Client Earth are activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet: using environmental law to protect oceans, forests, and other habitats as well as all people. A new book which tells the successful story of Client Earth over the last decade since it was founded, was launched in May. Written by founder and CEO, James Thornton and his husband Martin Goodman, the book charts the journey of the non-profit environmental law group from inception to the present day.
Just before the recent election, and following a legal challenge by Client Earth, the UK government was ordered by the High Court to produce new improved plans to show how it is going to comply with legal limits of air pollution in the shortest time possible. This is but one of their successes in holding legislators to account. But also a perfect example of their approach. So, as a Trustee of an environmental charity, you can imagine my sense of anticipation at its publication. And the book does indeed chart the rise of public interest environmental lawyers in the USA since the 1980s, and makes valuable points about NGOs and the law.
Cutting his teeth on the ‘Save the Bay’ campaign, focussed on eliminating the run off of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers in 1983, and moving on to the dumping of heavy metals and chemicals in watercourses by Bethlehem Steel in 1984, some of James Thornton’s early successes concentrated on pollution of rivers and seas. Since then his, and his team’s, work has widened in scope, and its geographical boundaries. In 2007 he moved to England, qualified in British law, and established his first European office. This was shortly followed by offices in Poland, Brussels, Africa, and most recently China. Where he is working with the government to draft law and train lawyers.
The American passages are perhaps the best in the book. But, at risk of being accused of a bad case of ‘not invented here’, the move to Europe comes with the bold assertion that environmental law didn’t exist in the UK until Client Earth’s arrival.
Thornton is absolutely right to say that environmentalists must create a new vision for their efforts. Presenting logical, but doom laden, arguments about the future of the Earth does not work for many citizens. Just as the referendum result in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have both defied logical explanation so, Thornton and Goodman contend, we must correspondingly construct a new ‘brand’ for environmentalism based on hope. Along with this goes the acceptance that, having passed through the historical stages of agricultural then industrial civilisation, we are now entering a new epoch of ecological civilisation.
Personally, I largely agree with the authors’ assertion that enforcement of the law is one solution. I can also empathise with their view – based on my own experience – that some campaigning NGOs see their role as exposing problems. Not in fashioning the solutions. I am also firmly of the belief that it is naïve to believe that something – the ‘techno utopian card’ – will turn up to save us. So the thrust of the book is not at issue.
Where I have a problem is with the book’s style and execution. Alternating chapters between two different authors leads to a disjointed and repetitive reading experience. Thornton’s chapters are clear, concise, and brief. Goodman’s are rambling, plagued by extraneous quoted dialogue, and gushing in their admiration of Thornton.
Jonathan Porritt’s flyleaf endorsement may be correct in saying that ‘more important still are the vision, values, and gritty dedication of an amazing group of lawyers’, but I can’t escape the feeling that this book has something of the Hollywood movie about it. So, can our plucky heroes defeat the forces of evil?!
Published by Scribe Publications 2017 (www.scribepublications.co.uk) UK edition 978 1911 344 087 ©2017 M J Hoare