Creative law to save the Earth

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Photo by Juliana Hanle.

Consider the strawberry.

That was the task keynote speaker and Associate Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Policy Lisa Heinzerling assigned to 200 students, faculty and professionals last Friday at the New Directions in Environmental Law conference held at the Yale Law School. The conference, organized by a committee of 15 law students, examined the opportunities for law in the age of a Congress with a weak environmental agenda, and hosted a single day of panels, workshops and 17 speakers, Stephanie Safdi, conference chair and co-president of the Yale Environmental Law Association said. Attendees came from as far as Stanford, California and as close as Howe Street — Miya’s Sushi owner Bun Lai co-presented the workshop “Locating Food Policy” — to hear about the interaction of law and the environment.

“This is not just a conference but kind of like a continuing process through which we learn about and challenge the field in a free, imaginative, and idealistic way,” Safdi said.

Heinzerling used the analogy of the strawberry to demonstrate the many ways in which environmental law affects every person. The process of getting the strawberry to the fruit salad relies on the regulation of not just labor conditions, but also fuel, pesticides, and more, she said.

While the panels addressed environmental law in academia and the EPA’s updates to the Clean Air Act, the workshops stirred conversation about topics that ranged from state-based environmental solutions to land use. Safdi said that the conference was intended to encourage thought about every possible opportunity for environment law.

CREATIVITY IN LAW

The current legal approach to dealing with environmental concerns is faulty, organizing committee members agreed. Currently, Daniel Knudsen LAW ’12 said, watchdog organizations such as the EPA attack laws and policies when the environment is abused — but often too late to reverse the damage.

George Collins FES ’12 added that the environmental community is tired of an endless cycle of specific subject matter interest — such as clean air — and inevitable disappointment, when legislation fails to change. The future of environmental law, he and other committee members agreed, is still undetermined.

“The era of defeatism is over, needs to be over — we need to advance,” Collins said.

And the only way to advance, they said they realized, is to pursue environmental agendas in all fields of law practices, he said. Modern environmental law should adopt methods that require a change of lawyerly philosophy.

But the change does not have to be a liberal one. Indeed, the Yale law students have been learning to take advantage of conservative common law to defend natural resources, they said.

“We have to dig out quite a bit to get to where we can view [the issues] with fresh eyes. Things are quite rigid in this field,” Collins said.

NOT JUST A CONFERENCE

Until “New Directions,” Yale had not hosted an environmental law conference since 1992. Safdi and two other Yale graduate students, now graduated, conceptualized the event last spring.

The conference planning committee prepared extensively for the event, reading and discussing papers from the scheduled speakers, Safdi said. They also approached four founding lawyers of the Natural Resources Defense Council — YLS graduates, class of 1969, with whom she maintained email contact with and who intends to involve in the process of designing next year’s conference.

“The conference is just one point in a continuing conversation, it’s happening through bringing different school and communities together,” Safdi said.

And, from the positive reaction the planners have received, it looks like the Law School is prepared to make a commitment to maintaining the event, Safdi added.

Douglas Kysar, advisor to the committee and new interim director of the Yale Center for Law and the Environment, said in an email Tuesday night that the conference was filled with energy, creativity and critical engagement.

“One indicator of success is attrition rate, and we actually had more [attendees] in the afternoon,” Safdi said.

From only three board members serving the Yale Environmental Law Association to an event of national proportions in one year, the number of people at YLS thinking about environmental law has exploded in the last few months, Safdi said.

“The conference opened up space to have conversations towards new directions,” Sarah Langberg LAW ’13 said.

Langberg and the other committee members wanted the conference to be an experience, rather than a meeting, they agreed. Spearheaded by Hayley Fink LAW ’13, they even coordinated food with YLS dining services to provide locally sourced food.

Heinzerling, a current Georgetown Law professor, was the first recipient of the New Directions in Environmental Law Award, co-sponsored by the Yale Environmental Law Association and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

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