Sunday book review – Client Earth by James Thornton and Martin Goodman

Some of my best friends over the years have been lawyers – although, come to think of it, not that many – but I have always had a mistrust of the role of the courts in conservation and environmental matters. But over the last few years, in a time when government has no intention of doing good, then I’ve thought that we should use the courts a lot more.

This book, written by the lawyer founder of the public interest law firm Client Earth (Thornton), and an author (Goodman), makes a strong case for the use of the law in protecting the planet.

The foreword by Brian Eno is an eye-opener in itself: well-written, well-argued and inspirational.

Client Earth, the law firm, has had success in recent months over air quality, or distinct and dangerous lack of quality, in the English courts.  Some of that story is told in Chapter 5 – An Air that Kills.

The case is made here, that the law is what holds human society together, not good will, or our wish to work together, or care for each other, but a set of rules that protect us all from us all.  And the authors argue that the environmental health of our air, land and water needs the same sort of approach, and that’s why the book, and the law firm, are called Client Earth.

Let’s just imagine that we continue to have the same ecologically destructive and uncaring bunch of politicians in Westminster after 8 June as we have had since 2010, and with an even bigger majority – our wildlife NGOs are going to look even more irrelevant than they do at the moment. Wildlife NGOs are still appealing to the common sense and better nature of our government to halt environmental degradation and destruction and it just hasn’t worked.  We will need tough bright people to take on the government when it fails, as it will, to do what it should. Maybe we should close down the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, and a bunch of others, for the next five years and put the resources saved into legal action?  Perhaps we should go back to 1970, and the phrase of another US lawyer and environmentalist, Victor Yannacone, and ‘Sue the Bastards!’.

The law is a strange land – my experience of it has been that a lot of what happens there makes sense but some of it doesn’t at all.  And hiring lawyers is expensive and uncomfortable for normal people. Not only does it seem to cost an arm and a leg, but you also seem to do most of the work while the lawyers make ridiculous demands on your time (when you are paying them!).  My much-preferred route to save nature is through popular will, through a movement of like-minded people expressing their will and changing the system, but in these times, we may need to pay the equivalent of skilled hit-men to win battles for us.

This book is different from any I’ve read and was thus very stimulating. It is a good read and the messages are put across with true stories that are well told. I recommend it as a thoughtful read.  And it may be that it carries messages that are particularly pertinent to our times and our predicament.


Client Earth by James Thornton and Martin Goodman is published by Scribe.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review and it’s now out in paperback.

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive

Get email notifications of new blog posts

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

6 Replies to “Sunday book review – Client Earth by James Thornton and Martin Goodman”

  1. This raises an interesting question. What is the most effective (cost-effective?) way of achieving nature conservation goals?

    Through the law, lobbying, land acquisition, education, campaigning, communication, research, etc? And, assuming we need a combination of most/all of these, should conservation bodies be specialists or generalists? If the latter, resources are thinly spread, focus can be lost and energy consumed by internal politics. If the former, can we get different specialists to collaborate effectively when needed.

    Answers on a post card...

    1. Except in the most general sense of 'protect and maintain as much biodiversity as possible' conservation goals are specific, diverse and operate at many different scales: manage the water levels in this marsh to maximize breeding success of x; fight this local proposal to build houses on a site of nature conservation importance; campaign to stop widespread persecution of raptors; campaign for changes in farming systems to promote more wildlife amongst the crops; campaign against global issues such as rain forest destruction, climate change, etc. It seems evident from this that there can be no single effective method for achieving nature conservation. Inevitably we need to have people with all sorts of different skills for this from practical, hands-on reserve managers through to lobbyists, lawyers, researchers and so on.
      Most conservation organisations including RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, WWT, WWF etc clearly hold the view that in order to be effective they need to employ people across a wide range of expertise and this seems to make sense to me and seems, broadly to work. That's not to say that there is not room for small specialist groups to contribute effectively to achieving certain objectives - but it seems to me that if large bodies such as the RSPB were to splinter into separate organisations each with its own specialized skills then their overall effectiveness would fall.

  2. Clearly what exists at the moment is, with respect, failing?

    Inevitable when it's up against and involves megabucks and advocates for industrialisation of the natural environment for private profit promoted by political agendas and a mainstream media in league with 'development'?

    But, critical mass of community grassroots conservation can raise the issues by social media? Look at what some recent crowdfunding appeals have achieved? BAWC (raptor tagging), Andy Wightman (libel case against a company) etc.?

    Should the RSPB & WTs support local grassroots activists (acting as infrastructure support to reach greater audiences and drive change)?

    Engagement, education (broadest sense) and importantly empowerment will drive change not simply a well known logo or brand who are now to some extent weakened through legislative 'gagging'?

  3. Mmm but what do they stand for Jonathan? Sure, our many nature reserves are well run and fine tuned to the needs of migrating waders and rare plants /invertebrates etc but away from these unprotected places, it's a battle to survive. Much has been written about the leanings of our bigger wildlife organisations and the "difficult" choices they have to make. The RSPB of which I am a member is never going to be a world changer with that R at the beginning. Until they support the wildlife unconditionally they are by default supporting the status quo which itself is in denial about the slow death of all our wildlife. Maybe it is time for thinking outside the box. Doing just enough is no longer an option. Things are bad now. We already have ministers that are pro fracking, shooting and fox hunting and deeply cynical about all "green" issues. Money seems to be the only thing they care about so lets start by taking the legal route when they break the law - which they do, continually

  4. Horses for courses, I'd say. The conservation community would never have seen off the Dibden Bay proposal without recourse to legalistic arguments at a Public Inquiry. We'd never have seen such a dramatic cirl bunting recovery without the hard work of RSPB advisors and farmers collaborating. Although we're legally obliged to consider beaver re-introductions, they'll not make a lasting comeback without wide consensus among stakeholders. And I can't see hen harrier brood abduction providing the stimulus to end vindictive raptor persecution. So, we need a variety of approaches. What does concern me is how easily it appears to be to corrupt the legal system in the UK: I can't see how recent events surrounding failure to pursue raptors killings despite video footage as anything other that blatant corruption.

  5. Would it be legally possible, given its charity status, for the RSPB to set up a ring-fenced 'fighting fund' to enable it to pursue private prosecutions against wildlife crimes without dipping into regular funds? This would allow members and supporters to donate specifically for such actions if they wished. I would cheerfully contribute to such a fund, over and above my normal membership subs.


Comments are closed.