The Colgate Scene
September 1999
Table of contents
One lawyer's quest
Global adventures in eco-policy
by Christopher Theriot '90

Paul Kibel
Paul Kibel asked a question when he signed my copy of his new book, The Earth on Trial: Environmental Law on the International Stage. "Did you ever try to actually define the term `policy'? Best I could come up with is: where government and the real world collide. Seems odd to call this a career, but so be it. Hope you enjoy my efforts."

     In fact, I liked his book so much that I offered to write a story about this 1989 graduate. Kibel begins The Earth on Trial in America's backyard with a chapter titled "City Limits: Urban Ecology and Economic Just-ice." Then he leads us on a policy adventure passing through Canada, India, Vietnam, Russia and into the tangles of international law. His penetrating reviews of environmental quagmires form a coherent and alarming story that kept me turning page after page.

A busy man indeed
As a lawyer, teacher and writer, Kibel is a busy man indeed. During the day he works as an environmental lawyer at the Oakland, CA, firm of Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley. Last year, while working at Fitzgerald, Paul earned an advanced LLM law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley. He also found time to teach an urban policy class at Stanford and served as adjunct faculty editor for a special environmental edition of the Golden Gate University Law Review. His writing is the glue that bonds these pursuits, and it is the force driving his career.

     On the family side, Paul and his wife Karen, whom he met at law school in Oregon, share their home with an extraordinarily single-minded Australian blue heeler named Coltrane. Three years ago he jumped out of Paul's car as it sped through a highway tunnel, and a year later the hardy dog met an oncoming vehicle broadside. Paul says the vet bills are still too painful to discuss, but that Coltrane is finally car-trained! The dog, named after jazz artist John Coltrane, speaks to Paul's musical interests, a passion that dates back to his days as a WRCU disc jockey.

Plain-talking word-slinger
What I like about Paul's writing is its directness. Unlike some lawyers and scholars who write in complex, almost tortured, prose, Kibel's purpose is to reclaim a more public language and to place law firmly within the context of ecology. He makes this objective clear in the introduction when he states, "Don't say `intensive timber harvesting' when you mean `forest destruction.' Don't say `lawful taking' of animals when you mean `killing.' Don't say "resettlement project" when you mean `gunpoint eviction.' Don't say 'adversely impacted' when you mean `poisoned.'"

     The Earth on Trial evolved out of a compilation of articles that Kibel wrote as a staff lawyer at the Pacific Environment and Resources Center, a think tank in Marin County, CA. He credits his editor at Routledge with crafting the parts into a whole.

     "Like sausage-making, the actual creation of a book is not a pretty process," added Kibel. Today, several college courses use his text and book sales are growing steadily.

     In chapter four, "Words to Choke On," Kibel highlights two free speech lawsuits that ended with opposite decisions. In the first instance, California industry groups argued that their First Amendment rights for free speech were being violated by the Green Seal law, which regulates environmental advertising claims. Without the Green Seal approval, companies wanting to advertise environmental messages like "dolphin friendly" or "recycled" were prohibited. In this case, the courts upheld the Green Seal law and industry was forced to conform to the advertising guidelines. However, in his second example, a libel case in England, the McDonald's corporation won a case against two environmentalists who criticized the company's environmental policies and claims about the nutritional value of its food. In short, the multi-national convinced a London court that a corporate definition of environmentally responsible behavior can serve as a legal standard. Both of these cases highlight the increasingly important and complex intersection of free speech and environmental policy.

     In chapter seven, "Ecology after the USSR," Paul shows us how Russia is struggling to introduce the most basic environmental laws, let alone deal with the nuances of free speech. In Siberia, a territory the size of the continental U.S., the forests are being stripped by a quasi-criminal natural resources syndicate that people call the "timber mafia." Siberia's disappearing forests are estimated to remove as much as 40 tons of carbon from the atmosphere and help to maintain the world's climate. They also protect many endangered species like the Siberian tiger and the Far Eastern leopard.

     In 1995, Kibel traveled to Siberia with an American Bar Association panel to conduct workshops on natural resource law. "Bringing environmental law to Russia is like practicing physics where there is no gravity. There is no democratic process, no independent judiciary and the laws they do have are not practiced," commented Kibel. He believes environmental reforms will someday take hold, but worries that they may come too late to preserve the resources of the world's biggest forest.


During an American Bar Association trip to Russia, Kibel was part of a delegation that toured Siberia. [Zoom]
The making of a career
Just as the author helps his readers understand environmental issues, publishing the book has helped Kibel understand his role in environmental policy as a lawyer and writer. At the law firm, he continues to gain experience representing public agencies in environmental and natural resource cases, working on all aspects of litigation, including mediation. As a writer, Kibel turns the case into a larger story; he seems especially fond of the strangeness that defines the environmental realm.

     In a recent e-mail, he described an intriguing case involving a utility company that operated a coal gasification plant in the late 1800s. It appears that the company buried pits of a substance called "lamp-black" all over their property without telling anyone about the concealed pits until 1986.

     Kibel the writer comments, "Lampblack . . . a substance of pure toxicity, whose very name sounds like liquid death . . . its all very Dickensian, like something out of Bleak House, a particularly Victorian type of evil . . . `Poor Ole Man Toxwick, looks like the lampblack's in his blood, and he is headed for the grave.'"

     But then Kibel the lawyer emerges, "Don't get me wrong, my primary motivation is to force this company to pay for the cleanup of the horrible toxic cesspool they created and then hid. But I have to admit that part of what also makes the case exciting to work on is the Dickensian underbelly of the litigation and my chance to exact some historical justice.

Legal reforms for the future
In the introduction of his book, Kibel makes a prophetic point. "Nature has its own methods of showing us its teeth, of letting us know when we have transgressed limits. The very land, air and water on which we rely begins to turn stale and toxic. The sum of our transgressions push ecosystems and species beyond the threshold of adaptation, and they begin to die and disappear. This sterility, toxicity and extinction, in turn, degrades not only our natural environment, but our economic prospects. It is because of nature's sharp teeth that we must create laws and institutions with sharp teeth of their own."

     Ultimately The Earth on Trial argues that individuals, corporations and nations have fundamental responsibilities to the larger global community, to future generations, and to the species with whom we share the earth. Paul Kibel says that while the lessons of ecology, economics and diplomacy are slowly being realized, the process of achieving global legal agreements must be strengthened and accelerated. Until viable laws are in place, one wonders how the earth can be brought off trial.

     It suggests a title for a possible Kibel sequel: Bringing the Earth off Trial. Indeed, here lies the challenge for the next millennium.

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