On being an environmental lawyer: storytelling with a purpose

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(Cross-posted from the Science and Environmental Health Network‘s blog)

As a young environmental attorney, I am fortunate to count Carolyn Raffensperger as one of my most trusted mentors. Carolyn’s advice and guidance deeply inform my work as the Advocacy Director for Women’s Earth Alliance, where I am building and stewarding a new pro bono legal and policy advocacy initiative to support indigenous environmental justice movements. Advocates within the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network apply their skills and expertise in collaboration with indigenous women environmental leaders, working towards justice and sustainability on issues like coal and uranium mining, power plants and waste dumps, and sacred sites desecration. 

In facing the seeming intractability of these entrenched, systemic problems – the exploitation of land and concomitant decimation of culture – I have grappled with the question of how my contribution can truly make a difference. In these times I draw solace and inspiration from Carolyn’s way of working. I see her, and her colleagues at SEHN, telling the story of another paradigm. They are patiently and tirelessly describing the contours of a more just, earth-bound, peace-bringing environmental policy framework, thereby offering clear and comprehensive alternatives to our current legal regime that supports the destruction of our mother earth. Watching SEHN so effectively tell these stories – of the precautionary principle, ecological medicine, guardianship, law for the ecological age – inspires me to also be a voice for what is possible. So I asked myself about the deeper potential inherent in environmental justice advocacy; these were my thoughts, in response.

What is advocacy? Storytelling with a purpose, with an impact. Effective storytelling. What happens when a story is told effectively? People listen, and are moved. Change can occur.
Which stories do we tell?
To whom do we tell them?
How do we tell them? 

Advocacy is the narration of a story, in an effort to convince an arbiter that one of two (or more) competing stories is the more correct, the more just. Justice is the arbiter’s choice of the story which most aligns with a shared set of values. Inherent to the achievement of justice is the telling of stories, the assurance that all who are impacted by an injustice may be heard and witnessed in the telling. 

A body of law is a narrative describing a shared set of values. This larger narrative defines the parameters according to which individual stories may be told. What are the values that underlie our present system of justice, which in turn shape the way that we tell stories within that system? The maximization of economic value is the highest good; the earth is a collection of resources; people are entitled to employ those resources. What results? The commodification of the sacred. The commodification of all life. Disregard for the humanity and value of people whose lives aren’t worth as much as the land they live upon or the resources in the way of which they stand.


How do we bring about a change in these underlying values? Who are the people we must address, what are the stories we must tell, to bring about a framework of collective rights and balance on earth? Which narratives must we surface in order to alter our shared cultural narrative, moving towards sustainability, balance and peace? And how do we tell those stories when our system of justice is not yet trained to hear and digest them? 

The dilemma: withdrawing our complicity from tyranny, while at the same time operating within the parameters of a system that generates and perpetuates tyranny. We recognize that the achievement of true justice is beyond the present capacity of a legal-economic system that relies on injustice in order to function. Simultaneously, we strive for justice according to the terms of that system, in order to protect the land and the people as much as possible while driving systemic change through the introduction of new narratives. 

How do we defend a sacred, alive world within the confines of a system that has no concept of the sacred, which instead sees the world as a collection of non-living resources? By telling stories which say no to devastation, according to the terms of the system, and by telling stories which say yes to alternate narratives which transcend the supposed duality between economic progress and environmental sustainability. 

Indigenous stories are stories about life. Community, future generations, the interconnectedness of being. The legal system tells stories of ownership of property, competition for scarce resources, separation. These are narratives in opposition to one another. Yet we cannot simply stand outside the gates and demand that the fortress tear itself down. We must enter the fortress and invite the guards and the leaders to see how the structure is crumbling, the architecture is faulty. We do this by telling stories that dance at the edges of the system’s capacity to comprehend and to act. We defer to the internal logic of the system, while laying a pathway for that logic such that it leads inevitably to a new result. We offer paradigm-shifting ideas which are nonetheless digestible and able to be assimilated by the system, like the precautionary principle. We advance ideas and take actions which are like strong shoots breaking through the concrete of man-made law, allowing natural law to meet the light and air once again. 

Which stories do we tell? Stories of life.
To whom do we tell them? To those endowed with power who are able to hear.
How do we tell them? In the language of power, in the language of the heart.

Victory for Earth and Community in the Navajo Nation

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This week, an administrative law judge for the Department of Interior issued an historic decision revoking Peabody Coal Company’s permit for its Black Mesa and Kayenta coal mines, effecting a precedent-setting victory in the decades-long struggle for environmental justice on Black Mesa. The decision also signals that while the Obama Administration still has its work cut out for it, it has nevertheless departed from the Bush Administration’s wholesale support for fossil fuel based projects — the December 2008 Black Mesa permit was one of Bush’s many 11th hour dirty energy permits.

Judge Holt ruled that because the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) failed to issue a supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project, after Peabody revised its plans for the project, OSM’s Final Environmental Impact Statement did not comply with the law. The judge thereby revoked the 2008 permit, which was based on the faulty Final EIS, and remanded it to OSM for revision. 

Wahleah Johns, the co-director of Black Mesa Water Coalition — a Women’s Earth Alliance project partner — spoke to the significance of the decision. “As a community member of Black Mesa I am grateful for Judge Holt’s decision. For 40 years our sacred homelands and people have borne the brunt of coal mining impacts, from relocation to depletion of our only drinking water source. This ruling is an important step towards restorative justice for Indigenous communities who have suffered at the hands of multinational companies like Peabody Energy. This decision is also precedent-setting for all other communities who struggle with the complexities of NEPA laws and OSM procedures in regards to environmental protection.” 

The decision is only part of the larger effort towards healing, for land and communities. Wahleah reminds us that “we also cannot ignore that irreversible damage of coal mining industries continues on the land, water, air, people and all living things.” 

Women’s Earth Alliance honors the tireless work of women like Wahleah Johns and her Navajo and Hopi colleagues, whose persistence in advocating for environmental sanctity and cultural sovereignty yields game-changing successes like this decision.

Report Back: Climate Justice in Copenhagen Conference Call

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Thanks to everyone who joined us for an excellent conference call discussion this morning, on Climate Change in Copenhagen. The Conference Call Series of WEA’s Women and Land Initiative highlights the work of Indigenous environmental justice leaders each month, and this month we were honored to speak with Tom Goldtooth and Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Jihan is the Native Energy and Climate Organizer for IEN, and Tom is the Executive Director. Both are bound for Copenhagen next month, to ensure that this global policy-making forum fully accounts for the voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples and communities of color worldwide, and adequately redresses the economic and environmental inequalities at the root of climate change.

Jihan and Tom first spoke with us about the fundamentals of climate justice, which is a movement to alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change, implicating a justice-based approach to climate policy. According to the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, people of color, low-income and Indigenous communities are usually the first to experience the negative impacts of climate change, including natural disasters, public health crises, and displacement. These communities bear a disproportionate burden from ill-conceived strategies like carbon trading, and from the impacts of mineral extraction and energy production systems which cause climate change.

Jihan shared with us the Ten Principles for Just Climate Change Policies in the U.S. Principle #1: Stop Cooking the Planet! Other principles include the protection and empowerment of vulnerable people and communities, the required participation of communities in climate negotiations, and the ceasing of fossil fuel exploration, among others.

We then moved into a discussion of Copenhagen, specifically, and global climate policy-making, generally. Our speakers shared that international decision-making processes have tended to both exclude Indigenous peoples and people of color, who are the most impacted by both climate change-inducing processes and the so-called “solutions” to those problems, and to actively reinforce systems of injustice.

As one example of many, the Bali Action Plan — adopted in 2007 in Indonesia — agreed on a comprehensive 2-year process culminating in decision-making at Copenhagen on long-term global goals for emissions reductions and other key concerns. However, the Bali Roadmap makes no mention of Indigenous peoples or traditional knowledge. These types of exclusions characterize the climate negotiations, and our speakers illustrated the paramount importance of advocating for Indigenous peoples and people of color to have a place at the negotiating table.

IEN calls for “ambitious action to rapidly stabilize the concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions to ensure temperature rise is well below 350 ppm CO2 equivalent, and for temperature rise to be limited to no more that 1.5 degree Celsius.” Such action cannot rely on schemes like cap and trade and REDD, which serve to further concentrate climate impacts in Indigenous peoples, low income people and people of color communities, and which do not adequately address the core concern of excessive energy consumption in the Global North.

Given this picture, what can we do? Jihan offered us a variety of practical means to work towards climate justice at home. By focusing on environmentally just and economically equitable sustainability efforts at the local and regional level here in the United States, and advocating for fundamental policy shifts around energy production and usage, we can move towards balance on earth.

Ultimately, our “shared vision must acknowledge the future survival of the Circle of Life [and] affirm the vital role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. It is the Indigenous Peoples who have the knowledge to teach the world how to adapt and how to ensure a paradigm shift from the current economic model of development.”

We will keep a close eye on the climate negotiations in December, and will report back on the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous and people of color leaders as we receive updates.

Climate change’s affect on poor women

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A new report out by the United Nations Population Fund has warned that women in developing countries will be the most vulnerable to climate change.

“[Women] do most of the agricultural work, and are therefore affected by weather-related natural disasters impacting on food, energy and water, the report said.”

Read an article about it from the BBC here.  And read the full report here.

Travel With a Purpose: 2010 Advocacy Delegations

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Calling all women advocates with a passion for environmental justice! Women attorneys, advocates, law students and members of the legal profession are invited to join a Women’s Earth Alliance Advocacy Delegation in 2010 – an unparalleled opportunity to meet and collaborate with indigenous women on the frontlines of environmental justice campaigns in North America.