Earth Day 2000 with John Bonine

The Environment News Service interviewed one of ELAW's founders, John Bonine, for its Earth Day 30th Anniversary Newsmaker Series.

Earth Day 2000 with John Bonine: "Time for a Youth Revolution"
Environment News Service

EUGENE, Oregon, April 20, 2000 -- International in his outlook, cofounder of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) John Bonine is now a University of Oregon environmental law professor. He was overseas in the U.S. Army on the first Earth Day 30 years ago.

"On the very first Earth Day," he told ENS, "I was in the Republic of Korea in the U.S. Army, but I had prepared for it. I had been aware of it because a lot of the events leading up to Earth Day were actually started a year earlier," Bonine explained.

The year before the first Earth Day, Bonine was completing his final courses at Yale Law School. "I had read a lot of materials about Earth Day when I was in law school. I graduated in 1969, then I went into the Army and went over to Korea. On that very day, I was probably wiretapping somebody, it was part of my job."

"This year I'll be right here in Eugene, Oregon, which the "Wall Street Journal" once called the last refuge of the terminally hip. But we still consider it to be the beginning of the new millenium and the center of environmental progressive action in the United States, if not in the world."

In the intervening 30 years, Bonine worked as an attorney in the U.S. Senate, and served six years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ultimately as associate general counsel. He was admitted to the California bar in 1970 and to the Oregon bar in 1977.

Once he was teaching law at the University of Oregon, Bonine started the Land, Air, Water conference which has become the premier annual conference of public interest environmental lawyers. Always held early in March, it now attracts thousands of environmental lawyers and activists from across the U.S. and around the world.

"Back in 1983, 17 years ago," Bonine recalls, "two of us law professors and several students got to talking about how to give students a realistic pathway to pursuing a public interest law career. At the same time we were thinking about how to link environmental lawyers and other lawyers to the grassroots. So we decided to create our own conference - one-third students, one-third lawyers, one-third activists. The activists could keep the lawyers honest, the students could look for jobs with the lawyers."

The first year the conference had 15 speakers and and 75 participants. This year over 200 speakers and 3,000 participants attended, Bonine said.

"It has been emulated by the all-Asia public interest law conference, by the Australia public interest environmental law conference, and by the Central and Eastern European environmental law meetings that have occurred for six years now. And this summer we`ll have the first alll-Africa public interest environmental law conference."

Bonine has inspired many public interest environmental lawyers around the world to share their problems and their expertise through the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW). Now encompassing lawyers in 50 countries, ELAW grew spontaneously out of the 1989 Land, Air, Water conference. "1989 was the first year in which the participants coming to this conference came from a lot of international locations. We were all meeting after the conference, and we started saying we can help each other. We were working on similar cases, fighting some of the same timber companies around the world, and we decided to share information," he said.

People from nine different countries met and decided to create an international network for public interest environmental lawyers. "It's a network that basically helps de-isolate environmental lawyers. We're like a multi-national environmental law firm. What it means that anybody in the ELAW network can draw upon some of the best expert resources in the world. Those are other people who are doing the same thing as they are - grassroots lawsuits - but in another country. It's been tremendously successful."

As to whether Earth Day has had anything to do with the rise of environmental consciousness in the 30 years since 1970, Bonine says it certainly did at the beginning, but that may have changed.

"It's not clear to me that it still has that kind of impact, and I think part of the reason is, at the beginning it was swimming upstream, it was news, it was contrary to the way things were going in this country. But in a way, Earth Day is a victim of its own success."

"Now there is so much environmentalism that Earth Day has to compete with other events and activities," he said. "I don't think that's sad. I think that's terrific. We should be happy when some concepts become so familiar that they become boring."

"We have become complacent," Bonine warned. "I think it's important, particularly for the young generation, to question Earth Day. Is it enough? Is it the right thing? Is it in the right place? And why aren't the older generation doing more on Earth Day? I think it's time to have a kind of youth revolution about Earth Day becoming too passe. I think they need to sort of kick us in the butt to get back out in the streets and not just be in our offices on Earth Day."

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