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Law at the Service of Mother Earth

3 May 2010 No Comment

- by Patricia Smith Melton
Founder, Peace X Peace
Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women

Did you hear the one about the Zen priest who was a Catholic boy who grew up passionately in love with bugs and plants and became a lawyer defending Earth and learned to love people in the process? Meet James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, which has the largest group of lawyers in the European Union working on climate change, from stopping coal-fired power plants to guiding management of funds emerging to save rainforests.

As I’m studying the qualities of good men right now, I talked with James as one of the few people of either gender I know who daily applies the best of masculine principles and the best of feminine principles to his work. He brings teeth to legislation that protects Mother Earth.

James, who inspired you as a bug-loving boy?

Miss Alice Gray. She was an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and founder of the Junior Entomological Society, where I was a member from ages nine to fourteen.  She was a plump lady with her hair in a bun, and she had a vast office in a turret room facing Central Park with an array of creatures including live tarantulas and a fine and varied collection of live cockroaches from around the world.  She was brilliant.

As a grown-up, a priest and lawyer, do you see a relationship between the physical world with all its bugs and the non-physical world of spirit?

One of the four vows that we take in Zen is to “save all sentient beings.” I take that literally and spend my life trying to take care of living things—people and myriad ecosystems. The physical and spiritual are different aspects of the same thing. One of the great Zen masters, Dogen Zenji, said that “to expound, to show forth, the Way with your body is a harbor and a fish pool.” This is made of the characters shin and ryo—shin is a harbor and ryo is where the fish gather, a weir. Together here they mean “the most important thing.” It captures how the spiritual is accessed through the body, and how the body is part of nature.

Okay, that’s Zen. Let’s break that out. Can we humans access the spiritual through the physical?

Maybe the best way is being quiet in a natural place. Fishermen are actually fishing themselves. Getting quiet by paying attention to the surrounding life is the key. Frequently the insights that emerge when people look deeply at a blade of grass or a dragonfly are profound. Nature is always waiting to teach us if we slow down. Nature is bigger than we are and can teach us endlessly.

Yet nature is vulnerable. What do see as the timeline for turnaround before the earth is beyond repair?

I believe we have about 10 years to fundamentally change how we make and use energy. Business as usual will mean the end of civilization and the sixth great extinction of life on the planet.

Which brings us to ClientEarth, which I love because it enlists the linear masculine of laws and regulations in the service of the creative feminine of Mother Earth.

James Thornton

ClientEarth is young. We called it ClientEarth because the earth is the client—we are international nonprofit lawyers who work to protect our planet and all who sail upon her.

We focus on climate change and the attendant loss of biodiversity because they are the biggest environmental threats. We helped stop a new generation of unabated coal-fired power plants in the UK—coal plants that do not capture their carbon emissions are Public Enemy #1 in climate change terms. We are about to open an office in Poland and try to stop 15 such plants from being built there. We are active in the legislature in Brussels, working to improve the EU laws on climate and energy, and we are now advising the government of Ireland in writing its first climate change law.
We also work with groups around the world on rainforest finance. Hundreds of millions of dollars are about to flow into developing countries to pay them to keep rainforests standing. We are trying to ensure this money is spent in ways that enhance the rights of indigenous peoples rather than disappear into Swiss bank accounts. We are also working in the Parliament in Brussels on a law that will prevent illegally harvested rainforest timber from entering the EU.

Can our readers influence policymakers?

It is not easy but it is necessary. Vote on the basis of environmental positions. Write letters and emails on key issues. Support effective environmental groups who specialize in influencing policymakers. Join ClientEarth—it’s free:

James, your work is hard work. Why do you do what you do?

Because I cannot do anything else. I ran a neuroscience institute and an organization that taught meditation to social activists. These were good—but I have to do what I can directly to counter our headlong rush over the cliff as a society. Using the powerful tool of law and creating a world-class legal team who work together is the natural thing for me to do. It puts the intellectual apparatus I can deploy at the service of living things.

It must be the Zen of it, that when James says to deploy our intellectual apparatus at the service of living things, it seems so clear and obvious—a harbor, a weir, a place of life and calm.

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