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[00:00:00]

This is the TED Radio Hour each week, groundbreaking TED talks. Our job now is to dream big delivered at TED conferences to bring about the future we want to see around the world to understand who we are.

[00:00:14]

From those talks, we bring you speakers and ideas that will surprise you. You just don't know what you're going to find, challenge you, which we have to ask ourselves, like why is it noteworthy and even change you?

[00:00:26]

I literally feel like I'm a different person. Yes. Do you feel that way? Ideas worth spreading. From Ted and NPR. I'm Anoush Samadhi, and on the show today, water, you know, our very existence on this planet as human beings is possible because of water. Without water, we would not be here. This is Kelsey Leonard. She's a legal scholar and water policy is her specialty.

[00:00:57]

And I currently am a water and climate science researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Akwei when ECOSOC new song Shanika, she's also from the Shinnecock Nation, our territory is located on what we call Parmeno, what's currently referred to as Long Island and what's currently known as New York. And so that's the, you know, the eastern end portion of Long Island that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Our ancestral territory, though, that we still occupy is where freshwater meets saltwater, and Shinnecock in our language means people of the stony shore.

[00:01:44]

Our community is known for being fishermen and particularly whalers, so we have a really unique and profound connection to the shores that whales come to visit us along and upon. So I feel like my whole connection and understanding to water is very much grounded in my identity and citizenship as a Shinnecock woman and person. Our existence politically, spiritually, emotionally is tied to the protection of that shore. And a lot of ways for many indigenous peoples, when you hear sort of the call to action or the framing that water is life is because it is so inherent to our continued existence on this planet, not only just for humans, but for all life.

[00:02:38]

We have a saying that water is our first medicine because it's what nurtures us and what we are nurtured in for the nine months that we are carried in the womb. And so as we're bursts into existence on this planet, we have this natal connection to water. But somewhere along the way, we lose that connection and not all. There are some folks that have maintained that connection, and they're usually the ones that are on the front lines of the climate crisis and advocating for climate action and advocating for water protection.

[00:03:11]

But for the other folks, they've lost that connection. They do see their human existence as superior to other beings on the planet and particularly to water. And that water is solely a commodity for human use, consumption and benefit. And so that paradigm shift is something that we really have to work towards addressing and towards restoring every person's connection to water across the planet.

[00:03:38]

Kelsey says that lost connection is why we've polluted so many bodies of water and why a lot of people don't have access to clean water.

[00:03:47]

Yes, we are facing so many water crises around our world, like contaminated water in Egypt and Afghanistan, a water shortage in Cape Town, South Africa, not too long ago. Droughts in Chad and Brazil, Chennai, India having issues as well. And here in the United States, race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access, and that for Native Americans, we are more likely to face water access issues than any other group in the United States.

[00:04:18]

We see it with the Navajo Nation and the exponential rate of of covid-19 cases and deaths that are occurring there right now are linked to their water insecurity. And it is 20 20. And Flint, Michigan, still does not have clean water. So these instances of water injustice continue to grow and mount. And there's over two million people that live in countries that are experiencing high water stress currently. And it is anticipated that by 2030, up to 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity.

[00:05:03]

And it really comes down to individuals and governments treating water as this unlimited resource. But in reality, fresh water resources are extremely finite. On our planet. Water has immense power. We need it to live. But with rising sea levels and more natural disasters, it's washing away entire cultures and communities. The consequences of taking water for granted are clear. And so today on the show, ideas about restoring our relationship with water.

[00:05:40]

And for Kelsey Leonard, working on water rights all started with a story. Here she is on the TED stage, a dear friend, mentor, Water Walker, Nokomis grandmother Josephine Manam and Barke.

[00:05:57]

She told me of a prophecy that comes from her people, the Anishinaabe of the MediaOne Society. And in that prophecy, she told me that it tells of a day that will come where an ounce of water costs more than an ounce of gold. When she told me that Prothese, I sat for a moment and I thought about all of the injustices we see in our world today, the water crises we see in our world today. And I said, Nokomis grandmother, I feel like we are already in that time of prophecy.

[00:06:36]

And she looked back at me directly and she said, So what are you going to do about it? Kelsey's answer to that question is to treat bodies of water in a court of law like a person. We'll hear more about that later in the show. But for now. Here's the black plan. When I say Flint, Michigan, do you think General Motors or do you think bad water? The state of Michigan announced more criminal charges today in connection with Flint's lead tainted water.

[00:07:17]

People of Flint have died as a result of the decisions made by those responsible to protect the health and safety of flint and water. Those two words are synonymous now because Flint is the site of probably one of the worst water crises in recent U.S. history.

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In 2014, the state switched Flint's water supply in an effort to save money. Water from the Flint River came out of people's taps, looking brown and smelling like sewage.

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It left nearly 100000 people without clean water. This is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens and then lying about it. And it brought up a lot of big questions about whether we even have a right to this natural resource.

[00:07:59]

Government officials argue they're not liable because clean water is not a constitutional right.

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I want you all to imagine, you know, how you would feel mind, body and spirit not being able to have comfortable access to water or have a comfortable relationship with drinking water. This is Latoya, Ruby Frazier. When we all wake up in the morning, the first thing you're going to do is get in the shower, right. The second thing you're going to do is brush your teeth. Well, imagine what that feels like when you can't do that.

[00:08:31]

Latoya is a visual artist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of her work focuses on the lives of working class families in the Rust Belt. I first arrived in Flint the summer of twenty sixteen, there were well over twenty nine thousand homes that were impacted and I think that's what struck me the most, which is where Shay Cobb and her mother, Miss Rene, and her daughter Tzion, who were eight years old at the time.

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They were living in the midst of this.

[00:09:09]

She is also an artist and a school bus driver, and Latoya spent several years with her mother, Renee, and her daughter Zion, documenting their lives in Flint.

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Yeah, I remember the first time I met Shay. It was quite beautiful. We met at a diner, her favorite diner called Captain Coatis, where she liked to go get buttermilk pancakes at the end of her school bus route in the mornings. And upon meeting each other, sitting down in the booth, just looking at each other, it felt like a double portrait in a way.

[00:09:48]

You know, she's in her early thirties and really diligent, hard working artist.

[00:09:56]

And so I felt that it was my responsibility to document and cover what it's been like, you know, raising her daughter during this ongoing water crisis for people who maybe don't quite understand exactly what she's day to day life was like without having easy access to water, because it's it's not like you could just boil the water in Flint, right?

[00:10:20]

Well, the water quality was so bad that she couldn't inhabit her family home at three a.m. Mary Street, when I arrived, she was living in another apartment with her mother. And, you know, the water contamination was so severe that she couldn't brush your teeth. You know, you take a shower and brush your teeth. Well, with contaminated water, you can't do either of those two things.

[00:10:47]

We get a bottle of water and we waterfall it. You brush your teeth, you spit it out, you water for your bottle and you brush more. We don't ingest the water on any level.

[00:11:00]

You know, one of the standout images in the photo essay is seeing Shay pouring water from a plastic water bottle into zine's mouth to gargle with it and shoot it with a fast shutter speed so that it freezes the water drop just before it touches zine's tongue and you see the toothbrush at the bottom right hand part of the frame. So brushing your teeth with bottled water, having to bathe with bottled water, having to cook or not cook at all.

[00:11:35]

Since the water situation, I'm discouraged to cook in my house and use my kitchen. We'll go out to eat and we'll eat on the outskirts of the city.

[00:11:44]

We would go to a restaurant called Botter West to eat dinner there. And even there, you know, they were serving glasses of water and she would never drink it and she would forbid Zion to drink it.

[00:12:00]

The Flint River is toxic, has been toxic for years. Fecal matter in the Flint River, toxic chemicals and waste dumped in the Flint River. We know not to drink out the Flint River. We'll swim in it. We don't mess with it. We don't even like the smell of it. When you get hot outside downtown, you can smell the Flint River. It stinks. Why would we drink it? It is 20, 20, this started six years ago, Flindt might not be headline news any longer, but the water crisis is still going on.

[00:12:42]

We can't forget about the men, women and children and the families in Flint.

[00:12:49]

In a minute, Latoya Ruby Frazier on why Flint's water crisis felt personal on the show today.

[00:12:56]

Restoring our relationship with water. I'm a new Shahmoradi and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

[00:13:07]

Oh, hey, everyone. Just a quick thanks to our sponsor.

[00:13:11]

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[00:13:45]

We're only months away from Election Day and every week or even every few hours, there's a new twist that could affect who will win the White House. To keep up with the latest, tune into the NPR Politics podcast every day to find out what happened and what it means for the election. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm a new summer roadie, and we were just hearing from artist Latoya Ruby Frazier, who spent several years documenting the life of a black working class family in Flint, Michigan, and their relationship to water.

[00:14:25]

How has documenting life in Flint spending time with Shay and her daughter changed your relationship, would you say, to water?

[00:14:35]

Yeah, for me, it certainly makes me hyper aware of water. If it's not necessary for me to take a long shower, I won't do it. I don't leave the water running when I'm brushing my teeth, when I go to places I do not drink from the tap. So it really has made me hyper aware.

[00:15:00]

But I grew up being worried about the environment, so this wasn't new to me. Latoya Ruby Frazier picks up her story from the TED stage. It was natural for me to go to Flint because industrial pollution, bacteria, contaminated water, we're all too familiar from me growing up in my hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania, where my mother and I battled environmental racism, health care inequity and chemical emissions that were being deregulated and released from the United States still corporation.

[00:15:38]

From the Monongahela River to the Flint River, in the words of WBB Dubois, the town, the whole valley has turned its back upon the river. It has used it as a sewer, as a drain, as a place for throwing their waste. What I saw Shay Zinah misogyny going through is exactly what I went through with my mother and grandmother went through in our home town in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

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Our water was contaminated with bacteria and they never told us.

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I was enraged and I was horrified and traumatized because I was reliving my childhood by looking at what was happening in the Flint water crisis.

[00:16:27]

This is personal, this is political, and I'm not about to let it happen again to an eight year old girl who is innocent, Zion is innocent. She has yet to begin to dream dreams and aspire to be what she wants, which she wants to be an actress. So it became expedient to make these human documents of what her and her mother were going through. So when she becomes an adult, when she becomes my age, she can look back at this history and realize not only is she a survivor, she's a victor, she's a champion.

[00:17:01]

And no matter how much this country under its capitalism, its patriarchy, its hatred of black women, no matter what, she overcame that and she will continue to move forward. And now she'll have a human document archive of how she survived this moment in her life.

[00:17:20]

But you didn't just take photos of her. I should point out that the audio that we've been hearing of you, you recorded that with her, too?

[00:17:28]

That's right. I decided in order not to lose her voice, that I needed to take those photographs, print them out, sit down with her at her dining room table and have her speak about what those images mean to her. And that's where it turns into an 11 minute video. And it opens with Shay's poem that she wrote called No Filter.

[00:17:55]

When you think about water, you don't consider government. In fact, you don't consider people at all. Even though we've built plants and machines to organize and purify, when you think about it, you only in your most remote mind, if they all think about God, something nature intended. When you think about water, you don't consider poison because poison isn't something you consider for yourself. You don't think about murder. So when you think about water, you never consider self destruction.

[00:18:35]

And even though these considerations are not to be had, it is the reason I am becoming the Tin Man stiff, hollow and heartless because that's the destiny of a dry body. Clean tap dance is an emotional breakdowns because the tears is the closest to lubrication that you'll get without the all you can, which is sitting singing Let My People Go another freedom song. Because the echoes that have Oldfield's been long gone. But we remember them. We think about them.

[00:19:04]

Beckstead harvested our future irrigations and we consider only mestas plantations and how keeping them in one place without fair law and fair play just makes for good old fashioned American life. And I'm pointing the finger because I read them in convenience letters and I read them notices. And before I even ever pay the bill, I was still treated like a bottom feeder, like my taxes don't contribute to their vacations in secret sanctions.

[00:19:31]

I was treated like an American because when you think about what you think about Flynt and you line it up the Willy Lynch and you place that name on Snyder's face, the noose that face only to watch yourself hang, what would I do if I could taste God? What would I do if I wasn't served by a steel rod? What would I do if my baby was going to be safe and sound? What would I do if disease wasn't plaguing my town?

[00:19:54]

What would I do if I could feel water trickling down my spine when I would drive me out? What would I do if I self-destruct? Then what would I do if I feel. Toyia, you've always described your work as art, you have been really clear that it is not photojournalism, even though you're documenting the lives of people living in a crisis.

[00:20:23]

Yeah, I stay clear of journalism because the method and the approach to how I make my work can't be journalism because it actually is a violation of all the ethics of objective journalism. I am highly influenced by 19 30 social documentary work, which we would all know the migrant mother, which is the most famous portrait during the Great Depression era in the 1930s in the United States. The photograph was of a woman and by a woman, and both women were silenced.

[00:20:57]

So I'm very invested in, you know, who gets the author, the image, who gets to author the story. And who are those images then used for to redistribute power and equity?

[00:21:10]

You know, I mean, this is why artists play a very important role in American society.

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It is our job. It is our obligation and duty to hold the mirror up to.

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Our fellow citizens holding a mirror up to the country about its corruption, about how it falls short under capitalism and government neglect to provide for a community that it clearly has abandoned. And I think this a very important detail, because that's what Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks did in their series for Ellison's book Invisible Man. And so I'm also updating this long legacy and history of black photographers and poets coming together to tell a human story because outside media doesn't see our humanity enough and we can't trust them to do it for us.

[00:22:04]

So we'll do it ourselves. That's Latoya, Ruby Frazier, she's a visual artist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

[00:22:15]

Her book, Flindt is Family in Three Acts, comes out next year.

[00:22:19]

You can hear her full talk at Ted Dotcom on the show today, restoring our relationship with water.

[00:22:28]

And for some, that relationship is with the water they drink. But for others, it's the water that surrounds them.

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The bayou is green and lush and all of the things that equal bountiful life, but it is also watery and muddy, you can smell everything you can smell when something has died.

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You can smell when something is newly bloomed. The swamp is very noisy.

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It's never quiet, full of everything. But if you had to live there your whole life, you would have everything you needed.

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This is Collette Keshawn Battle. She was born and raised in southern Louisiana and grew up in the middle of all of those smells and sounds.

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Yeah, I grew up in Bayou Liberty, just north of New Orleans, in the bayou. I lived in the house where my mother was born that my grandfather built. I lived on the land that has been in my family for generations, even before it was America. Collette is an attorney.

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She practiced law for years, but these days she's taken on another role.

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I'm a climate activist now, not a title I would have given myself, not a title I would have preferred. But I'll take it.

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Whatever works, she'll take it because she feels like she doesn't have a choice. Rising sea levels and stronger storms are constantly threatening the land that Collette's family has lived on for generations.

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I work at the community level to make sure that black folks and poor folks and native folks are part of this climate movement.

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For Collette, that means bringing her neighbors into the policy conversations, sharing the science around global warming and making sure that they contribute their knowledge to because this community understands the ebb and flow of the water better than anyone.

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Our livelihood and our life was absolutely with water every day. And in the spring, which most folks understand this hurricane season, that is where we really had to start paying attention.

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So you would hear people talking about how much rain they got, how far that the flooding go up.

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But it was it wasn't a panic. It was more informational.

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And I can remember as a child during hurricanes, the hurricane has like three portions to it.

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It's the sort of outer wall, the eye and then the next squall. And as a kid, when the eye would pass. So that was always when you would have several hours of open, clear sky, clear air and you could go check on things. And I remember it being so much fun to go out in the eye of the storm to go check on folks. Isn't that crazy?

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You get in and out. We call them Pierro in a flat bottom boat. You get in a Pirone, go down the street, make sure folks were OK. It was just enough time to go make sure no one had a tree in their roof or needed help. And then you would go back in and you would wait for that other band to go across. And it wasn't a terrible existence. It was just one way you had to have traditional knowledge coupled with your reality in order to survive.

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Nature was somewhat predictable. But all that changed in 2005 when those weather patterns shifted. The real moment of noticing that change was Katrina. The water became unrecognizable as the storm ripped through and then scattered Collette's community. I mean, they were all over and we finally just got a number to folks to call in. At one time we got to hear what was going on or what had happened or what folks had left. And we start with our HVA, with our old people.

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And the first words out of their mouths were the water has never been this high. And we're talking to people who had been on the earth for ninety years at plus. And that is when I started learning about the loss of our barrier islands due to oil and gas drilling. And so the things that protected us weren't there anymore. And the sea level is higher. And so the drastic and dramatic changes was noticeable and evident to everyone. So what happened to your family house?

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We lost everything. This was a longstanding Creole community that was pretty much physically wiped out by the tidal surge coming off of the Gulf into the Lake Pontchartrain, and at the time you weren't home, right? You had left Louisiana, you were practicing law in D.C., but then you dropped everything and changed your career.

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It was a crack in the universe to come home and see the destruction of Katrina. And it was in that moment that I said I was never leaving home again. You see that kind of destruction and your life will change whether you want it to or not. That was my moment of career change. I was going to have to take a much different advocacy role, not standing in front of a court pointing to particular pieces of of law, but instead standing in front of my community and convince them of what I knew deep in my heart, which was that climate change was going to come after all of us and that it was going to take what we love the most, which is where we're from.

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A couple of years after Katrina, Collette and her community realized that hurricanes of this magnitude were here to stay, and that might mean that they needed to go. She picks up the story from the TED stage.

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It was about two years after Hurricane Katrina that I first saw the Louisiana flood maps.

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These flood maps are used to show land lost in the past and land lost. That is to come. These maps were used to explain how a 30 foot tidal surge could flood communities like mine in south Louisiana and communities across the Mississippi and Alabama coast.

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On this particular day at a community meeting, I volunteered to interact with the graphics on the wall and in an instant my life changed for the second time in two years. The graphics showed massive land loss, but more specifically, the graphics showed the disappearance of my community and many other communities before the end of the century. I was standing there with other members of South Louisiana's communities, black, native, poor. We thought we were just bound by temporary disaster recovery, but we found that we were now bound by the impossible task of ensuring that our communities would not be erased due to climate change.

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I just assumed it would always be their land, trees, bayou's, I just assumed that it would be there, as it had been for thousands of years.

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I was wrong. Collette, I mean, it's so upsetting and knowing what you know now, like what happens if there is another Katrina, how does it work? Where do people go?

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There is another Katrina on the way. We can't start from any other premise.

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The mass displacement that comes with a hurricane like Katrina is unbelievable. The first wave is. People who are, I would say in the working class, folks who have a car and the ability to leave. Yeah, there's another wave of displacement that comes with sort of mandatory evacuation.

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So whatever a city has to get the poorest people out and those folks are often given one way tickets to a place they've never heard of.

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And this is what happened in Katrina. I remember being in D.C. welcoming folks who left New Orleans on a plane. They thought they were going to Dallas, but they went to Dulles Airport. Oh, they did not get round trip tickets. They got one way tickets. And so you get pushed out for your safety and then you're left there to figure out how to come back. And guess what? If you were too poor to leave in the first place, how hard do you think it's going to be to get back?

[00:30:28]

And the third round of displacement is probably the most heartbreaking for me, which is if you are a parent with a small child or an elderly person with a condition, you now have to go somewhere safe and you end up shifting your residence now because you want to, but because the structures and conditions that you need to have your life aren't here. There were no hospitals. There were no schools. And so you can't fault people for leaving. But when those that third group of people leave, they leave for a very long time, if not for good.

[00:31:00]

But it's not like these things aren't foreseeable. Right?

[00:31:03]

I mean, how prepared are government agencies like FEMA for a future with more natural disasters, which means more climate migration?

[00:31:12]

Well, this is interesting and it's the right question. What do we have in place for climate change? And I was honored to be invited to the White House to a conversation with FEMA.

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And to be clear, this was during the Obama administration, right? Yeah.

[00:31:27]

Specifically about our preparedness and resiliency. But it was at this time that the FEMA administrator said, I understand what you're saying, but the FEMA regulations aren't meant for the most vulnerable communities.

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The disaster process of this country are meant for the middle class, what they're meant for the middle class. If you think about it, it sounds strange, right? Your heart like that can't be true, except the truth of it is, is that all of the laws in this country are meant for the middle class at best. There is a large swath of people who are never included. This was an honest comment from the head of FEMA. This is what you realize when you recognize that the structures that are in place right now are absolutely not meant for me.

[00:32:16]

When we come back, Colette Pichon battle on how she's restoring her own personal relationship with water. I'm a new Shahmoradi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Oh. Support for this podcast and the following message come from the American Jewish World Service, working together for more than 30 years to build a more just and equitable world. Learn more at A.J. W.S. Dawg. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 30 years ago, so why to this day is the disability community still fighting for their rights?

[00:33:02]

Listen now to learn what they're fighting on through line from NPR every Thursday. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a new summer roadie and on the show today, restoring our relationship with water. And we were just hearing from Colette Pichon Battle about how climate change and climate migration is threatening to wipe out her community in southern Louisiana.

[00:33:28]

And so if we're going to survive this, we're going to have to figure some things out for ourselves while we go through the process of saving our democracy and shifting our laws and structures.

[00:33:39]

By the end of the next century, it's predicted that more than 180 million people will be displaced due to climate change. And in south Louisiana, those who can afford to do so are already moving.

[00:33:51]

They're moving because south Louisiana is losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet. We must start preparing for global migration today, our cities and our communities are not prepared.

[00:34:04]

This will cause rounds of climate gentrification, climate gentrification that happens in anticipation of sea level rise is what we're seeing in places like Miami, where communities that were kept from the waterfront are now being priced out of the high ground where they were placed originally as people move away from the coast. And climate migration is just one small part, but it's going to have ripple effects in both coastal cities and cities in the interior. So what do we do?

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I have a few ideas.

[00:34:40]

We must reframe our understanding of the problem. Climate change is not the problem. Climate change is the most horrible symptom of an economic system that has been built for a few to extract every precious value out of this planet and its people. To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems to develop our collective resilience. We must transform from a disposable individual society into one that sees our collective long term humanity, or else we will not make it.

[00:35:22]

We must acknowledge that the only way you're going to survive is for us to figure out how to reach a shared liberacion together.

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Galette, I mean, on a day to day basis, what does that look like for you? How do you keep up this energy?

[00:35:41]

Yeah, you know, I have over the last couple of years called into my life a more spiritual approach to my work. So it's an honor now. It used to be a duty. And now I see it as an honor. I used to wake up with fire and now I wake up, try to wake up with really calm water. This work will make me hate the water or even fear it. And that is absolutely not who I am or where I come from.

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It would even make me hate this place.

[00:36:11]

Right, and hate people. And that is also not who I'm from. We are not a people who who are energized by hatred. I come from people who were energized by joy and we're real, real loud, just like that swamp, you know, all those crickets and all that. You can you can hear us. You can smell as you can. You can come join us any time. That's who I come from. And I was losing it.

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And so I have been on a spiritual journey. We're running as Sacred Waters pilgrimage right now with black and native women to heal the relationships of native and black folks with each other and to heal the relationship of humanity with our water, with our earth.

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We are literally doing a pilgrimage down the Mississippi River for the next seven months to make sure that we advance this, not using legislation, not even using technology, using traditional ecological knowledge and cultural traditions to advance our relationships with one another and our understanding of this planet and the water that she holds, which is our life, the sacred waters pilgrimage.

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What what exactly happens on this? Can you tell me more about it? So we pray black and native women and to spirit folks are invited to join the pilgrimage and we come together and we develop a collective ceremony using African tradition and native traditions.

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We started Juneteenth at the headwaters in Minnesota. Interestingly enough, the state where George Floyd was killed, this was planned last year.

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In July, by the way, the water called us to that place. Wow.

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And so the prayers that were offered were not just that we heal our relationship with this earth, but it was that we humans heal our relationship with one another.

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And that is a place full of pain. You can feel it as soon as you arrive. And so we come together, we pray, we sing, we honor each other.

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We have courageous conversations about our histories with one another and what colonizing forces had black folks do to native folks and what colonizing forces had made of folks do to black folks. And we ask for reconciliation and forgiveness because we know that if the the victims of the original sins of this country can get together and form a united front, we can actually change this country. And so this is step one for us, because we know that community is held by these folks and the water.

[00:38:43]

Right.

[00:38:43]

And the water and the water in the water. That's Colette Pichon Battle, she's the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy in Louisiana. You can see her full talk at Ted Dotcom. On the show today, restoring our relationship with water, earlier in the show, we talked to Shinnecock legal scholar Kelsey Leonard and we left off with the story. She was told by an initial YNAB leader that a day would come when an ounce of water cost more than an ounce of gold.

[00:39:25]

And she looked back at me directly and she said, So what are you going to do about it?

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That's why I'm here with you today, because I believe that one of the many solutions to solving the many water injustices we see in our world today is recognizing that water is a living relation and granting it the legal personhood it deserves. So to do so, we need to transform the way in which we value water, we have to start to think about how do we connect to water?

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Usually someone might ask you, what is water and you would respond with rain.

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Ocean, Lake, River, you might even understand the sacred essentiality of water and say that water is life. But what if I asked you instead, who is water? That type of orientation fundamentally transform the way in which we think about water, transforms the way in which we make decisions about how we might protect water, protect it in the way that you would protect your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your aunties. That is the type of transformation that we need if we are going to address the many water crises we see in our world today.

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And so we need to grant legal personhood to water.

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We've granted legal personhood to corporations in the U.S. the Supreme Court found in Citizens United that a corporation was a person with similar protections under the Constitution, such as freedom of speech and applied similar reasoning and Hobby Lobby, finding that corporation had the right to freedom of religion and defense against implementation of the Affordable Care Act for its employees.

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Now, these are controversial cases, and as a Shinnecock woman and a legal scholar, they make me question the moral compass of the Western world where you can grant legal personhood to a corporation, but not nature.

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You see, legal personhood grants us the ability to be visible in a court of law and to have our voices heard as a person protected under the law.

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And so if you can grant that to a corporation. Why not the Great Lakes, why not the Mississippi River, why not the many waterways across our planet that we all depend on to survive?

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So your solution for this really surprised me.

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I had not heard it before. You are advocating for granting legal personhood to water. What does that mean for people who maybe haven't heard of it?

[00:42:15]

Yes. So affording legal personality is the recognition that nature has rights, particularly that the water has rights because there's not just the aspects of what do we need from water as humans to survive, but what does the water need to survive? It is a more holistic approach that provides for the water body to be able to exist, flourish and naturally evolve. And this is separate from something that you might see in the Clean Water Act, which really focuses on the chemical, biological and physical integrity of water.

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We think about the way in which we manipulate water systems with dams and other hydro projects. Legal personhood actually says, is that dam in the best interest of the water, in the best interest of the whole ecosystem? In that way, legal personhood affords rights of protection to the water to protect it from pollutants, from human caused climate change impacts and for manmade contamination. And I think that that's a really key point there. That second one about climate change, because many of our existing legislative tools, including the Clean Water Act, haven't really been modernized to address our current climate crisis.

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And so that's a big part of how we see legal personhood for water, transitioning our society and shifting our society to a more just and climate just in water, just world.

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And this is not something new for us.

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As indigenous peoples are indigenous legal systems have a foundational principle of understanding our non-human relations as being living and protected under our laws and even for the Western world.

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Environmental legal theorists have argued for the rights of nature since the 1970s. But we need to do better. We need to change as human beings on this planet. We are not superior to other beings. We are not superior to the water itself. We have to learn how to be good stewards again. We can create laws through which we grant legal personhood to water. We can start to honor the original treaties between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples for water protection.

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We can appoint guardians for the water that ensure the waters rights are always protected. We can also develop water quality standards that have a holistic approach that ensure the well-being of the water before our human needs.

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And there are some places who are actually doing this right.

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My understanding is that Bangladesh has given granted legal personhood to all of its rivers. There's a river in New Zealand and I believe one in California as well. Can you tell us about how those work?

[00:45:05]

Yes. So there are definitely so many nations around the world and countries around the world that are that are working actively to embed legal precedent for water in their judicial systems and in their legal systems. One of the most popular or notable cases is the to river and out to New Zealand, where legal personhood was granted to the family. Wade River, with a system of guardianship that was set up among the Maori community, the community of the Maori, to serve as guardians for that water body.

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And similarly, as you mentioned, there is a river in what's currently known as California, the Klamath River that was granted legal personhood by the urate tribe. And so the reason that that is so important is the legacy and the history of water colonialism in those two countries and areas has historically disenfranchised indigenous peoples from being able to participate in the governance and protection of water. And so legal personhood actually restores the ability for indigenous communities and peoples to adhere to and fulfil their responsibilities as stewards and protectors of water.

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And so it's a really unique kind of innovation to contemporary water conflicts and struggles. But are they working?

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I mean, it's one thing to say, like, yes, we will grant you the thing that you want. But if this body of water doesn't actually get cleaner or safer or get real protections, then it kind of just.

[00:46:49]

A nice story that makes people feel better. I think that's, you know, that's a really important critique, but I think it's maybe a bit premature. Yeah, indigenous societies, indigenous legal systems have have operated and utilized legal personhood for for nature and for other living entities for centuries and have been successful. So that is one thing to say. No, it's not just sort of perfunctory or feel good. It actually has lasting results in understanding sustainability. And I think that that's that's a big aspect of where we go from here.

[00:47:28]

And it needs to be context specific. What's going to work for the Klamath River is not necessarily going to work for the family. River is not necessarily going to work for the Thames River in London. Right. So we really have to be local and context specific. But from within an indigenous context of North America and what we call Turtle Island, there are a few steps. And firstly, there is a need to honour existing treaties. So many of the treaties that Canada and the United States first signed with indigenous nations actually talk about water and really specific instances and terms.

[00:48:11]

And those treaties have not been honored. And so I think when we start to think about what does legal personhood for water look like, the human right to water, it does start with going back to those original treaties and honoring those terms. Too often, law is created for communities that they are not reflective of. So we need to have law for the people driven by the people. And I think that's about creating new collaborative processes for legal reform.

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So in the words of Nokomis, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for the water? Well, you can call your local politician, you can go to a town meeting, you can advocate for granting legal personhood to water. You can learn about the indigenous lands and waters that you now occupy and the indigenous legal systems that still govern them.

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And most of all, you can connect to water, you can restore that connection, go to the water closest to your home and find out why it is threatened. But most of all, if you do anything, I ask that you make a promise to yourself that each day you will ask, what have I done for the water today if we are able to fulfill that promise?

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I believe we can create a bold and brilliant world where future generations are able to form the same relationship to water that we have been privileged to have.

[00:49:46]

Where all communities of human and non-human relations have water to live because water is life, Tabuni.

[00:49:57]

Thank you. That's Kelsey Leonard, you can find her full talk at Ted Dotcom. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about our relationship with water. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to Ted Unpeg and to see hundreds more TED talks. Check out Ted Dotcom or the TED app or TED Radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaa's Myshkin for Rachel Falkiner, Deba MultiCam, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Pantaleon, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Kaliya and Matthew Clutha.

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Our theme music was written by Ramtane Era Bluey. Our partners at TED are Chris Andersen, Colin Helms and a felon. And Michelle quipped, I'm Anoush, some roadie, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.