Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic, Co-founders of Public Herald

Amy Westervelt interviews the documentary filmmakers about "Invisible Hand," their new film exploring the "Rights of Nature" movement.

by | Sep 22, 2020

Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic teamed up in 2011 when they were both beginning to look into what exactly was happening with fracking in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Today, Troutman lives on the front lines of fracking in Pennsylvania. She says trucks carrying radioactive waste drive over the top of her family’s drinking water supply every day.

The twosome have done an incredible volume of investigative journalism in the past decade; their work has fed into various legal investigations and lawsuits attempting to hold both companies and state regulators accountable. They have also produced two documentaries, Triple Divide in 2013 and Invisible Hand out this month.

Their years researching the powerlessness many frontline communities feel have led them to focusing more recently on the Rights of Nature movement. Often painted as some sort of hippie New Age idea, Rights of Nature is gaining traction because in assigning rights to things like rivers, forests, and lakes, it is a legal tool that enables people to protect the natural resources they depend upon. In the United States, Ohio and Pennsylvania are both experimenting with this idea. On February 26, 2019, for example, Toledo citizens passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, giving the lake legal personhood and, specifically, the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and granting citizens the right to a “clean and healthy environment.” Countries around the world are embracing the idea as well, most notably Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series in the Drilled Podcast about the evolution of the environmental movement. You can read more about the series, and access other interviews, here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Westervelt: Could you start by giving me a little update on where we’re at with some of the Rights of Nature fights you highlight in the film?

Melissa Troutman: So, I have a Google Alert for Rights of Nature, and there’s constantly new news about it all over the globe, particularly in the United States. There’s a growing movement to establish Rights of Nature in Florida to protect the fragile ecosystems down there, particularly from the effects of climate change. The big spotlight that everybody in the movements are watching right now is Ecuador. Ecuador was the first country to establish Rights of Nature in its national constitution back in 2008. And for about 10 years after that, there were a couple of cases that went before the constitutional court in Ecuador. But the judges at the time didn’t seem to prioritize Rights of Nature. So nothing much happened there. But as of 2019, there is a new panel of judges on the Constitutional Court in Ecuador, and this particular court has prioritized Rights of Nature specifically, and they have selected a few cases to concentrate on, so that the parameters of Rights of Nature, how it is applied in practical ways, the scope of the law can be worked out.

Josh Pribanic: And then you have the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is one of the stories that’s covered in the film, that’s an International Waters case. So, you’re dealing with basically treaty type situations where you’re trying to come to an agreement between the two international borders. There’s a lot of discussion about toxic trespass, the idea of Canada or somebody else introducing pollution from one country into another and holding them accountable. But in the cases with Lake Erie, you know, rather than the regulatory agency being the people who take over that decision-making process, the local community is able to gain the kind of power and authority that they need, through the Rights of Nature. You know, if Toledo is able to make that sacrosanct in the city so that that way they’re dealing with Canada or somebody else across the table when it comes to negotiations about Lake Erie. And they’re doing it on behalf of Lake Erie.

AW: I think you show this really clearly in the film that really when we’re talking about Rights of Nature, we’re talking about community control over and protection of natural resources. And a lot of communities really don’t have that control otherwise.

JP: Truly they don’t. And Grant [township, Pennsylvania] is a perfect example of that. And so is Toledo. You know, when you listen to arguments [against Rights of Nature] about basically why life shouldn’t have rights, they sound pretty obscene and they get to kind of the core of the problems with capitalism and with, you know, libertarianism or other things like that, which have created this enormously selfish situation that relies on a completely utopian fantasy that we will have unlimited resources provided by the earth forever.

AW: What brought you to focus on Rights of Nature, and what do you hope this documentary will accomplish?

MT: Well, Joshua and I, since co-founding Public Herald in 2011, we’ve come into this work through water. Our initial projects were investigations of water contamination. The cover up of water contamination related to fracking development in protected watersheds in Pennsylvania. And over the past 10 years we’ve discovered that the system of law that is in place, the environmental law that is supposed to protect things like our water, which is essential for life, they fail. And an examination of why they fail brought us to create this documentary, Invisible Hand. I see it as just the beginning of continued coverage of how people confront the systemic fundamental flaws in our legal system and in our society, which is built on these same legal foundations, but also our value system. As we struggle with climate change, with racism, with ecocide, I mean, all of these problems stem from the same fundamental flaw for me, which is a disconnection from the laws of nature which govern the universe and keep everything in balance.

AW: So I’m seeing these stories lately where Trump is accusing Biden of wanting a fracking ban and Biden’s like “don’t worry I won’t ban fracking!” and the DNC seems very worried that any talk of a ban will lose the vote in Pennsylvania. But then I just read a poll that showed approval for Biden actually increases in PA when there are stories about him maybe pushing a fracking ban. What are you actually seeing on the ground in Pennsylvania?

JP: The problem with banning fracking in Pennsylvania and why you don’t see 100 communities do it like you did in places like New York is the entire green movement in Pennsylvania. Every single organization I’ve ever talked to you about this, no one is focusing on passing home rule bans inside of communities except for CELDF [Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Pennsylvania]. CELDF was the only one I know who’s like, created a platform for communities to actually ban fracking or ban infrastructure or ban landfills or ban anything. You know, they explain the concept of “home rule” [a Pennsylvania statute that allows municipalities to vote on whether they want the state to transfer power over municipal matters from state laws to a local charter that’s drafted, adopted, and amended by local voters] and how it can be used to pass bans. They aren’t going to push it on anyone, they’re just suggesting what can be done, but the environmental organizations have completely lost track of how to deal with this problem. And they are entirely invested in zoning and ordinance plans, entirely invested. So they’re taking communities who are in dire straits, who want to ban fracking and they’re saying ‘well, we’ll help you build these really strong zoning and ordinance laws and that’ll make everything OK.’ And I don’t have an example of where that’s OK. It’s just a total, total failure. So on the banning side and that whole situation, there is not good communication in Pennsylvania about your opportunities to ban fracking locally with home rule. And that’s something that as reporters, I feel really important to share with communities.

MT: The environmental groups in Pennsylvania have no campaign to ban fracking yet, even though as you’re seeing in the polls, Amy, the majority of people in Pennsylvania support a moratorium at the least. And so it’s a bit of a mystery to me why that is. I don’t know if it’s because a lot of the environmental organizations live are based in cities and there’s no fracking in cities? The environmental community does not get behind the the Rights of Nature community rights movement. In fact, when I’ve brought it up with environmental groups, their response is that, well, if we allow communities to decide what’s right for them, then some of them will choose what’s wrong.

AW: Do you think it’s partly that they’re trying to play politics too, like they’re also buying into this idea that fracking bans don’t play well with voters?

JP: A hundred percent, yeah. Food and Water Watch is a fracking ban organization. But in Pennsylvania, that push does not exist. It is a zoning and ordinance organization.

MT: I mean, all of these environmental organizations are funded by philanthropic foundations. And, many of these foundations, their priority is to make the system that’s in place work better. The fundamental piece that’s missing is that the system is working precisely as it’s supposed to. And we can dicker and play whack a mole to rearrange words on pieces of paper that are always meant to treat nature as property and always meant to prioritize commerce over basic life. And the problem remains the same. You know, our laws are designed to serve an economic paradigm that treats nature as property and as a commodity. And that’s why they have failed. And they are going to continue to fail until we see nature as something else, until we see nature as what it really is.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.