By Emily Hajarizadeh, Alyssa Bonini, Emily Fenster, Esack Grueskin, and Annie Montgomery
The 34th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference spanned four days and hosted over 130 panels, five keynote sessions, three musical performances, a documentary film festival with director appearances, and an artist spotlight featuring photographer Ed Parbor and his Pacific Crest Trail series.
Each year, the five conference co-directors—all students—are elected by their peers to plan the largest international public-interest environmental law conference in the world. The planning process starts by selecting a theme. This year, we decided to use the conference to explore and critique current models of environmentalism in the United States and abroad. We selected the theme, “A Legacy Worth Leaving.” Our theme takes its name in part from the legacy of imperialist culture responsible for today’s global environmental crisis, but the title ultimately looks to the future. From climate change to copper mines, we challenged our attendees to question the integrity of “greening” the legal system.
This year’s panelists and keynote speakers called on attendees to recognize the ineffectiveness of overly politicized legal solutions that use our natural resources as bargaining chips. These experts emphasized the need for innovation; for example, shifting away from the relatively toothless Clean Air Act and instead developing alternative legal tools, such as Atmospheric Trust Litigation, to ensure safe and clean air in the U.S. As always, the Conference asked our attendees to join us in the fight to reverse the climate and natural resource crisis through direct, local, decentralized, daily acts of conscious environmentalism—offering examples of real-life successes and failures throughout.
The conference began on an unusually warm Thursday afternoon. The first panel session appropriately included a presentation by Attorney Matt Pawa, who successfully represented the State of New Hampshire in its 2013 lawsuit against ExxonMobil for groundwater contamination—to the tune of $236 million. Mr. Pawa gave an attention-grabbing, courtroom-style presentation entitled, “What Exxon Knew About Global Warming, and What it Did Anyway.” Mr. Pawa packed his presentation with statistical evidence showing the magnitude of the oil giant’s systemic global warming smear-campaign, which he argued fueled enough doubt to persuade the U.S. government to stall pollution control for greenhouse gases for decades.
By Thursday evening, the Conference was in full swing. Professor Dalee Sambo Dorough of the University of Alaska Anchorage gave the inaugural keynote address. Professor Dorough, who is also Chairperson for and Expert Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, narrated a year-by-year examination of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Professor Dorough emphasized the Declaration’s charge to UN member nations to create a ‘legacy worth leaving’ by preserving indigenous peoples’ right to maintain their profound relationship to the natural environment (Art. 25) and to uphold those responsibilities for future generations. Next, Peter Neill, founder of the web-based World Ocean Observatory, closed the session by articulating humanity’s collective responsibility to the world ocean, as captured in his new book, The Once and Future Ocean.
Friday’s afternoon keynote offered attendees a never-before-seen-in-the-U.S. opportunity to hear from three of the top environmental voices from the People’s Republic of China. Presenters Lai Hueneng, Dr. Jiwen Chang, and Cao Yin joined adopted Oregonian Ocean Yuan on stage to present the current state of the environment and environmental law in China, as well as China’s future plan to revolutionize the way we think about resource and energy distribution by cultivating an internationally shared electricity and internet grid. Our guests discussed the interdependent relationship between countries and the reality of the “global village,” recognition of which leaves us primed to be leaders in developing new, effective environmental solutions. The presenters unveiled the gravity and magnitude of China’s environmental crisis, from mercury-laced rivers to unbreathable air, and the ongoing process of healing China’s priceless landscapes through technological and social innovation. Notably, the presenters also discussed the responsibility shared by the U.S. and China as world superpowers to protect the global environment for future generations.
The Saturday afternoon keynote featured two acclaimed documentary filmmakers, Mark Titus, writer and director of The Breach, and Mari-Lynn Evans, director of Blood on the Mountain. Mr. Titus began the session by steering the audience through a typical life cycle of the wild Pacific Salmon and the many ways the fish’s ideal pattern of birth, life, and reproduction runs up against the consequences of our insatiable appetite for the animal. Mr. Titus explained the undeniable impact of overfishing and global warming on the salmon’s ability to survive, while leaving the audience hooked (no pun intended) to watch his film, which we scheduled to show after the keynote. West-Virginian director Mari-Lynn Evans took the stage next and floored the audience with her captivating, unscripted, heart-wrenching personal epic of her life growing up as a coal miner’s daughter in coal country. Ms. Evans was immensely grateful that a northwestern community like Eugene could feel and appreciate the humanity in the struggle of Appalachian coal mine laborers. She integrated personal life experiences of laborers still fighting for union rights, labor rights, and jobs from corporate coal mine juggernauts, and she pleaded for the country-wide support needed for coal miners to transition away from the industry that took away their health and, in some cases, their lives. We were left with a provocative question: if we transition away from coal, how will we leave the men and women who gave everything to power this country and fuel our own consumption? Will we abandon them? Or will we lift each other up as one?
After an enjoyable and diverse day of panels—from direct action, to land use law, to climate litigation, and more—and films, it was time for the Saturday evening keynote session. The session opened on the topic of the highly publicized armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity Kieran Suckling and Burns Paiute Tribe member Jarvis Kennedy spoke on the occupation, which occurred over this past winter. Mr. Suckling offered short histories of several of the key occupiers and the racially charged, quasi-religious ideology motivating them. Mr. Kennedy brought the audience to their feet with his brave account of the Tribe’s reaction to the weeks of tense confrontation over its sacred lands.
A two-part speaker series on food and agricultural law followed the Malheur presentation. First, Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, inspired the audience to address ‘the beauty of the breakdown’ and the process of anaerobic food preservation—and left everyone hungry for pickles and kimchi. Mr. Katz encouraged the audience to explore their relationship with food and food systems, focusing on the health and ecological benefits realized by growing and preserving your own food. Our second food and agricultural law presenter was Center for Food Safety Founder and Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell. Mr. Kimbrell took the stage to address the politics of food law and the organic food movement’s successes and failures.
Sunday afternoon’s keynote ended the Conference, and the session was one of the most moving and emotional experiences we co-directors have seen at PIELC. Wendsler Nosie Sr. and his 14-year-old granddaughter Naelyn Pike—both leaders and members of the Apache Stronghold—described the immense need for Indigenous communities to lead the environmental conservation movement. Mr. Nosie described the Apache Stronghold’s occupation of the Oak Flat in Arizona, a culturally significant and sacred site for the Apache that faces sale by the federal government to big industry for copper mining. Mr. Nosie focused on the importance of the younger generation’s ownership of the preservation and proliferation of their traditional culture, and he outlined young people’s role in educating Western culture on the significance of living responsibly in harmony with our planet. Mr. Nosie’s speech set the stage perfectly for his granddaughter. Naelyn Pike, a spiritual warrior for her people and her generation, shed tears of courage while describing the importance of women as leaders and healers of this environmental crisis—not a dry eye in the room. At the end of the session, Mr. Nosie and Miss Pike led the audience in an Apache song affirming our commitment to honor our land and our communities that depend on its health.
As law students, we often censor or ignore the politicization of the “paperwork resistance” of environmental law. PIELC is an opportunity to realize we can do better. If we aren’t satisfied with the direction we’re going, it’s our responsibility to find out how we got here in the first place. We can’t hope to do better in the future without admitting the mistakes of the past. When we decided to organize this year’s Conference around the idea of a legacy, none of us knew what to expect. PIELC 2016 entertained, informed, inspired, challenged, provoked, and humbled us beyond description. We received more from this process than we could have imagined, and we are proud and thankful for the opportunity to share, explore, and commit to creating a legacy worth living and leaving behind.
We’re already looking forward to the new co-directors’ unique perspectives, creativity, and vision they’ll bring to the tradition and institution that is PIELC. Please join us in Eugene on March 2–5, 2017 for the 35th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference.
The 34th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference took place at the University of Oregon on March 3–6, 2016. To watch the PIELC 2016 keynote speakers, please visit https://www.youtube.com/user/lawpielc.
PIELC 2016: A Legacy Worth Leaving
Registration for the conference is now CLOSED – If you would like a hard copy brochure, please visit the Registration Table during Conference hours to request a copy.
For decades, the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference has cultivated a forum recognized for novel constructive debate. It is a place to address both the best and the worst moments of humanity’s relationship with nature and with itself. We have reflected on past interactions. We have fought to challenge matters of ecological, social, and cultural degradation. We have responded. Over time, PIELC has become a reliable element to the mechanism of modern environmental justice.
Now it is time to build new legacies. Now it is time to recognize that although the tools of rationality and logic have gotten us to where we are, we have so much further to go. While we live in a world that expresses diverse realities, dominant assumptions of ecology, economy, and society have left us with only one narrative. A different construction of our assumptions will lead to a more open conversation of shaping environmental justice in the 21st century.
“A Legacy Worth Leaving” is a response to the drastic need of daily, direct action of individuals in their communities. Cohesive leadership models must acknowledge that individual participation directs society’s impact on interdependent community and global systems. Diversity of cultures, talents, and specialties must converge to guide community initiatives in a balanced system. Each has a unique role that can no longer be hindered by the complacent passive-participation models of traditional leadership schemes. Building community means being community.
This year at PIELC, we will be exploring alternative methods of approaching current ecological, social, and cultural paradigms. First, by examining the past – let us not relive our mistakes. Then, by focusing on the present. Days to months, months to years, years to a lifetime; small acts compound to the life-story of a person, a place, a planet. What legacy are you leaving?
Please join us March 3rd – 6th in Eugene, Oregon, for the 34rd annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. We are now accepting panel submissions on our website, www.pielc.org. Please note that if your panel is expected to receive CLE credit, we ask that your panel materials be submitted by the end of January, prior to the conference.
Your 2016 PIELC Co-Directors