Changing Currents: A Reflection on PIELC 2015
By Alexis Biddle, Anne Haugaard, Rory Isbell, Malia Losordo, and Tori Wilder
The 33rd annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) was held at the University of Oregon on March 5 – 8. All six keynote sessions were live-streamed on YouTube and may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/user/lawpielc.
This year’s conference featured over 120 panels, two workshops, and several film screenings. Despite substantial construction at the University, PIELC persevered. With limited classroom access and many panels resorting to standing room only, it was encouraging to see attendees enjoy the weekend and find their “piece of PIELC” to inspire them year-round.
As the organizers of PIELC 2015, we chose the theme Changing Currents to signify society’s need to change courses from our environmentally catastrophic business-as-usual path. As the physical, biological, and chemical currents of our world change, we too must change our own currents and work collectively to mobilize and set humanity on a path toward resiliency.
The conference opened with a blessing by Gordon Bettles, the steward of the Many Nations Longhouse and a member of the Klamath Tribes. Changing Current’s inaugural keynote featured internationally renowned journalist and activist Amy Goodman appearing by video and philosopher-writer-extraordinaire Kathleen Dean Moore. Goodman delivered a truly powerful address. She spoke of how our political system and media are systematically broken in their ability to address climate change and the need for the media to make the connection between extreme weather and the science of global climate change. She emphasized our nation’s power and responsibility to reign in global environmental devastation brought by United States-chartered companies. Kathleen Dean Moore called for us to “throw our stones” into the river of society, that we may alter its path and perhaps even change its direction.
We were fortunate enough to have Bill McKibben grace us with his wisdom and inspiration via (carbon friendly, of course) video to kick off the Friday afternoon keynote. He brought home the deep changes the Earth and climate are undergoing and how we need to continue to press forward at this critical juncture in the climate movement. Gary Nabhan followed McKibbin with an illumination of his work on collaborative conservation of food producing landscapes. In his speech, Nabhan related these new collaborative efforts to the concept of the radical center – a place where the values, cultures, ideologies and faith intersect. The afternoon keynote ended with Antonio Oposa, Jr. of the Philippines. He provided an exceptional speech focusing on the importance of reducing carbon emissions from transportation through transforming the way we share space on public streets.
Friday evening was special: two friends, and partners in saving us from ourselves, Severine Von Charner Fleming and Janelle Orsi took the stage. Fleming’s passion and creativity shined thought as she talked about the changing currents of agricultural land ownership and her efforts to pass farmland into the hands of the next generation of farmers. Orsi, who followed Fleming but invited her back on stage during her keynote, delivered a hilarious account of her work through cartoons and comedy. Orsi works to help communities become more efficient with their resources through establishing frameworks of trust and accountability among neighbors. She also works with Fleming to help secure land tenure for the next generation of farmers. Listening to both of these inspiring women was not only a treat, but also mind-opening and hilarious.
It is important to include a younger perspective as we strategize how to change our currents, as the stones we cast land in our children’s river, not our own. On Saturday, fourteen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez used both speech and music to convey the critical role young people must play in healing our planet. Roske-Martinez has since spoken (again) before the United Nations, demanding that our governments take serious action. Wahleah Johns, of the Red Bottom People, closed the afternoon keynote with a presentation about her work to replace coal mining atop Black Mesa on Hopi and Navajo lands with renewable energy. She closed with a poignant reminder that our work as activists, students, and lawyers must be done to preserve pristine lands and leave a habitable earth to future generations.
After ENR alumni gathered for the annual Alumni Reception in Gerlinger Lounge, Saturday evening’s keynotes began with the David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award presentation. This year, we honored University of Oregon Professor and ENR Faculty Director Mary Wood for her lifelong dedication to innovative legal scholarship, restoration of the public trust, and passionate activism. The award itself was a remnant piece of the former Elwha Dam, which we hoped would remind all present and future generations to “think like a river,” as Professor Wood has taught us all to do.
Helen Slottje, winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, followed the award ceremony. She shared her inspiring story as New York attorney turned community-organizer who rallied her neighbors to ban fracking through land use regulation. Under her innovative legal framework, the resulting ordinances withstood lawsuits and asserted communities rights over those of the fossil fuel industry. Derrick Evans then delivered a moving speech that followed his remarkable journey dedicated to protecting his home – the Turkey Creek Community – from encroaching urban development. The development has been erasing Turkey Creek’s rich history and subjecting it to increased flooding. Through the Turkey Creek Initiative, Evans is employing conservation and historical preservation laws to resist the undermining of his community.
It is always a blessing when PIELC coincides with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) conference. This year, the ELAW conference took place the weekend before PIELC and we were honored to have many international environmentalists and attorneys join us and speak at PIELC. In his keynote address, Rugemeleza A.K. Nshala, a lawyer and activist from Tanzania, spoke of the ills that industrial mining has wrought on his nation, and the great struggle we face in protecting the land, air, and water of East Africa from pollution and exploitation.
The final keynote also featured Malia Akutagawa, a native Hawaiian and law professor. Akutagawa reminded us of the importance of remembering our roots, our history, and the importance of searching within cultural traditions and practices to find sustainable answers.
As we write this reflection, there are activists suspended below the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and kayakers camped out below the bridge on the Willamette River. They do this to prevent an icebreaking vessel from reaching the Arctic Circle and enabling the extraction of fossil fuels from the formerly frozen polar ice cap. Whether we protest in the courtroom, in the community, or bravely dangling from a massive bridge, we all agree that this much is clear: we are upset by the events taking place around us and the time is now to rise up and change these currents.
We had an incredible experience planning this year’s conference. In addition to the five of us, there were dozens of law student volunteers working around the clock to make Changing Currents a reality. We hope to see you next year from March 3-6, 2016, and we wish the best of luck to the 2016 PIELC Co-Directors!
Alexis Biddle is Co-Director of Land Air Water and a Sustainable Cities Initiative Fellow for the ENR Sustainable Land Use Project. Anne Haugaard is President of the Student Bar Association, Staff Editor of the Western Environmental Law Update, and an Oregon Child Advocacy Project fellow. Malia Losordo is Marketing Director and Western Environmental Law Update Editor-in-Chief for Land Air Water and a Bowerman Fellow for the ENR Oceans, Coasts and Watersheds Project. Rory Isbell is Co-Director of Land Air Water and a Sustainable Cities Initiative Fellow for the ENR Sustainable Land Use Project. Tori Wilder is the Articles and Source Editor for the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, Secretary of Land Air Water, Secretary of Student Legal Advocates for Tribal Sovereignty, and a Global Environmental Democracy Project Fellow.