Renata Happle
Renata Happle ’24 on the Whanganui River in Aotearoa, New Zealand in 2023
Renata Happle headshot

I spent my summer in Aotearoa, New Zealand, thinking about laws, the Whanganui River, and how humans can repair their relationship with the Earth. However, the path from Barnard to New Zealand wasn’t a linear one.

During my time at Barnard, I have maintained a singular focus on environmental law that seeks to preserve ecosystems in a moment of biological, social, and international peril. I always knew that I would study the intersection between environmental history and law in order to understand and address the threats of the climate crisis.

While my vision and goals remained unchanged from the moment I arrived at the College gates, my approach was infused with a lot of trial and error. In over three years, I tried out three majors, I dropped and picked up many classes, and I cultivated hobbies and unexpected friends. The real gift of Barnard, though, was having a chance to indulge my curiosity — in ways like tracing the path of connection between people and the planet.

Hope and the promise of reimagination have been a central part of my research process.

Renata Happle '24

My goal of working on climate change law has taken shape with the help of Barnard’s courses in anthropology, science, ethics, and policy. Being on the political ecology track has empowered me to learn about historical structures and the cultural influences that created laws. While I used to be focused on the looming and intense presence of climate change, I have gradually pivoted my focus away from the “now” — the slow acceptance of oppressive summers and icy winters — to how humans have increasingly and systematically extracted and isolated themselves from planetary systems. The key to finding the possibility of reconnection is to unpack the past rather than reengineer the future, leading us to slow down and recognize our relation to the Earth. This is what I plan to explore next year, when I begin my graduate degree in Anthropocene studies at the University of Cambridge.

Charting the Path

My interest in environmental protection efforts began years before I thought about my senior thesis. In the summer of 2021, there was a red tide outbreak in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, leaving the smell of dead fish on the sidewalk for weeks. This toxic algal bloom was partly the result of a sanctioned wastewater spill from a former phosphate processing plant, Piney Point, dumping nitrogen into Tampa Bay, which astronomically raised the water’s nitrogen levels. Dead and rotting fish, dolphins, and manatees washed ashore at the beach where I walked my dog. Corpses of species I had never seen in the wild in my entire life by the water — such as the critically endangered goliath grouper — were suddenly attracting flies to the shore. The neurotoxins their bodies leaked made it difficult for me to leave my house without experiencing asthma attacks. In 2020, the Florida State congress unanimously passed the Clean Waterways Act to legislate stronger regulations against water pollution. This was partly in response to  local movements fighting for the “rights of nature.”

Whanganui River
The Whanganui River, New Zealand

However, between the last two lines of the bill, the DeSantis administration banned the use of rights of nature legislation in Florida courts unless authorized by the state constitution. Characteristic of American politics, the moment was politicized — state aid was withheld while tons of dead fish sat in the sun. 

Why Whanganui?

Through my Tow Summer Research Fellowship, I applied for funds to visit the Whanganui River in the North Island of New Zealand — to see, hear, smell, and touch it — in hopes of making it the central ethnographic subject of my senior thesis. Its special status of having personhood is what inspired me to personify the river in my thesis — leading me to express the depth of its history as an autonomous being. This summer, I got the chance to take a jet boat tour of the river, and it was one of the best days of my life.

My thesis, “Relationality, Reciprocity, and Rights of Nature: Law as a Mode of Repair for the Whanganui River and the Anthropocene Epoch,” centers New Zealand’s Te Awa Tupua Act — which gives legal personhood to the Whanganui River — as both addressing the logics that are culpable for the Anthropocene epoch and mapping out a way forward in negotiating settler and Indigenous forms of governance around land. Proceeding from Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s proposed start date of 1610, which identifies colonization as the principle catalyst for the Anthropocene epoch, my research interest involves shifting between paradigms and how the infusion of forms of Indigenous knowledge functions as a political corrective to the Anthropocene. The rights of nature concept has a very important role in this paradigm shift, as it indicates the beginning of a broader shift and is representative of a new form of law: a product of Western legal tools and Indigenous conceptual framing.

Whanganui River-2
Whanganui River-3

In 2017, New Zealand codified the Te Awa Tupua Act, an international pioneer of rights-based legislation, granting legal personhood to its longest navigable river, allowing it to “own itself” and declaring that it is an indivisible whole, “from the mountains to the sea, and encompassing all of its metaphysical and physical elements.” Formed in reconciliation for the blundering and contentious 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, this Act enshrines Maori values in law, including kinship with the river, reciprocity, recognition of the river as ancestor, and respect of Indigenous authority.

I began my thesis thinking that rights of nature was a silver bullet — an all-encompassing solution to most of our compounding crises, but many of those I interviewed said no, it was not the cure-all as advertised but symbolic of a paradigm shift. It is a signal that more radical legal moves are possible, precedented in fact, and can be perceived as a sociocultural tipping point for change. Encountering disagreement and doubt regarding my central thesis was terrifying and paralyzing, and in fact still is, but I feel as though it has instilled in me a sense of adaptability, of personal resilience.

My Research Process

My thesis, instead of centering governance and scale, has evolved to include ways to think about how law can facilitate humanity’s reconnection to the land and how that relationship can be repaired through the law by incorporating concepts of relationality, reciprocity, kinship, respect, and responsibility.

Being on the political ecology track helped me understand the Anthropocene as a philosophical inflection point to confront current conventions of the severed relationship between humans and the planet. Discussions of solutions within the Anthropology Department were foregrounded by understanding where the Anthropocene flares up, where it originates, and how knowing its catalyzing logics and acts can render solutions.

While in New Zealand, I conducted interviews with academics, lawyers, nonprofit administrators, and ecologists. We discussed the Te Awa Tupua Act, the intersections of their work, and — most importantly — what gives them hope. Hope and the promise of reimagination have been a central part of my research process as well as the catalyst for my work.

However, approaching the Anthropocene is daunting. Pushing anthropologists and others to reimagine the world, which is facing unprecedented human-induced environmental disasters, plays an imperative role in reinventing the law through a different lens. Rights of nature, I think, is reimagination in action.