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Peter Schmidt’s senior thesis imagines a world where nature demands justice

July 9th, 2020

As rain darkened the red earth atop Bolivia’s largest silver mine, Peter Schmidt watched children only a few years younger than him emerge from the honeycomb of hand-excavated tunnels to dump minecarts of ore before hurrying back inside the mountain’s labyrinth of compact tunnels.

Schmidt — a high school graduate from St. Louis studying in Bolivia through Princeton’s Novogratz Bridge Year Program — was struck by watching members his own generation  mine the Cerro Rico, or “rich mountain,” in much the same way as when the Spanish first penetrated the Andean mountain in the 16th century.

“This place had a very strong and strange effect on me and I knew I wanted to write a book about it someday,” Schmidt said. Four years later, he has written a novel as his Princeton senior thesis that provides the mountain that spoke to him that day with its own voice, one that pleads for justice after nearly 500 years of being stripped, exploited and hollowed out.

His novel, “A Mountain There,” uses the violent history of the Cerro Rico to examine increasing efforts worldwide to grant natural features such as rivers, lakes and forests — and in some cases nature itself — the rights and protections of legal personhood. Schmidt documents a fictional push to achieve personhood for the Cerro Rico through court filings, news articles and correspondences that he created based on his research at Princeton, as well as on fieldwork in Bolivia supported by senior thesis funding from the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI).

“With our litany of environmental disasters, and climate change, the idea of treating environmental features as legal persons is becoming more and more urgent,” said Schmidt, who graduated from Princeton on June 2 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese and a certificate in environmental studies. He received the Environmental Studies Book Prize in Environmental Humanities for his thesis during the Program in Environmental Studies Class Day ceremony May 29.

“This book asks how the world would look if a mountain could speak and if a mountain could be granted the opportunity to testify in open court,” Schmidt said. “Fiction creates a space where you can ask those kinds of questions and treat them seriously.”

“Peter’s thesis shines for both its deep intellectual engagement and scholarly rigor, its confidence to ask questions that may not have answers, and, of course, its creative ambition,” said Nicole Legnani, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Schmidt’s senior thesis co-adviser. “If we consider that Peter’s first encounter with Bolivia was due to his bridge year in Bolivia, his thesis is thoroughly ‘Princetonian’ even as it is deeply committed to communities and experiences far beyond campus.”

After Princeton, Schmidt will work with two Brazil-based advocacy groups. He’ll help the nonprofit research institute Imazon (Amazon Institute of People and Environment) — which is dedicated to preventing deforestation in the Amazon — use storytelling and science communications to influence policymakers. Schmidt also will conduct research related to climate change and global security policy for Instituto Igarapé, which uses research, technology and policy to solve social issues related to security, justice and development. Stateside, Schmidt will also work full-time at the New York City-based immigration law firm Sethi and Mazaheri and its related nonprofit group, the Artistic Freedom Initiative, where he will help artists seeking asylum.

“One thing I learned is that the trajectory of a research project and the trajectory of a novel rarely converge,” Schmidt said. “With a novel, there’s a lot of thinking up front, but you have to go pretty immediately to an empty page and start putting things out and seeing how they fit together.

“I would get to a point in the creative aspect and realize I needed to do a lot of research in order to proceed,” Schmidt said. “The academic questions were guided by the story, and the story was guided by the academic questions.”

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