Thursday, May 18, 2017


Environmental lawyer James Thornton, Founder and CEO of ClientEarth with his partner of 25 years
Martin Goodman, the author of nine books of fiction and non-fiction, who holds the chair of Creative Writing at the University of Hull where he is the director of the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing.
Published by Scribe

James Thornton and his company ClientEarth are amongst the most effective and important environmental activists on the planet. This remarkable book, co-authored by Thornton and Goodman, recounts Thornton's history and philosophy, the organisation's many triumphs and successes, and outlines the huge challenges ahead. Amongst its supporters and founders are some of the world's richest and most powerful foundations and individuals, and one of its trustees is Brian Eno who has written the book's intro.

The form of the book consists of chapters authored by Goodman, documenting the pathway that led Thornton to found ClientEarth followed by detailed examinations of several seminal issues and cases concerning air pollution, fisheries, coal-fired power stations, forestry regulation in Africa and a remarkable account of Thornton and CE's relationship with the Chinese government at a very high level. Goodman travels to the States, Brussels, Poland, Ghana and China and gives us a real feel for the situations, characters and problems that Thornton challenges and solves.

Worth mentioning at this point that Thornton, one of four brothers who all became lawyers, is a Zen Buddhist priest and has introduced meditative practices into his legal world. He credits such techniques for helping him deal with anger and provide him with creative insights.

Goodman's travelogue and documentation is interspersed with a series of essays by Thornton, exploring his thinking, strategy and tactics. One of these, entitled 'The Lifecycle of the Law', sets out the five phases of any legal campaign: 1) start with the best verifiable scientific evidence; 2) use this to create policy; 3) spend years Law Making; 4) Implementation of the new laws through a responsible government agency; 5) Enforcement. Before ClientEarth, there was no European NGO that worked at all these crucial stages.

Apart from documenting ClientEarth's achievements, this book provides some valuable history lessons. Formal attempts to protect nature date back to 1872 with the creation of the world's first National Park at Yellowstone in the US.

Thornton writes: 'Until about 45 years ago, no one saw a need for comprehensive laws about out interaction with the rest of nature.' Unlikely as sounds, it was under the reign of President Nixon, from 1970 to 1976, that a body of environmental laws were established in the US - 'an extraordinary environmental record in every respect and one that is certainly without parallel in any administration that has followed.'. This period also saw the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

[Interesting to read that Reagan's appointee to the EPA Anne M Gorsuch was hired to bring the organisation to its knees.  According to Wikipedia: 'During her 22 months as agency head, she cut the budget of the EPA by 22%, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, relaxed Clean Air Act regulations, and facilitated the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She cut the total number of agency employees, and hired staff from the industries they were supposed to be regulating.' Trump's EPA appointee Scott Pruitt has deep ties to the fossil fuel industries. Earlier this month, Trump also appointed Nancy Beck, a chemical industry bigwig, to a high-level chemical safety position at the Environmental Protection Agency as Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.]

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a New York City-based, non-profit international environmental advocacy group, was founded in 1970 and today has 2.4 million members and online activities nationwide and a staff of about 500 lawyers, scientists and other policy experts. This was where Thornton cut his teeth as the only attorney working on NRDC's Citizens Enforcement project aimed at defeating and punishing big industrial polluters. His work was focused  on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US by taking action under the Clean Water Act. He investigated more than 1,000 companies, brought cases against 88 major violators including two giant companies Gwatney and Bethlehem Steel, who were fined $12.6m and $160m respectively for violations.

Thornton was then tasked with the job of establishing an NRDC office in Los Angeles. (He was happy to be in the same time zone as his Japanese zen master Maezumi Rashi). He discovered that the whole California coast could be lost to developers unless something was done. In order to fight this, he needed to find a threatened endangered species in the Californian coastal zone., The California gnatcatcher, a dusky grey songbird whose call sounds like the mewing of a kitten,. fitted the bill. Once this was listed as threatened, Thornton went to one of the largest developers and made a pragmatic deal, Rather than trying to block all development, he negotiated an arrangement whereby some development was possible in exchange for set-aside land for conservation, As of 2001, an area of 110,000 acres was preserved. Further investigation and use of the Endangered Species Act identified 77 endangered or threatened plants and animals species in the region.

Having established NRDC's office in LA , Thornton moved to London, mainly because Martin Goodman, who he'd first met in Europe in 1991, didn't have a green card. Despite being a member of the bar in California, New York and of the Supreme Court, Thornton had to start from scratch in a different legal system by taking solicitor's exams.

Firstly, after 10 years with NRDC, he took a 14-month break at a spiritual retreat in Germany during which he travelled to Dharamsala for a long private meeting with the Dalai Lama, who told him: "You must be confident and positive. and then you must help others to become confident and positive.

He also told him that "solutions can never emerge from an angry mind.", which proved very relevant to his next task which was to interview 50 significant players in the environmental movement. This research showed him that many activists adopted anger as the basis of their work, which explained the preachy, strident and negative tone of much of their pronouncements. This led him to found an NGO called Positive Futures which teaches meditation techniques to activists and policy makers. Anger become then a source of energy, not a driving force.

He then became the CEO of an international neuroscience research group, the Heffter Research Institute, whose aim is to 'configure new approaches to mental health and basic brain research through applied psychotropic research'.

In 2005, Thornton was then funded to report on the state of  public interest law in Europe, which was at least a decade behind the US. A Birds Directive had been passed in 1979, a Habitat Directive in 1992 and other Directives followed on air quality, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions. Around 80% of current environmental legislation in member states now derives from the EU. A European Commission oversees the transposition of Directives into national laws but it was clear that implementation and enforcement of these laws was shoddy.

Thornton also discovered that there was at that time only 24 public interest environmental lawyers in all of Europe and Russia, compared with 500-600 full-time lawyers in the US. He met with Britain's environment lawyers and visited the big HQs of European environmental organisations in Brussels. There were an estimated 100 full-time environmental activists but no environmental lawyers, opposing an army of 20,000 commercial lobbyists.

Thornton was determined to change this and argued that by increasing the strategic use of law there would be benefits for the whole environmental movement. This led in turn to getting the funding to establish ClientEarth with offices in London, Brussels and Poland. Its three main objectives: to increase access to justice on environmental issues, limit the effects of climate change and protect biodiversity.

'Law is the gravitational system that keeps human societies moving in a concurrent direction' writes Thornton. 'Law is basically a system of mutual restraint, mutually agreed upon, mutually enforced.'

The considerable and remarkable achievements of ClientEarth have not been properly understood or celebrated in the mainstream media and the whole story of the organisation has never been told before. It is an uplifting and hope-filled one,  required reading for anyone with an interest in working to save the planet's natural environments.

If nothing else, read the chapter on what Thornton has achieved in China, where he is an honoured adviser to the highest levels of the Chinese government. They are committed to working towards creating an ecological civilisation and are operating on a vast scale and at a great speed to achieve this end.

Thornton concludes that by protecting health and the environment and empowering citizens, the West can renew its democratic values. If we are to tackle climate change we will need to find $90 trillion of investment in the next 15 years. Oil reserves are now 'stranded assets' and increasingly corporations will have to face up to the huge implications of this. Peak oil is coming. Some 50% of oil demand is for transport and electric cars may take 20-30% of new vehicle sales by 2030 or sooner. This alone will cause oil demand to peak,

ClientEarth's biggest action at present is to find a pension fund willing to partner with them to establish in the courts that climate change is a risk that company trustees must factor into their investment strategies. All classes of financial assets will be affected.

The book's final comment: 'I have no doubt that we can save the future by present action. We are capable of acting wisely. Wisdom and altruism are as much a part of our genetic inheritance as greed and aggression. The lesson of the Paris [Climate Change] Agreement is that all nations share the beginning of the new story we need. Let us work together and realise the dream.'

ClientEarth is a deep and complex work, full of wisdom but also a masterclass in tactics. James Thornton's multi-dimensional connective thinking, inspired by his deep love of nature, is radical action at its highest level. Come the time, come the man, Thornton challenges the powerful and offers them elegant zen solutions to the world's most urgent and intractable problems. Respect to this man!

An excellent review in Nature 'Environment: Law for a healthy planet' by Hari Osofsky unravels some of the complexities of this book that I was unable to reach.

No comments: