On being an environmental lawyer: storytelling with a purpose

(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.


  1. CueP on February 12, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    wonderful post! Thanks Caitlin.
    Paulynn Cue

  2. 單存 on October 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm

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