Advocate for the planet

James Thornton, Chief executive, ClientEarth

What if the polar bears were sick of drowning in melting ice and decided it was time to do something about global warming? How could they best confront the bosses of multinationals whose power plants pollute the atmosphere? By hiring a damn good lawyer to fight in the courts for the law to be changed or enforced and for the emissions to be stopped, that's how. And that man would be James Thornton.

This quiet American's work usually involves lobbying and legal argument, but Thornton, the founding chief executive of a new legal charity called ClientEarth, has already scored dramatic victories over polluters and despoilers in the United States and now wants to do the same in Europe. The aim is to help write new laws - but also, crucially, to ensure that governments keep to the ones they have already agreed, often in a blaze of green glory, and then forgotten about or found too hard to implement.

Thornton works from the notion that his client is the earth itself. Most lawyers would swiftly object: the earth has no money. But Thornton is backed by the philanthropists Michael and Winsome McIntosh, heirs to a supermarket fortune, who have been bankrolling challenges to governments for decades. Based in London, ClientEarth recently opened offices in Brussels and Warsaw, too. It makes little fuss: the head office near a London Tube station is hard to identify, and Thornton turns out to be a balding 54-year-old in a grey suit who speaks softly and practises Zen Buddhism.

His first big effort in Britain has been to challenge plans for two new coal-fired power plants at Kingsnorth in Kent, where the Climate Camp was held last summer. "Protest is a good thing," he says, "but the law is a powerful tool to use alongside it." The weapon ClientEarth has chosen is the Strategic Environmental Assessment. The government has a legal duty to carry one out at Kingsnorth, says Thornton, who believes it would expose the "potentially devastating environmental consequences" of allowing a new generation of coal-fired plants to be launched without carbon capture.

ClientEarth's other current projects include challenging France to enforce an existing EU ban on drift-net fishing, while attempting to establish the legal right of European citizens to bring such cases at all.

Born in New York, he was the son of a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. "We grew up practising the Socratic method at the dinner table," he says. After Yale, he worked on Wall Street, then joined the "intriguingly eccentric" National Resources Defence Committee, a group of radical young lawyers recruited by the McIntoshes. Thornton targeted the Clean Water Act, which was ignored by the Reagan administration. Companies were being allowed to get away with not declaring what they were pumping out. "They thought they could violate the heck out of the rivers and seas and get away with it." His team took 60 cases to federal courts in six months and won them all. The government started enforcing the law.

Thornton's next great fight was in California, where he protected 350,000 acres of unspoiled country, armed only with a gnatcatcher. The threat of being sued on behalf of this little bird, if its environment was destroyed, persuaded developers to preserve swaths of coastal land. "The right law, properly used," he says, "can level the playing field."

ClientEarth has already attracted celebrity supporters in the UK: Brian Eno, a patron, put the organisation in contact with the band Coldplay. "Coldplay have something like a million friends through Facebook and so on," says Thornton. "They are going to introduce their friends to membership of ClientEarth. When we bring lawsuits, we will then represent a great many people all over Europe."

The ideal behind all this, for Thornton, is wild law, or earth jurisprudence: that all living things should have rights equivalent to those enjoyed by human beings, to be considered whenever resources are being exploited. Hence the militant bears. "A legal action could be brought on their behalf, as it might be for a child, to prevent damage to their environment."

For now, Thornton must act for Planet Earth by representing humans in court, case by case. He is a patient man who will be ordained a Zen priest this year, after 25 years of practice - but he knows that small shifts in the law can change the world in a very big way.

Cole Moreton is executive editor of the Independent on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times