Every week we select the best articles you wouldn’t want to miss.
This week: Meet the Buddhist Lawyer Who Took the UK to Court Over Pollution — and Won by Haleigh Atwood (Lion’s Roar)
“The earth is our client,” says lawyer and Zen priest James Thornton. He talks with Haleigh Atwood about how Buddhism can help save the environment.
In April, Buddhist lawyer James Thornton won an injunction ordering the UK government to publish a clean-air plan for British cities where pollution exceeds legal levels. Thornton is a lawyer and environmental activist whose 10-year-old environmental law organization, ClientEarth, tackles the planet’s biggest issues. The organization’s team of more than 100 people uses litigation to address climate change, biodiversity protection, habitat loss, deforestation, and air pollution.
The UK clean-air injunction has spawned a series of clean-air cases across Europe. And, in July, after ClientEarth fought for years against illegal logging by the Polish government, the European Union issued a logging ban on the Bialowieza forest in Poland, one of the last great primeval forests. The organization is now working on environmental law with the Chinese government.
Thornton began practicing environmental law in 1979, looking for purpose in his mission to save the environment. But as a young lawyer sometimes working 60 cases at once, he started to burn out.
Tired and directionless, Thornton stumbled onto Soto Zen and moved to Los Angeles to study with Maezumi Roshi. Through sitting, Thornton realized that environmental law allowed him to practice Zen’s Bodhisattva Vow — the vow to save all sentient beings. He finally found meaning in his work.
Thornton talked to me from his office in London to discuss ClientEarth, Soto Zen, and the intersection of environmental activism and Buddhist practice.
Haleigh Atwood: Can you tell me about ClientEarth’s mission and the role of environmental lawyers in today’s world?
James Thornton: The way I think about it is that the earth is our client, and the lawyer needs to speak to the client. By studying science we know what the earth needs in terms of protection. Once we’re clear on what science is saying, then we investigate how to turn that into policy. We help write the laws, and then we work on implementing and enforcing the laws. We’ve won a lot of big cases, like against the UK government to clean up the air.
The law gives you a snapshot of what a culture thinks are the important values within it at any one time. By understanding that you gain tremendous leverage to move things in the right direction. I see the process of helping to create and enforce laws as a practice and a way of enlightening the shared mind as a culture.