BY KRISTEN SIVERTZ, LAW II
It goes without saying that, given the means and the opportunity, the decision to attend a conference ranks among the finest life choices that a person can make, regardless of whether you are a law student, lawyer, professor, or just a really big fan of Joss Whedon. With that fact in mind, and with funding provided by the Curtis Fund and the Centre for Law and the Environment, the Environmental Law Group was able to send a small contingent of members to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC), which took place from March 1 to March 4 in Eugene, Oregon. For many of you, seeing the terms “environmental” and “public interest” together may conjure up images of drum circles, dreadlocks, and a whole lot of people using mason jars instead of Tupperware. And you would not be wrong. But those are only a few of the many amazing things that PIELC has to offer.
PIELC began in 1983 as a small gathering of legal professionals and law students at the University of Oregon, meeting to discuss environmental concerns affecting the Pacific Northwest and the legal strategies that could be used to address them. It has since become the world’s largest conference on the topic of public interest environmental law. The 29th annual conference consisted of 12 keynote presentations, 125 panel sessions, three meet-and-greet receptions, a three hour hike, and a bluegrass dance party. It was attended by over 3,000 lawyers, scientists, activists, students and concerned citizens from around the world and most notable of all, it was organized entirely by law students from the University of Oregon. As someone who thinks that organizing a single career panel is a major feat, even with the help of two other students and the Career Services Office, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the amount of planning and effort that U of O students put into organizing this conference every year.
Although for the most part it focuses on the environmental law tools and strategies available in the American legal system, UBC law students have a lot to gain from attending PIELC. It offers a fantastic opportunity to network with professionals and potential employers from private firms and non-governmental organizations operating in the US, Canada, and internationally. First and foremost, however, it offers a fantastic learning experience. The keynote presentations and panels address a wide range of environmental concerns, from the predominantly local, such as protection of critical wolf habitat and pedestrian transportation planning, to the international, such as climate change and marine pollution.
Many of the panels also provide insight into the legal aftermath of major environmental disasters that have since left the limelight of the media. Anyone remember the Deepwater Horizon spill that resulted in 4.9 million barrels of crude, not to mention some four million litres of dispersants, being injected into the Gulf of Mexico? Well, apparently, most of it is still down there wreaking untold havoc on the subsurface marine ecosystem and posing significant health concerns for local residents, wildlife, and even tourists. I was able to hear from two law professors and an eminent marine toxicologist about their work in the wake of both the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez oil spills. Needless to say, the picture they painted was far from rosy. In fact, it was terrifying, which brings me to one of the few downsides of the PIELC experience.
Though their work is fascinating and many of the strategies they have adopted appear to have the potential to effect real change, few if any of the panellists or keynote speakers were able to end their presentations on an unmitigated high note. After a full day of back-to-back presentations on oil spills, rising sea levels, mass extinction of species, water contamination, and the chemical castration of African clawed frogs and other amphibians caused by a commonly-used herbicide, it is hard not to come away feeling a little depressed about the difficult road ahead. The magnitude and scope of the environmental crises we face are overwhelming, and it seems that every hard-won step forward is swiftly followed by ten steps back.
Nevertheless, the experience strengthened our resolve to do what we can to advance the cause of environmental sanity. Even if you are sceptical of the severity of environmental harms and believe that the world could do with a few less African clawed frogs, the fact that there is a patch of garbage roughly twice the size of Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean must give even the most stalwart anti-“tree hugger” pause for thought. By attending the conference, we were able to draw inspiration from the tireless work of thousands of individuals willing to dedicate their knowledge and training, sacrifice their wealth and, at times, even put their liberty at risk to promote a sustainable future for humanity. Though victories may be few and far between, the reams of scientific evidence available clearly show that giving up is not an option.