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James Thornton, environmental lawyer and founder of ClientEarth
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New series CAMPAIGN HERO: James Thornton of ClientEarth

Matilda Lee

6th December, 2010

Can lawyers really save the world? James Thornton from UK law firm ClientEarth believes they can - and is leading the way in achieving ecological justice

What has been your most successful campaign (or case) to date?

JT: The early one that was the greatest fun was when I was a young lawyer working in the US and Ronald Reagan decided to stop enforcing environmental laws. I was at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). We decided to see if citizens could make a difference. We looked at the Clean Water Act. Before Reagan, the government brought about 350 prosecutions a year under this law, but under him it fell to zero. The law requires companies to report what they are discharging, and citizens have a right to this information. We did systematic research and brought 60 cases in six months in federal court, winning all of them, getting court orders to clean up the pollution, penalties that went to charity, and fees to bring the cases. We went on to bring scores more cases, again winning them, and embarrassing the government to get into the enforcement business again.

Now that I've been living in the UK for a decade, and have become an English lawyer and started ClientEarth, there are a wide set of campaigns going on in climate, marine, human health and access to justice. ClientEarth is only three years old but there are already a lot of campaign successes, and huge energy in our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw and Paris.

We played a significant role in getting the UK government to back down on building a new generation of dirty coal plants. We won a major case against the UK that requires it to change the cost rules so citizens can use the courts to protect the environment, and we just met with the Justice Minister to discuss details of what they need to do. We were instrumental in getting a law through in Brussels that will prevent illegally harvested rainforest timber from coming into the EU market. And there already a lot more stories to tell.

What has been your least successful campaign to date?

JT: To be honest there isn't one that hasn't worked. It's really important to pick issues and design campaigns strategically. There are some that are still in the works, but none that has failed.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

JT: It would be great to work with them, and I hope to find the opportunity, but mostly so far it's been against. In the long run though if we're going to survive well as a species, it's got to be corporations that do a lot of the creation of new ideas, and new technologies that let us come to live harmlessly on the planet. And because it's companies that through advertising control much of what people learn to want, it will be companies that have to change patterns of consumption. The area we are beginning to work with corporations at ClientEarth is in energy efficiency, where there is a lot of hope for collaboration.

What is the best way to motivate people?

JT: Give them a positive vision. We greens have not been very good at this. We've been pointing to problems rather than solutions. We've concentrated on what is bad, rather than coming up with a narrative that is more aligned with human needs than Washington consensus neo-liberal capitalism. We've also assumed reasoned arguments would change behaviour. But it's only a compelling narrative that does this. My belief is that we need to create a new renaissance, and that we can do it. The last renaissance was in large part consciously created. We can consciously create, together, a positive narrative that will give people hope and motivation, a reason to live and to fight for change.

What is the best way of reaching politicians?

JT: I've found two good ways. The first is representing a large constituency they need to listen to. The second is by suing them and winning. Then they'll listen then next time you want to talk.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

JT: Burnout is the campaigner's occupational hazard, and hard to avoid. For me meditation helps, and I've been doing Zen for 25 years. After working at NRDC I set up a charity that worked to bring meditation and related technologies to campaigners in America. The movement of people doing this work has really taken off there. The soft campaign of getting campaigners to tap into the mind beyond anger is really important.

Most important thing government could do this year?

JT: The list is long. It could sue the EU for failing to protect bluefin tuna. It could give real access to justice in environmental cases. It could make a radical move to decarbonize energy production. It could fulfil its pledge to be the greenest UK government. It could take the economics of biodiversity seriously and reform GDP so that we accounted for the downside of economic activities. And many other things. Perhaps most pragmatically, it could put the environment at the heart of all decisions it makes. Many systemic problems come from environment being sidelined while ‘important' decisions about the economy are made. Only by making the environmental consequences a key part of all government decision making do we have a hope of being sustainable.

Most important thing individuals could do this year?

JT: Find a way to stay positive and engaged. If you're feeling despair study it. Go through it, nurture a positive vision and take some practical steps toward it.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

JT: I just heard a talk by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. He made the point that we are losing cultural diversity at least as quickly as biodiversity. We are losing one human language every two weeks. With languages vanish rich and meaningful ways of viewing the world and our place in it. His campaign with National Geographic to bring attention to this loss and try to stem it is one I admire. It could be that like the wild cultivars of our crops that we need to protect, it is in these vanishing worldviews that we will find what we need to mend our own broken way of seeing the world we dwell on.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

JT: I'm very fond of Rachel Carson, the scientist whose work disclosed the dangers of DDT. She brought this information to the world with great courage and persistence that was key in forming the environmental movement in North America. Other campaigners I have always admired are King and Ghandi, for aligning their work with real moral power. We don't yet have a figure like that for the environment. Maybe this work doesn't make the space for that kind of character. Or maybe we're just waiting.

Useful link: ClientEarth

 

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