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John Bonine

Weaving a Web of Green Lawyers

Date:March 2017
Location:United States

John Bonine, of the University of Oregon, a pioneer of environmental law in the United States and globally, wh founded the world’s first environmental law clinic and the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) as part of his mission to create capacity and resource in the environmental law community.

John Bonine is a lawyer, author, academic and a pioneer in the field of environmental law. In this exclusive Green Interview, Bonine speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about some of the highlights of his distinguished career, how he helped the environmental law movement grow, as well as his special passion for public interest law. In the 1970s Bonine served as Associate General Counsel of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and subsequently joined the faculty of the University of Oregon where he created the world’s first environmental law clinic: Western Environmental Law Clinic. He also established the annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, the largest such conference in the discipline, which is operated entirely by students and known in some circles as the Woodstock of environmental law. Bonine is also the cofounder of ELAW, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, which connects 300 environmental lawyers in 70 countries.

Private Public Interest Law

“Nature creates temples in red rock, cathedrals in a forest, and symphonies in a thunderstorm. She destroys excessive pride in a volcanic fury. Our works as humans cannot truly compare in scale or sublimity; but we can and do create, and destroy as well. Those who enter the field of environmental law face poignant dilemmas,” writes Bonine in his 1986 article titled “The New Private Public Interest Bar.” At the time, Bonine was the first in the world to name and describe this alternative mode of law practice, that is practicing public interest environmental law on a regular basis from a private law firm. Essentially, private public interest lawyers regularly represent smaller clients against big economic interests or government, making positional conflicts less likely. “We have this idea of pro-bono law, pro-bono for the good of the public law but the only pro-bono you’re really allowed to do is pro-bono that doesn’t disrupt the major clients of your law firm,” Bonine tells Cameron. “So the only pro-bono work that can really be done against big institutions is pro-bono work that doesn’t conflict with the client base of that lawyer… It turns out that half of the public interest environmental lawyers in the United States are private lawyers…working for themselves but on the right side of the street.” When Cameron asks Bonine what the client base would be for private public interest lawyers, Bonine answers: “The client base is the trees, the frogs, the birds, the clients are humans but they don’t have the money to bring these lawsuits.”

Intersection Between Human and Environmental Rights

Bonine, along with his late wife Professor Svitlana Kravchenko, explored the intersection between human rights and environmental rights in the 2008 book they authored together, Human Rights and the Environment: Cases, Law, and Policy. He says that historically there has been a chasm between the fields of human rights and environmental rights but that this split was an “artificial” one. “You cannot have civilization if the planet has been destroyed and therefore it has to be a fundamental right,” he tells The Green Interview. He says that environmental rights are being implemented in a variety of ways around the world: in treaties and new constitutions, for instance. He says about 100 countries around the world now have an environmental right in them. “All these things have been growing… and it’s been growing because of a lot of people who understand it’s not just about politics, it’s about our future.”

Information Rights

According to Bonine, the right of access to information is crucial to being able to defend environmental and human rights. He says our access to information is a fundamental human right and one of the three pillars of environmental democracy along with “the right to public participation” and “the right to justice [or] the right to go to courts.” Bonine says that these pillars were recognized in 1992 in Principal 10 of the Rio Declaration that came out of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. “We’ve had Freedom of Information in the United States in the federal government since 1966, and in state governments for a hundred years or more. Sweden has had it for 250 or 300 years in their law.” Bonine argues that Information is crucial to protecting the environment and in some ways “the most fundamental right because it allows you to participate not just in the courts where you enforce substantive rights but in the political process.” Bonine says that if we don’t have access to the “real story” then we can be more easily fooled by “our enemy” “fake news” as well as “hidden news.”