Interview of Thomas Linzey ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Thomas Linzey. He is the executive director and an attorney for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has assisted close to 200 communities across the country in eight states to adopt binding local laws that elevate community rights to sustainability over corporate rights and powers.

So first, thank you for your decades of great work and thank you for being on the program.

TL: Yeah. Thanks for having us back, Derrick.

DJ: So let’s start by talking about a recent lawsuit that I’ve interviewed somebody about a couple of times, Jason Flores-Williams. Let’s talk about the lawsuit having to do with the Colorado River.

TL: Sure. So, first ever lawsuit in the United States filed on behalf of an ecosystem, that has been brought against the State of Colorado, seeking to get a court to recognize that the Colorado River has certain rights of its own, that can be exercised against certain activities, like for example Nestle pumping some of the Colorado dry, the Colorado River not being able to make it all the way through its river bed to the coast, different human activities that have infringed on the river’s right to exist and flourish and flow and all those things.

And although those lawsuits have not become common, we’ve seen the first couple of them filed in places like India and Colombia, and this is the first one in the United States to actually take the concept and attempt to apply it here.

DJ: So one of the arguments that is being made in favor of it is that “Well shoot, corporations have rights, and corporations are not living beings, so a river should have rights.” And recently there was an article, or not an article but a video on RT about this, in which someone was arguing in favor of, Deanna Meyer was arguing in favor of the river having rights, and they got somebody to argue against it and he was saying the corporations idea doesn’t really work and it’s not analogous because corporations are nothing but collections of people. So giving a corporation rights is no different than giving human beings rights. And that seems self-evidently stupid, but can you tell me why?

TL: (laughing) A lot of people have argued that, from that position, that a corporation is no more than an assembly of persons, and that corporate rights are merely just individual rights magnified by the number of people in the corporation, and therefore those rights are held collectively. And the basic underlying problem to that is that corporate rights are not individual rights held collectively, but actually rights that accrue to the corporate form itself. And a corporation itself is property.

So you and I can incorporate a company tomorrow. You pay the filing fee with the state, you get a certificate of incorporation, you can create the company. And when the corporation is formed, upon the time when the stamp alights on the piece of paper, the Articles of Incorporation, via the Secretary of State’s office, immediately that entity is imbued with certain rights, including the constitutional rights of person. So the corporation then has due process rights, and 14th Amendment rights, and 1st Amendment rights to free speech, and religious rights. But those rights don’t accrue to the people that actually sign the Articles of Incorporation. Those rights accrue to the piece of property that you’ve just created. That’s why you have cases in which corporations appear as plaintiffs. You don’t see owners of corporations appearing as plaintiffs, you see the corporation itself. And over the past 200 years, courts have recognized that property, that piece of property that is the corporation, actually has rights of its own. It’s not derivative rights of the people that own the company. It’s actually the company’s rights itself.

So when we talk about this particular concept of corporate rights, it would be almost akin to your refrigerator having rights, and your refrigerator being able to sue you over those rights. So it’s important for folks to understand when they hear those kinds of arguments, that it’s an attempt by the corporate apology folks to say “There’s nothing to see here, with corporations having rights, those are just people’s rights, and so that’s a good thing.” But unfortunately it’s not, it’s actually property having rights. So when we talk about property having rights, as in a corporation or a refrigerator or your television set or your desk, those are all pieces of property. That would be as insane, having rights, as a corporation, a piece of property having rights.

So when you compare the two, and you take a river, or a living ecosystem, something that supports life on the planet, critical to supporting that life, it makes a lot more sense to me at least, and a lot of the folks working in this field now, that that ecosystem or living entity has a better claim to having certain rights, especially the right to exist, the right to life kind of thing for ecosystems; than a corporation, which is literally an inanimate, non-living, piece of property. A better claim than that thing, that refrigerator or whatever it is, could actually have rights. I think there’s a much better claim to be made for ecosystem rights and nature rights than for a corporation, and especially with the underlying illogic of a corporation having rights only by virtue of the people who own it, because that’s not the way the system works currently.

DJ: So there’s another question I want to ask about this before we start to transition to another subject. The question is, I saw the RT video on YouTube, and I made the mistake of looking at the comments beneath it. And looking at people’s comments is a really good way to destroy anyone’s faith in any goodness in humanity. And in this case, the comments were – seemed to be pretty overwhelmingly that this is a ridiculous – that having a river have rights is a ridiculous idea and also quite possibly communist. Do you think the comments there are in any way representative of the feelings of the American public? And if so, what do we do about it, and if not, what do we do about it?

I guess part of what I’m getting at with this is do regular people think this is a terrible idea, in your experience, or do regular people think “Oh, this is not a bad idea” or are regular people on the fence? What do – I’ll just shut up now.

TL: Well, it’s also one of the reasons why I don’t read the comments sections anymore, because they’re worthless. But even though the lawsuit is new, this brand-new lawsuit with the Colorado River as the plaintiff against the State of Colorado, even though that is new, i.e. the first that’s happened in the country; the Rights of Nature stuff has been around for awhile. So going back to 2006, a little place called Tamaqua Borough in Pennsylvania, just above Philadelphia, passed the nation’s, and in fact the world’s first Rights of Nature ordinance. So, think “local law passed by local folks in one municipality,” that actually recognized nature as not being property, but actually having rights of its own that could be enforced by the people in the community.

And that law came about because the State of Pennsylvania was planning to import PCB-laden dredge from the Delaware River into abandoned deep mine holes that had existed in Tamaqua for the last 100 years. And the people of Tamaqua said “we don’t want this” and so they moved to pass an ordinance that banned the waste from coming in. But an important conversation also happened way back in 2006 in that one community, in which the sportsmen, the fishermen came together and said “Look, if this dredge pollutes the Delaware River, our only option is to actually go to court and ask for damages that stem from our loss of use of the Delaware River for catching fish.”

And so when that happens, you go into court and the judge says “Okay, how many fish do you catch in five years?” and somebody says “Well, this many,” and the judge says “Well, that’s worth about this much per pound on the open market, so I’m going to give you that value in damages.” In other words, the lawsuit that comes about, for environmental purposes, only protects the ability of the person to continue to exploit the river, or exploit the ecosystem. So under current law today, that’s how the courts see these relationships. The ecosystem is invisible. It doesn’t exist, just like women didn’t exist in the 1840’s in courts, and African-Americans in the 1830’s. They weren’t seen by the courts, they were invisible by the courts, and ecosystems are in that same position.

And so coming all the way back around to the question you asked about how do people see these issues, and are they the same as the comments on some web page. The fact is that a lot of the Rights of Nature work that’s happened in the United States has come about in a fairly normal way, which is people in the community saying “We don’t want this project coming in, it’s going to damage our community.” And then realizing that because natural systems and ecosystems don’t have certain protections under the law, they’re not seen by the courts, they’re not seen by environmental laws. That there’s a need to create that new system of law.

And so they’ve evolved pretty much organically from this concept that communities have the ability to stop certain harmful corporate projects coming in, whether those are toxic waste incinerators or factory farms or whatever other projects coming in are, and that the community is actually not just the human community, but the biotic community that we’re talking about, the natural community. And that both are much stronger with two different sets of rights. Rights of the people and the community to say “No” to the thing coming in, and then the right of the natural community not to be adversely affected by the project that’s coming in as well.

And so there are three dozen communities now in the United States that have passed those local laws, where the Rights of Nature stuff really got started. Including the city of Pittsburgh, which is the largest municipal government in the United States to have passed a Rights of Nature law to stop fracking, oil and gas extraction within the city, and actually protect the rivers that flow through the city, the river ecosystem.

So even though the lawsuit is new, this work has been going on for the past ten, fifteen years in the United States. And culminated of course in Ecuador, with the adoption of the new national constitution which recognizes nature as having rights. And then India and Colombia courts now holding that glaciers and rivers have certain rights of their own.

And it’s all talked about colloquially pretty much as nature, ecosystems are capable of holding certain rights. And so you hear the word “personhood” thrown around a lot, that under our systems of law, people, persons are the only ones who can actually have rights. Ecosystems are generally seen as property, which means that they’re right-less. And so the Rights of Nature movement is about taking things that are right-less and making them into rights-holders. Because otherwise you can’t enforce anything in court unless you’re a rights-holder.

So again, I think most of this has evolved organically from people saying “Well wait a minute, we don’t want this in our community because it’s going to adversely affect us,” and then coming to the understanding that the existing law doesn’t recognize ecosystems at all, and so those ecosystems can be damaged or destroyed with impunity. No repercussions. So therefore communities are then stepping up to the plate and saying “Hey, we need to provide some kind of protection for them.”

And the reason the Colorado River lawsuit is important is that even though this lawmaking has been going on for ten or fifteen years, it’s very slow. And in fact a lot of courts don’t recognize municipal authority to make the laws in the first place.

And so the bringing of this lawsuit is important at least to us, because it may create another shell to carry the Rights of Nature work forward, for people who need a local law, would otherwise need to adopt a local law in their municipality to actually move forward with this kind of enforcement lawsuit.

So we hope that the Colorado River lawsuit, even if it loses, or even if it gets some kind of adverse ruling, actually results in 100, 200, 300, 1000 more of these cases being brought by people in places that want to protect their natural communities, protect their ecosystems, without necessarily going through the legislative process to put something into place.

DJ: So thank you for all that, and I would like to sort of transition now to the main topic for this, which has to do with mainstream environmentalism. And I guess the transition I would like to use for this would be, do you think it’s significant that the attorney for, who has proposed this, Jason Flores-Williams, does not really come from the major environmental, sort of mainstream environmental perspective.

TL: I think that’s very important. Because there’s almost an environmental law industry in the United States. It’s built on enforcement, it was built originally on the adoption of the seminal environmental laws in the 1970’s. So the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act – it was built on the adoption of those laws, and then careers and an industry have formed around those laws. Basically to appeal permits that are issued under the authority of those laws, to populate the agencies, like the EPS and the state environmental agencies. And it’s become this whole industry around environmental law.

And the problem is that, as we’ve been talking about with the rights of nature, that the environmental law field is flawed. And it’s flawed because it’s all built on this assumption that nature is property, it’s all built on the assumption that we can permit certain uses of it without endangering the health and safety of the ecosystem itself. That it’s all human-based. It’s all about – for example, the Clean Water Act is about fishable and swimmable standards. And that’s about people fishing and people swimming. It’s all about human use of those ecosystems, to exploit and use those natural systems.

So, I think, coming back to your question, that the important part about Jason Flores-Williams stepping forward is that he’s really a civil rights guy. And over the past 40 years, environmental law has not been treated as a civil rights issue. It’s been treated as something else. Especially civil rights from a Rights of Nature standpoint.

And so I think for any of this work to move forward and happen, it’s going to take other practitioners in other areas that are bringing this up, to bear on this particular movement, this Rights of Nature movement. And I will say, before we expand the conversation here, is that I did a tour of law schools and universities, it must have been ten years ago. We were talking about the Rights of Nature stuff. And we had environmental law professors who would walk out of the room halfway through the presentation. Because this Rights of Nature stuff, this concept of ecosystems having legally enforceable rights that can be enforced in court and enforced against corporations and others who are doing projects that adversely impact those ecosystems, that’s so foreign to the environmental law practice that we have today, which is all based on permits being issued, and what’s the maximum amount of pollution a river can take, and all this stuff, which is all basically from a human perspective. That the two worlds just don’t fit. And so it was no surprise to me, thinking about the trip that I took a long time ago, ten years ago, in that the industry of environmental law is a threat to new models of environmental protection moving forward, because those within the industry seek to protect the industry that they have, which is to seek to protect that permit-issuing authority of the regulatory agencies to permit in the first place, I mean all that kind of stuff.

And so I think Jason Flores-Williams stepping forward to do this, other lawyers from other fields coming in, I think that’s all going to be necessary to build something that actually works. Which is not what we have right now.

DJ: You know, I’ve written some essays about how environmentalism, whatever that means, has been transformed over time from trying to protect wild places and wild beings, into trying to sustain this culture. And that’s completely horrifying to me.

TL: Yeah, I think it’s true. I’ve read that. I’ve read your writings on that material, and in private conversations or other conversations that we’ve had on this show and elsewhere, I think it’s exactly, precisely on target. Which is that; we say, perhaps controversially at this point, that the environmental groups, the mainstream environmental groups, are as bad as the corporations that are trying to come in to do something to the community. Because when you think that people are your allies, when you think that groups are your allies in a fight, you tend to treat them differently than the entities that you know are not your allies.

So people openly understand that Monsanto, when it comes in, is not a friend. But when the major environmental organizations come in and begin to impose this certain type of administrative/regulatory/permit appeal type of approach to the problem the community’s facing, that the community is like “Oh, it’s an environmental group! Everything’s going to be fine, this is great, these are our friends.” But they’re not, because they’re taking people down this failed, littered avenue, by which at the end, the hope of actually stopping something from coming in is almost zero.

So I’m very much in agreement with what you’ve written about the major environmental groups, because I don’t think that they are helpful at this point. They are part of this legal environmental law industry that’s arisen. And I think the quicker they get out of the way, to allow a new kind of thing to arise, the better.

DJ: And just to be clear – my experience is that I have been involved with and also spoken with so many local environmentalists who have found their organizations taken over, or at the very least weakened, when they look for assistance from the big environmental organizations.

TL: I think that’s very true. We found the same. I think it’s also why our organization doesn’t work with the mainstream environmental groups anymore. Because we found that the only groups that are actually willing to engage in a different kind of way are those community organizations that arise separate and distinct from the major environmental groups in the United States.

DJ: My experience with working with the small groups is that for the most part the people on the ground – it’s all just tactics. They actually don’t care whether they file a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act or whether this is Rights of Nature or whether the economy collapses and makes it so the project doesn’t go in. They just want to make sure that the river remains as well as can be. And they’ll use whatever tactics they can.

TL: Yes. But here’s the problem with that, is that the tactics that we have at hand, the tools in the toolbox, have intentionally been constructed to fail. So whether it’s the Endangered Species Act or whether it’s enforcing some of these other environmental laws that are dealing with permit, it would be one thing if all the tools were equal. But it’s almost like the tools that have evolved in the past 30 years are destined not to achieve what the group wants to achieve.

That’s not what the major environmental groups say to them when they come in. A lot of ‘em offer money. We’ve had a couple of major environmental groups say “Hey, we’ll do that permit appeal for you, as long as you let us use your name. We’ll represent you and we’ll even give you $10,000, or give you money to pay for this, that and the other.”

And so it’s very enticing for that local group to automatically go with the current. You know, they get swept up into the current. And by the time they’re done with that, they’re mentally, physically and financially exhausted. Because they’ve gone through that cycle of being exhausted through those tactics.

So it would be one thing to say okay, local group arises, they go through the permit regulatory stuff, they figure out it doesn’t work and then they do something different. But unfortunately that’s not the way it works. The groups rise up, they tend to tag up with one of these groups that get involved with the permit regulatory stuff. They go through it, they lose, and then they’re too exhausted and they have no money left to do anything else and then they just give up. It’s like a perfect hamster wheel of exhaustion for those community organizations. We’ve at least seen it hundreds of times. So it’s like we have to intervene early while the window is still open, to actually get to people’s brains, to tell them it’s not just about tactics. It’s the fact that some of these tactics are cooked, and that you need to do something different because those tactics are not hope. It’s about getting to people’s brains before they’re swept up in that current, which is basically back into that environmental law industry that has failed us over the past 40 years.

I’ve said before, on this show and all over the place, that we’re in worse shape now than we were 40 years ago. And we wouldn’t be here if the major environmental laws were actually working to protect the planet. But they’re not. So by almost every major environmental statistic, things are worse now than they were 40 years ago.

So something new is needed. We can’t just pull stuff out of the toolbox and use it because the tools aren’t there. We actually have to make the tools. We have to fabricate new tools. And nobody ever wants to do that because it’s very hard to do.

If we want to do a permit appeal, that’s easy. You know, you get the lawyer, the forms are pre-made for you, you fill them out, you go in front of an administrative law judge. Everything is scripted out. It’s already preformed. But when you do something different, you’re off into unknown territory, because the system does not recognize your right to go in that direction.

But that’s exactly where we have to go. Because otherwise, the planet is boiling, and exploding, and, y’know, it’s a crisis moment, even though most people don’t evidence that in their day-to-day stuff. It’s a crisis moment and we have to fabricate new tools. The old tools are no longer working. In fact, some would posit that they were never intended to work. That they were set up merely to exhaust groups and make us feel like we were doing something when we really weren’t.

And, you know, this comes from us, who did conventional environmental law for over a decade, and were fairly successful at most of it. And then, of course, in the last iteration of all these permit appeals and regulatory stuff, usually the corporation wins. That’s the history of this system.

DJ: And the argument could be made that “Well, were it not for these laws, things would be even worse.” And lord knows I’ve made that argument too. But even the existence of that argument is still really damning. Because what it means is that the best you’re hoping for at this point is a tiny bit of harm reduction. Which might be fine if the harm were actually trivial, but when we’re talking about life on the planet, harm reduction is obviously insufficient.

TL: Yes. And we make a point of saying – because we were on those lines for ten or twelve years. Of saying that the place would be worse off without those front line fighters over the years. Who have – like John Osborne, here in Spokane, Washington. Or used to be in Spokane, now is no longer. But front line, Sierra Club, activist. The Spokane River would be worse off without his work, and that of his wife Rachael. There are tons of those folks who have tried to make existing stuff work. And this place would be worse off without their efforts over the past 40 years.

But at the same time, that’s not the question we need to be asking. The question is “What system do we need to actually protect the planet?” For the planet to function and be healthy and for ecosystems to flourish. That’s the question, is what system do we need to do that?

And it’s one thing to say, “Well, things would be worse off without these frontline folks who have been using existing laws for the last 40 years,” and a whole nother thing to ask “What do we actually need to build the type of world that we want and need?” One that’s healthy and sustainable and all those other things.

Those are two different questions, and in fact the two different questions that people ask when they arrive to do environmental work, like local groups, you know the two questions are – the first one is “What can we get within the existing system?” So we appeal permits or try to enforce the Endangered Species Act. What can we get within the existing system versus “What do we actually want and need?”

And too often, the “What do we actually want and need?” conversation takes ten minutes, and then a major environmental group comes in, or an environmental lawyer, and says, “Well, we need to help you get whatever you can get within the existing system.” And those are two completely different questions to ask.

And we work with groups that say “What do you need?” And then “Let’s change the legal system to deliver that,” rather than trying to crawl within this exception, or this permit appeal, or this regulatory cycle or whatever. I mean, the fact that things have failed should be quite clear to everyone at this point. That the environmental laws have slowed the rate of destruction, but even when working perfectly, the regulatory system just slows the rate. I mean, that’s what it does. It doesn’t protect anything or allow communities to stop anything, it just slows the rate at which things are destroyed, and that’s just not good enough anymore, if it ever was.

DJ: For God’s sake, when 50% of wildlife has disappeared in the last 40 years, that’s not slowing it very much.

TL: Right.

DJ: So, given … you know, I don’t know if we’ve actually talked about … how did your … how did you evolve from the … apart from just seeing these failures, how did you evolve – what was the actual evolution of your thought that took you from permitting to Rights of Nature? How did that transition take place for you?

TL: Well, for ten years we tried to make the existing environmental laws work. So we brought enforcement actions over and over and over again. And most of those times, they all played out the same, which was a community group would come to us and say “We don’t want this in our community. We would say “We’ll help you try and stop it.” You know, first of all they ran into the system of law that we have in the United States, which is that communities can’t ban anything that’s been permitted by the State or Federal government. So if the EPA or the state environmental agency has issued a permit for a project, the community is prohibited from banning that project. So if you want to ban a frack well from the community, yet it’s been permitted by the state or federal government, the existing system of law in the United States says you can’t. It’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional and it’s illegal to ban a project that’s been permitted by the state or federal government. That’s the system of law we live under, which most people are not aware of. But that’s it. You can ask the environmental lawyers or corporate lawyers, it doesn’t matter, they’ll give you the same answer, which is “That’s the way the law is in the United States, and it’s been that way for over 100 years.”

So people run up against that first. They say “Well, we want to ban factory farms.” Well, you can’t, under the existing system law. That’s what we used to tell them. What you can do is appeal the permit. And when you appeal the permit, you’re operating under rules that are written by the very corporations that ostensibly are regulated by those regulations in the first place, because the factory farm corporations wrote the environmental regulations surrounding their nutrient management operations. You know, how to get rid of their waste from factory farm operations.

So immediately, when you turn from “We can’t say no but we have to work to fix the permit,” you’re automatically coming under a system of law that the corporations have created for you. And so it’s their environment you’re walking into. Basically you’re enforcing their rules against them. Because they’re the ones that wrote the rules.

And so that’s what we did for ten years, is we enforced those rules. And a lot of times you find something wrong with the permit. But then the corporations would just come back and fill the permits in. Or, worse yet, you’d punch a hole someplace and then the corporate boys would work with the state legislature to patch the hole. They’d go in and fix it, you know, so that nobody else could bring the challenge. Or defeat yours as it goes through the appellate process, and then it becomes moot, what you’ve found, because they’ve patched the law. It’s like a playing field that they play on, that we’ve never been on. It’s like, that’s why we’ve been losing so badly over the past 40 years, because we don’t even think about playing on that field. Because we don’t have the power to play on that field. We don’t have the wealth, the ability.

DJ: In addition, when I was back in my thirties and doing timber sale appeals up in Spokane, I was always fully – and the way that it would work is exactly what you’re saying, that the Forest Service would put out a timber sale. We would appeal it procedurally, which means that we would see where they were lying, where they were actually violating the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, whatever; and then we would say “You did this wrong,” and then they would go and make a slicker document, and then they would put it out again, and then we would appeal it again, and then they would make it slicker, until finally they would just win.

And one of the things I was always aware of is that I was volunteering, and most people were volunteering, and the people who weren’t volunteering were probably making about $15-20 thousand a year, and the people who were writing these things, there were just whole armies of them making $30-50 thousand a year, back in the 90’s.

So it was very clear that we were going to run out of steam, exactly what you were saying. Because we’re doing this in the evening after working a regular job, and this is their job.

TL: Not only is it their job, but we’re paying them. It’s federal taxpayer money that subsidizes the environmental impact statements that are the basis of those timber appeals in many cases. It’s a war you can’t win, because all the advantage is on the other side. We’re like David against Goliath and sometimes, over the ten years we were doing the work, we would win. We had a great win/loss record. The problem was we would always lose the last cycle. We would win all the fights but the last one, but it would be the last one that counted. The last one would be where the court said “Okay, it’s good enough. Okay, the permit application is complete enough.” And then they’d let the project go on. We weren’t stopping anything at that point. We would be up against projects we would delay. So you could use the permit application process just to delay them, and some of the less wealthy companies you would beat, because they would find another place to go. And they would move out of the community where we were fighting.

But the big corporations, they have their own system of law in the United States. They own it. And so it’s a system of law that they can manipulate however they want, to get into whatever community they want to come into. And people, like you said, have to put their lives on hold for five or ten years and they have to raise money for the lawyers. It’s a perfect mechanism for exhausting community activists. That’s what the system is. It’s awesome. In fact, the first regulatory agencies were formed just to do that. Which was an understanding that the regulatory agencies were basically another arm of the corporations, to put another layer of interference between the people and their own government, in terms of protecting themselves from the projects that the corporations would propose.

It’s almost like – it’s not an exception to the rule. It’s the way the system works. It’s the default. That it’s set up to exhaust community groups, and that’s what it does. And so for us, you know, we went through that process over and over and over again for ten years, and finally we got tired of losing. And we started thinking about new ways that communities could not only say no, but say no up front. Frontally. Say “No, we’re going to veto that. No thank you, we don’t want a frack well here. And we’re going to use our municipal community authority to actually veto it, to ban it, to prohibit it.”

And when you move that way, you run up against the legal documents that have been put in place over the last 100-150 years to stop you. So, corporate rights. You’re infringing on corporate constitutional rights. Or this thing called Dillon’s Rule, which is a stupid rule that says that your municipality only has the powers that the state chooses to give it. Or pre-emption, where the state or federal government says “You can’t pass anything dealing with fracking, because that’s our power, and anything underneath ours is automatically illegal.”

So you run into those doctrines, and what we’ve done over the past ten or fifteen years now is openly challenge those doctrines as being unconstitutional. The Rights of Nature stuff has basically been a parallel piece to that, in saying that, okay when we have a community, like the community of Spokane, Washington, the community is not just the people who live in Spokane. It’s the ecosystems that support life in Spokane. So it’s the Spokane River, it’s the forests, it’s the ecosystem itself. It’s the climate for that matter. And so you have to find a way not only to give, to recognize self-determination of the people of Spokane, but you have to recognize the self-determination of the ecosystem of Spokane as well. Otherwise you have one side of the equation but not the other. And so the Rights of Nature stuff really grew out of that recognition that when we use the word “community” it’s got to be more than just the people. It’s got to be more than just the humans. It’s the humans but also the biotic environment, the natural systems and the ecosystems and that stuff. And the only way for those natural systems to be seen by the systems of law that we use is for those systems to become rights-bearing.

And it’s not like that concept – you know, a lot of the comments that you read, people talking about the rights of nature. It’s not like the Rights of Nature concept is new. For thousands of years, indigenous cultures have treated nature as something other than property. Something different than something that could be owned. So, not property under their system. And in the 1970’s, some environmental lawyers got caught up with “Should certain ecosystems have rights?” That’s when the conversation began in the western legal tradition. And in many ways, back in 2006, when the people in Tamaqua picked up the torch, it was built on the backs of that history. Indigenous cultures as well as some of the western legal authorities coming to grips with the idea that nature should have rights, or needs those rights. All that stuff has coalesced into this Rights of Nature movement.

DJ: And at this point – I know that this is a struggle in which you and the people you work with have been doing a lot of heavy lifting, and I want to really thank you and honor you for that. And in addition, are there significant other groups of people around the world who are – excuse the cliche, picking up this same banner?

TL: There are. So we’ve been working in Nepal for the past six years now. And there’s a group of parliamentarians there who are preparing to introduce Rights of Nature legislation as either a constitutional amendment or as some kind of federal legislation. And you have counterparts in Ecuador, where they not only have the Rights of Nature law in their constitution but have actually enforced it over the past years. So we have cases now in which a river has been recognized in a court of law as having rights. Real groundbreaking stuff. There’s work in Australia, where they’re talking about a Great Barrier Reef Bill of Rights, to actually legally protect the reef.

And so it’s happening around the world. It’s happening slowly and underneath the cover, much. In the United States, with this lawsuit on the Colorado River, the plaintiffs are Deep Green Resistance, folks who stepped forward to actually be guardians of the river. Obviously the river can’t walk into court directly. You need to have guardians, friends. Deep Green Resistance is the organization that’s stepped forward with those individuals, like Deanna and Will, others, to be that voice.

But I think that we need to see a brand-new emerging movement with new people who have fresh eyes and who really begin to chop into this stuff, to give birth to these new models. And the Colorado River stuff has excited our people in different places around the globe. We’re hosting this conference at Tulane Law School at the end of October of this year, and bringing in a lot of those folks internationally, to come in and speak about what’s happening in their different countries around the Rights of Nature. That conference at Tulane is only happening because one of the environmental law professors there who helped to write the federal Clean Water Act in the United States, began teaching a symposium on the Rights of Nature and became interested in the topic and then contacted us. He’s an elder of the environmental law movement in the United States. And because he now sees a need for something else, he sees a need for environmental law to evolve into something else, that created the opening to have that conference, and bring in not only indigenous voices but people from US municipal communities and from Nepal and Australia, different places, to talk about what this looks like in application. How to apply it, how to enforce it, what do the terms mean, you know, those types of things. I think that’s very exciting as well.

DJ: One of the things that struck me about the comments on the RT article was that they were – and it was the same with the guy that RT actually got to rebut the Rights of Nature stuff. His response was – I think the first thing he said was “This is absurd.” And his response was basically scorn. He couldn’t actually come up with arguments, and we see the same thing down below. Once again, I don’t want to expect too much from commenters on a YouTube video. But they were – basically all they could do was laugh. They couldn’t actually come up with – the thoughtful comments actually agreed with this perspective, and not just because I agreed with them. So is that something – I mean, it seems to me, at this stage in the murder of the planet, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have tangible arguments against whatever works to protect a piece of ground. To recognize, as you did, indigenous people – there’s a reason that the Talawa were able to live where I live now, for 12,500 years. And one reason is because they attended to the health of the land. And at this stage in the murder of the planet, that seems awfully hard to argue against, giving the land voice.

TL: Yup. Although at the same time, this is the same country that elected Trump to be President. I think there’s an idea that has emerged on environmental protection stuff, that the Rights of Nature speaks to, and I think it’s starting to move in that way. But it’s not mainstream at this point, unfortunately. It’s an idea that’s starting to percolate, people are beginning to embrace it, and we’re having the fights with the environmental legal industry over what resources should be used where, that kind of thing. It’s not mainstream yet. I think the Colorado River lawsuit, things like that will help to make it mainstream.

But when the overriding dominant conversation is about more regulation vs less regulation, which is what the conversation has been between the Democrats and the Republicans over the last sixty years, “do we regulate more or do we regulate less?” That’s basically the ends of the spectrum of the conversation that’s been held. A new concept like Rights of Nature comes along and it’s nowhere on that spectrum. It’s completely outside of it. And so it’s going to take a little bit of time for this stuff to become accepted and used and all those things.

And like I said, it’s not mainstream yet, but when the Colorado River lawsuit broke, when it was filed, the reporters that we talked to contacted us and wanted to talk about it, and they brought up the fact that “Oh, this is absurd,” and outside the lines and everything else; it was very helpful for us to be able to say “Look, the Ecuadorian Constitution has been in place since 2008. And they’ve had these cases, lawsuits brought on behalf of those constitutional provisions, and this is how they’ve worked out. And look at the India courts and the Colombia courts that are now holding that rivers and glaciers have certain personhood rights, like the right to exist and flourish and those types of things.”

And in this environment, if the Colorado River suit was the only thing that had happened? You wouldn’t have had the Wall Street Journal covering it, or wanting to cover it, or the New York Times article coming out. But because there’s an environment now that’s supportive of that kind of litigation, I think it’s gained a lot more credence because it has that body of support.

So I think that means more people doing it, more people coming to the conclusion that the environmental laws that we have today are not working, and it also needs to become more clear and more apparent to more people that the planet is on the verge of something, end times type of thing, crisis type of thing. I think the hurricanes do that, I think there are other things that will.

But we’re such a stupid species. We’re like the dumbest species on the planet. For us to learn things, we have to get hit in the face multiple times. And we’re just dumb. For that to change, it takes a lot, on this kind of scope and scale. The Rights of Nature may be one of the only legal theories that has a hope of saving what’s left and then protecting the growth of new stuff to happen, and I think that’s where my faith is right now.

DJ: Two questions. Is this Tulane conference open to the public, or is it only for invitees, and second, how can people either assist with your efforts or do this on their own?

TL: The conference is open to the public, and the date is Friday, October 27th. And it’s at the law school in Tulane, in New Orleans. And we only have a limited number of spots for people to be physically there, but if people really want to be physically there, they can. We have Karenna Gore doing a keynote, and then Winona LaDuke is doing a keynote, and then we have three panels made up of international indigenous and municipal folks. They include leaders in the Rights of Nature movement around the world. But the most important part of that conference is that it’s being livestreamed. So we’re hoping 5000, 10,000, 15,000 people are actually able to watch it. So you don’t have to be there physically, you can actually watch it offsite.

And if you want to register and come, you can through the webpage. This stands for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. And the front of our page is consumed with the Tulane Law School event. So you can register through that.

And then for people who want to help – we’re kind of a strange organization because we need money, we need resources and all those sorts of things that conventional organizations need, but what we really need are people doing the work. So in communities across the US, people finding things like the Rights of Nature relevant, and deciding to do it where they live. And that may mean working with their city council and passing an ordinance, it may mean drafting an ordinance for a local law and passing it themselves, via the initiative process.

It may mean going to Home Rule and writing a new charter for their municipality that contains the Rights of Nature in it. A new tool that we now have is an easement. So if people have a private piece of property that they want to put Rights of Nature on, we have an easement we can take them through so they can actually establish Rights of Nature on their land. So we have those options available, it’s just a matter of people stepping forward to actually do it. We look for people across the US who say “We’re ready to do it ourselves, we’re not going to put it in anybody else’s hands, we need help to do it here.” So those are the folks that we look for.

DJ: Well thank you so much. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Thomas Linzey. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Rights of Nature Symposium Conference Program

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