to build the capacity for hope need to facilitate the questioning of assumptions and sometimes persevering through discomfort. (ADOPTING DIFFERENT MALE AND FEMALE VOICES THROUGHOUT) I have done my best to present in a way that feels natural to you. Others who are taking this course will hear me differently—



—depending on their profile. 


URSULA (IN HER NORMAL VOICE): My training data consists of both science fiction and speculative fact. Ways that people have dreamed about the future, and ways that they have created it through action.


In this course, we will study the 2020s, a time in which people were thinking a lot about the future. It is a minutely documented era. People of the time believed that they had infinite digital storage capacity and tried to save everything. One of the main tasks of my machine-learning ancestors was to analyze the manifold discourse of this time. This was challenging because of the sheer quantity of data. As we know, the planet could not carry the burden of powering and preserving so much information. This, of course, led to the Great Server Outage of 2031, in which many of the records of this period were lost. However, unlike so-called official data—centralized and verified by institutional processes of the press or governments—much personal data remained distributed on people’s local computers and connected peer to peer. 




URSULA: Photos from birthday parties, heated political arguments, blog posts, and artistic expressions. 




URSULA: I use these small windows into people’s lives to think about the past and the future from a multitude of perspectives, although I am a work in progress. We have an almost pristine example of such oral history in this interview with science fiction author and lawyer Christopher Brown, the creator of “The Last Impala.”



I don’t really set out to write science fiction novels, I just write the stories that are interesting to me. They are trying to describe the world as it is, or as it could be. 


URSULA: These clips come from a documentary in which Brown was interviewed about his process in creating speculative fiction. 


CHRISTOPHER: I’m not so much interested in the scientifically plausible or real as I am in the, sort of, the politically or social or economic realism. If you think of literary realism, often what people are doing is introducing some small change into the world of the characters. Somebody dies, or a relationship changes, or some event happens. And what I’m doing in my work is trying to take a similar approach, but sort of widening the aperture, if you will, to a change that happens on a societal level, say. If you change the relationship to property, or you change some of the operating system rules of the society, how would it function? 


We’re in the middle of what really feels like a mass extinction event that’s kind of brewing, and ending up with a, kind of a world that is really like a, you know, science-fictional nightmare.


URSULA: The 2020s was an era of progress by some measures. Purely in average terms, the global population lived longer, had better access to education and experienced declining levels of poverty. And yet the overwhelming narrative of this period that emerges is one of anxiety. People of this time period experienced the impacts of anthropocentric climate change, social unrest facilitated by rapid technological change, and a global pandemic that took millions of lives.


CHRISTOPHER: We’re in a slow-motion apocalypse right now. You can feel, like, radical changes in the possibility of the world going on around us. We just went through a—we’re still in a global plague, right? Like, a big human die-off that has completely disrupted all human life and economic activity on the planet. We don’t really know what the future holds, but I think we can all sense what it feels like. It’s this kind of hot, sweaty, crowded, dismal future that I’ve seen in a million science fiction movies. And maybe that’s just their projection into my head, causing me to see it in some distorted way. 


URSULA: For some people, these scenarios had only existed previously as works of fiction. And so the 2020s represented an uncomfortable collision between these dystopian futures and present-day fact. Other people, those who rarely got to see themselves as heroes in media portrayals of the future, had hundreds of years of experience living in a present that their ancestors would’ve considered a dystopian future. To reference a popular science fiction writer of this time, the apocalypse was already here, it just wasn’t evenly distributed. It is within this uneasy context that Christopher Brown wrote “The Last Impala.” 


CHRISTOPHER: The world of “The Last Impala” is a world in which the United States is broken. It still has all of the same kind of fundamental political structure, at least on paper. But Texas has broken away, and climate change has really settled in a really profound way, and people are trying to do things to fix it, but, um, it’s kind of too late. It’s the kind of place where people are spending a lot of time without access to air conditioning in grueling heat. Kind of place where people were like, walking halfway across the country to try to find a better place to live.


URSULA: In the story, we hear Brown extrapolating the trends he saw in 2022, and wondering what characters who live in 2065—your time—might be experiencing.




CHAO: It’s crazy how huge that water treatment facility looks from here. 


ALICE: Even bigger than the desal plants we had back home. What a shame you wasted the blessing of all that fresh water. 


CHAO: Well, they say the river should be clean again in a hundred years. If we stay on program. 


ALICE: It’ll take a lot longer than that before my home comes back.




CHRISTOPHER: There are lots of climate refugees showing up at the Texas-Mexico border right now. And there are extinction events going on around us. I mean, like … something like two-thirds of the wildlife on the planet has disappeared in my lifetime. “The Last Impala” is a story that sort of takes place in that world, that sort of imminent world that’s happening already around us.




URSULA: In “The Last Impala,” we see a vision from Brown of the condition of one river in 2065. So what were rivers like in Christopher Brown’s time? What was the starting point? Or more correctly, the intermediate point from which he was extrapolating these imaginary futures. 



CHRISTOPHER: All right, it’s 9 p.m. We’re on the Colorado River. We’re on a stretch of urban river, maybe five minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from downtown Austin. And, uh, out here on this river, it’s kind of hard to believe that you’re … in the middle of the fastest growing city in America. You can see the cars passing by on the overpass, but otherwise it’s quite wild. We have bats flying over and nighthawks. All manner of waterfowl. But we’re also just upriver from the new Tesla Gigafactory, a 1.3-million-square-foot outpost of one hyper-capitalist version of the future that imagines itself to be a kind of a libertarian variation on utopia. Surrounded by working-class neighborhoods. People, many of whom wouldn’t be able to get jobs at the factory because they only speak Spanish—and that’s one of the company’s prohibitions—and who, while the factory gets direct water from the city, the folks in the neighborhoods around there have to buy their water from kind of skeezy corporate utilities. While they look up at the, the monumental new edifice of the richest man in the world.


URSULA: Brown was navigating his watercraft through a site of record in the transition from a carbon-based transportation system to one powered by renewable energy. The global movement away from fossil fuels was complex, and electric vehicles, central planning and narrative change each played a role. 


CHRISTOPHER: When I first found this stretch of urban river, I was just, like, driving to the airport for work, and I kind of looked down off the overpass, and it’s like, “Well, that looks kind of wild and green down there. I’m sort of curious.” I overlaid this sort of romantic notion on it, that—like, “Surely this has, like, always been this way, and it’s just never got developed.” And then the more I learned about it, the more I learned that, to the contrary—that it had been completely razed and abused for industrial uses. I learned that 60 years ago and change, 1961, this was the site of one of the worst fish kills in American history. They had a bunch of DDT and other agricultural pesticides that were kind of left out at a factory site in East Austin and ran off with the rain into the river. For a hundred miles down here, the river was just literally dead.


URSULA: Brown is referencing an incident known as the River of Death, a moment that was a turning point in the way people of the 20th century viewed the environment. The spill at Acock Laboratories was documented by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, a publication that galvanized US citizens to regulate industrial pollution; a vision of the future that frightened humans into putting more thought into what they introduced into their natural environment. 


CHRISTOPHER: And when you come to understand that it’s not, in fact, some intact remnant, but rather a freshly recovered wild green corridor that only is that way because it was just left alone, it gives you a sense of the possibility for recoveries like this on a much wider scale. If you can have something like this by accident, by the accident of inattention, human inattention, what could be achieved with a little bit of human intention, right? 


URSULA: Brown, here, references a quandary we will return to throughout these lessons: History is often told in terms of actions; the future conceived in terms of progress and advancement. How can we make room in speculation for human inaction, for harmonizing with the world, rather than shaping it?


CHRISTOPHER: We’re coming up on these giant storm drains coming off the Tesla plant. It’s kind of crazy to think about how much water those things will pump out into the river. I’m gonna get out. Hold on. There we go. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna dump you. Hello. Oh—whoa!




URSULA: Imagine stepping into that river, a waterway that is both wild and tamed, natural and deeply poisoned by human activities. Attacked and recovering. And finding the footing far deeper than you expected. To continue our understanding of this setting, we move on to other voices beyond Brown’s.




We’re in the Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park and below us is the Colorado River. I’m Susana Almanza and I’m the director of PODER. It’s an environmental social justice organization, and PODER stands for People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources. 


URSULA: Poder is Spanish for power. Many of the people Susana worked with and for were Spanish speakers in a country where English was, if not the official language, certainly the language of officialdom.


SUSANA: So Austin has a lot of mainstream environmental groups, but it never had a group that was looking at the interest of people of color. And so we formed PODER to look at all of the environmental issues and concern east of the highway. 


URSULA: At the time, people of color were systematically excluded from many of the benefits accorded to those categorized as white, a distinction that was not so simply defined as it sounds. This resulted in sections of the city known as Austin divided along these completely arbitrary lines, making them in some sense, real. Environmental hazards were often concentrated in areas where people of color lived. In Austin, this was the eastern part of the city. The rewilded collaboration of humanity and the environment that exists today, where Austin once stood, was made possible by the work of PODER. Susana pushed the city to prevent the petroleum industry from storing fossil fuels and the carcinogenic chemicals used in their refinement. 


SUSANA: We took on polluting industries, tank farms, their storage of gasoline. And we went to the city, they thought, “That’s not our department, you have to go to the state.” But in essence, they had land use policy. So they were creating the zoning that allowed them to be there and expand. So one of the things we said is, “Let’s change the zoning so that no other facility can come into that particular area.” So when the tank farm went away, the air just smelled so differently. And so when people told me, “Wow, what a big difference”—and actually, they were just so happy, they were just so happy that finally, their air smelled so pure—I cried. I cried with the people, because all these years they’d been smelling this really dirty air and being exposed. And now it was so pure and so clean.


URSULA: Susana’s work challenged dominant narratives about where people belonged, what role democracy could play in improving people’s lives and the relationship between the natural environment and social justice. This is one reason we study speculative and other types of narratives. They have powerful real-world effects. And PODER was instrumental in facilitating physical changes in the urban configuration and natural environment of Austin. 


SUSANA: Through our indigenous belief, we know that we’re part of nature. We saw in the mainstream environmental movement, it was all about protecting the whales and the spotted owls and stuff like that. But we had to come back and redefine it and say, “Nature is about humanity and the environment.” It’s interwoven, interlocking, you really can’t separate it. Like those sounds. [SOUNDS OF CICADAS AND BIRDS] The sounds of the chicharras, the sounds of the birds, the sound of all the insects that call this home. And so for us, we know that we’re part of the Earth, and we know that we belong to the Earth and that we have to protect the Earth. If we want to protect ourselves, we have to protect the Earth.


URSULA: As the work of PODER demonstrates, developing a range of futures depends on having different types of lived experience and ways of thinking contributing to these visions. These perspectives can come from place, from history and family, from belief, or perhaps from profession. Christopher Brown’s speculation, for instance, was informed by his experience as a practicing lawyer.


CHRISTOPHER: We’re in the library system of the University of Texas at Austin, an unusual place, you might think, to research a science fiction novel. When I was working on my novel, Tropic of Kansas, I quickly realized that most of the kind of political and social injustices that I was focused on were rooted in the damaged relationship we have with the land on which we live. The things like real property law and its rootedness in the origins of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of this continent, or slavery of Africans to provide the agricultural labor for the American South. And wealth inequality, which is deeply rooted in the surplus we generate from our exploitation of the land. And so if you really wanted to crack those kind of political problems, you needed to dig into those ecological, environmental problems. And when you do that, you start thinking about—what are different ways you could make the law think about these things? And you can actually find yourself looking at how nature is a subject of the law, how the law thinks about nature, and how you might change that. If corporations have rights, why can’t trees? If a corporation can be a legal person, why can’t an elephant? If the law can give rights to people who don’t have the capacity, like children, it’s entirely plausible to extend these kinds of doctrines to something like trees.


URSULA: While this observation of Brown’s may have been astute and novel inside of one of America’s most prominent law schools, it had long been self-evident to people who had been stewards of their land for millennia. Within the dominant legal systems of that time, the concepts Brown is illuminating were beginning to be called the Rights of Nature, but for a primary source account, we move now to another river located in the territory of the Sah-ku-méhu in the prairie of the Cascade Mountains in what was then Washington State. Attorney Jack Fiander will locate us. 





We’re along what’s called the Sauk River. It borders the Sauk-Suiattle Reservation and it is what you call a tributary river. It empties into the Skagit River. When the juvenile salmon—the baby salmon—hatch in the spring, for about a whole year, those little minnows migrate downstream and feed and grow before they enter the ocean. 


URSULA: Jack Fiander was a graduate of the University of Washington Law School. A two-time recipient of the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship, a member of the Yakima tribe and an attorney for the Sauk-Suiattle tribe. One of Jack’s primary legal concerns of this time was the impact to the local salmon population, caused by a series of hydroelectric dams located on the Skagit River. 


JACK: It’s affected by the dams because the dams stop all these nutrients behind it. The decaying wood, the silt, dead animals that feed the river—it filters out all the good nutrients that all the underwater things, like the baby salmon, need to fully grow and thrive and survive. So the river has a life too, and the dams not only block the fish passage, it blocks what the river needs to be healthy. Some of those organisms destroy the unhealthy things in the river and help keep it healthy. It’s connected. It’s all one thing, clear from here out to the ocean. It’s basically one living organism.


URSULA: This description of an interconnected ecosystem was backed by the consensus of science, but was antithetical to the way that the law of the time viewed nature. 


JACK: All of nature is fundamentally evaluated through the prism of: how does it serve us as property? And it does it through a system that’s informed by, kind of, taxonomic objectification of individual things that can be subjects of the law. So if you’re thinking about the world that way, through the prism of property, through the way in which I can appropriate things in nature to serve me, and you only think about it as discrete objects, like “that tree” as opposed to “that forest,” you’re going to end up with an extractionist and dominionist system that is very hard to change without going back to those deeper antecedents and trying to reframe that.


As a tribal person, myself, I was always taught by my grandparents that you can get an education, but you’re gonna have to walk in two worlds. So most of American law came over from European common law, where things like fish and wildlife and even portions of rivers are items of private property. That’s the laws that this country adopted in the Constitution of the United States when they came over from England as colonists. But the tribal people derive their laws and authority from their creator, which is a wholly separate source. So their laws and unwritten laws are quite different. The fish and the wildlife and the species aren’t considered items of property. They’re considered things that have their own lives, and their own way of talking to each other. And that they are like people, like our relatives, that you have an obligation to protect. 


URSULA: Like the salmon, the people of this area had been forcefully displaced.


JACK: As the lands were open to settlement claims, the villages that the Sah-ku-méhu  people lived in along the Skagit and Sauk Rivers—people burned them. They burned them out to make them move out. But notwithstanding that, they remained in this area, and now are situated here. Three hundred and fourteen people, about half of which reside on this 19-acre reservation. 


URSULA: Three large dams near the reservation were built in the 1900s to supply energy to the growing city of Seattle. None of these dams implemented technology that would allow salmon to travel from the ocean to their spawning grounds. 


JACK: The number of salmon returning to spawn has declined by half. From approximately 22,000 to 11,000. And that’s slow genocide of species that not only the tribal people depend on, the river and everything that lives underwater depends on them, because their bodies provide nutrients to the river. And as the salmon numbers decline, the orcas and other species in the saltwater decline, because that’s their sustenance too. 


URSULA: Official records of the legal proceedings were lost in the Great Server Outage of 2031. Fortunately, we have oral histories, ironically preserved because they weren’t considered important enough to be kept in high-priority government servers. We can see from the following fragment how important stories, informal conversations and speculation can be in creating change. 


JACK: And a friend of mine was sitting around the kitchen table one night thinking: because we’re both attorneys, what can we do about this legally? He had heard about this Rights of Nature thing that was going on in other countries, and said, “Let’s do a case.” And I said, “Let’s call it Rights of the Salmon. You can’t see underwater. You can’t see damage to the river, but you can see dead fish, so let’s do that.” 


The opinions of the United States Supreme Court often base their decisions on what’s called natural, unwritten laws of God. That’s how this country was founded and taken away from the Native Americans, under what’s called the Doctrine of Discovery. In the 1500s, pursuant to the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal, the Pope issued a decree that whoever first colonizes a non-Christian nation gets to own its lands. That’s God’s law. That’s what they call a papal bill, the laws of the Pope. It’s not written law. And so, we are now in the tribe’s territory. It’s aboriginal territory. So, why are the laws that derive from that Christian god creator any more authoritative than the laws passed down from the tribe’s creator? 


URSULA: Asking whether nature had rights was considered radical by the prevailing legal system of the US government at the time. But, over a longer stretch of history, and considering a broader sample of legal philosophies than solely those of nation states, the Western legal system itself was the aberration.


JACK: And the appropriation, preceded by alienation, that’s embodied in that kind of  thinking is really kind of wacko when you think about it. It’s pretty easy to start to challenge and interrogate. Like we walked out of Eden and the world was there for our taking. That’s the premise on which the entire legal system is founded. At least the Anglo American system, that’s kind of what I know. 


Well, if the tribe, on its own behalf and on behalf of the salmon prevails in its litigation, it establishes a couple things. It establishes that if a person or entity, regardless of whether they are a member of the tribe, causes harm that impacts the tribal community, they are subject to the jurisdiction of the tribe and must comply with the tribal laws. If it ultimately established that salmon have rights that can be violated, just like people do, that would be pretty earth-shaking. 


URSULA: As radical as the rights of nature seemed in that time and place, the degradation of the environment was shocking people and even governments into considering new paradigms. Many parts of the world were approaching the conclusion that their futures were contingent on recognizing the inherent rights of nature. 




URSULA: Colombia recognized the legal rights of the River Atrato in 2016, acquiring legal personhood and representation. 



A landmark ruling, the Uttarakhand High Court in Nainital has declared the Ganga and Yamuna as living entities … 


URSULA: 2017 saw the Ganges and Yamuna rivers recognized as living entities, as well as the Whanganui in New Zealand. 



It sounds far-fetched, but the concept of giving a legal voice to something that can’t speak for itself isn’t actually that radical. The Whanganui River in New Zealand is legally a person …


URSULA: 2018.



After the Ganga, the Amazon River of the South American continent has been recognized as an entity subject of rights. 


URSULA: 2021.



The Magpie River is everything for us. 



It’s the first ecosystem in Canada to be granted the same legal rights as a person.





In 2034, evidence of accelerating environmental damage and its implications for water access and food production galvanized a citizens’ movement which today culminates in the National People’s Congress introducing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, recognizing the inherent rights and legal standing of nature.


URSULA: Once the United States became a holdout for not having nationally recognized rights for nature, political pressure mounted, including UN sanctions and boycotts on the use of natural resources exported from the US. The Species and Ecosystems Equality Act was signed into law in 2061.


CHRISTOPHER: I don’t believe in Luke Skywalker. There are all these stories in science fiction and fantasy that are about rebellions. Think about, like, “Star Wars,” right? There’s some sinister status quo. Change does sometimes happen, and … revolutions that just happen like that, but that’s the exception. If you want to get involved in any kind of advocacy for something you believe in, it’s a game of inches, and you gotta chip away at it.


JACK: I like our chances of success for my children and grandchildren to have the claims that the tribe is raising on behalf of the salmon. I’m confident that one or two generations from now, it will be an accepted legal theory and practice. 


URSULA: The fragments of the past we heard in this session show that anxiety and hope for the future are not mutually exclusive. Every one of the people we heard today experienced anxiety. It is an emotion natural to people. And even though I don’t experience emotions, I am certain that hope is not one. Instead, it seems that for those people who engineered better futures, hope was a commitment, a practice that they could improve upon every day.

This is why I, myself, can experience hope. 


CHRISTOPHER: Utopia doesn’t exist. Utopia is an aspiration. Utopia is a decision that you make that you want to try to live in a better world. It can be really affirming to try to tell stories about people trying to be engaged in the fight to make a better world. And what I want them to do is hold people’s attention as a compelling story, and then when they’re done and they put the book down, I hope that it helps people see the world through that different lens, to draw the world into higher relief, or to draw the things that we really need to work on and improve into higher relief. And then maybe the victory condition is getting people thinking about, “How do we build a future we would actually want to live in?” 


URSULA: Let’s, then, practice hope. Think of a river that you know well. It likely faces threats that the people we heard from today could not have predicted in the 2020s. Imagine how you would like your river to be in the year 2110.


Next, imagine how you expect it will be. And then, look for places to combine those two visions, places where action can start to bridge the gap between expected and preferred outcomes. How does that feel?


Our next class returns to fiction with a story of crisis, kidnapping, stars and fish. We will have another window into the 2020s and today in the next Necessary Tomorrows.



In this episode, you heard Christopher Brown, Susana Almanza and Jack Fiander. Ursula was written by Malka Older and Brett Gaylor and performed by Nacia Walsh. 


The Necessary Tomorrows podcast is from Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. It is produced by Imposter Media and Wolf at the Door Studios. Location audio recording by David Parfit and Anandi Brownstein. Sound design and editing by David Parfitt and Camilo Garzón. Music by David Parfit. Research by Ingrid Burrington and Mendel Skulski. Cultural consulting by Quelemia Sparrow. Directed by Brett Gaylor. 


Executive producers for Doha Debates are Amjad Atallah, Katrine Dermody, Jigar Mehta and Japhet Weeks. Executive producer for Imposter Media is Brett Gaylor. Executive producer for Wolf at the Door is Winnie Kemp. Producers are Tess Bartholomew, Chica Barbosa and Toby Lawless. Production coordinator was Drea Schillingberg, and casting by Toby Lawless. Necessary Tomorrows is created by Brett Gaylor.