Law in Contemporary Society
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Lawyering in a Pre-Apocalypse Toxic Wasteland

-- By StarGulant - 28 Feb 2020

The Silent Spring

I read Silent Spring for the first time my sophomore year of high school. Its opening narrative still haunts me all these years later. The concept of the silent spring; no birds, animals, no life. The ecological time of rebirth, stillborn. Just silence. And the people had done it to themselves. Humanity had become so good at distilling the exact chemical formulation for killing that we had poisoned ourselves with it inadvertently. That concept, death by humanity’s own hand, lodged into my mind like a grain of sand in an oyster. It remained through the rest of high school, through college, through a few years as a small cog in the Big Law machine. Reflecting on humanity’s actions felt like looking in a funhouse mirror.

How could we let that happen? ‘To feed our country!’ But people were dying (and still are) and we are killing ourselves for a full stomach. I am removed by time from breathing DDT, but we are not safe. In Rachel Carson’s day, planes flew overhead, spraying DDT from sea to shining sea. The people, the animals, and all life breathed it in, and were poisoned. Today, we frack, pump, drill, mine, and manufacture our way down the same path, and are barreling toward irreversible climate change, which will only make matters worse.

But humanity does not distribute its poisons equally. Poor communities and communities of color are forced to live in the warpath of the waste products of our society. There’s a place in Louisiana called ‘Cancer Alley,’ predominantly inhabited by descendants of enslaved people and petrochemical facilities. People in Flint drank water tainted with lead, children in Love Canal were sent to elementary school on a toxic dump. We continue forward, slashing superfund and brownfield clean up budgets with a flick of the Trumpian wrist, Americans walking themselves to the slaughter. But just as with DDT, even the rich are not safe from pollutants. Every single borough of New York City received an F in Air Quality from the American Lung Association, across every neighborhood, rich or poor. And climate change is projected to make matters much worse.

Presence and Absence

I ask myself over and over; how can this be happening? Or how could we(1) let this happen? And how can I continue to be a part of it? The more I learn, the more I appreciate how doomed we are, and how the myopic Western view of the world seeks to hide the monstrous toxicity it creates. I imagine myself, as the horrors of climate change unfurl around us, in that scene at the end of the original Planet of the Apes: I’m Taylor, on the beach, screaming ‘damn you all to hell!’ But of course, I am a part of the you all, just as he was in some way. I sit in class and exist in our society while the people who run and enable corporations temporarily line their pockets with money they can’t take with them, at the expense of the Earth, all of us going together to the gallows.

I feel both present and absent in our society. Present in the sense that I am here, I eat meat, I consume factory farmed products, I buy gadgets containing metals mined at the expense of human life, I benefit from the current structure. Absent in the sense that while I can’t remove myself from it, the blindness of the Dionysian state is over; I can see that I’m ripping Pentheus apart, but I’m powerless to stop myself. Arthur Leff might suggest we’ve swindled and sold this situation to ourselves, but I can’t reconcile why. But I’ve realized I don’t need to.

What’s the Point?

In an abstract sense, I am in law school because it provides an arena to ask these questions in a consequential way, and to pursue a career where I can continue to ask these questions forever. I may never find a satisfactory or palatable answer, but I can live with myself if I can continue to ask the questions. Rachel Carson was met with naysayers and opposition from agriculture lobbyists and fellow scientists alike, but she was able to start a revolution of awareness that resulted in the creation of the EPA. She may not have eradicated the American attachment to biocides, but we’re in a better place because she tried.

The laws of our country are the engine behind the way things happen in society; many of the most horrific acts of pollution were perfectly legal. To be a lawyer then, to me, entails harnessing that power and using it to address the evils I see around me. I often mentally run up against the massive monolith of climate change, and the David and Goliath-like task of taking on lobbyists and corporations. I sometimes feel small and powerless, and know that it’s already too late to reverse course and preserve the world as we know it. But I must keep asking, and will keep trying, and a J.D. from Columbia will put me in a better position to advocate for a cleaner world than pretty much anywhere else in the country.

Fighting for clean air, water, and a clean environment is the only way for me to stomach the absence feeling I live with. Because I find the American conception of awarding dollar damages for intangible harms inherently repugnant (the courts pretending as if radiation poisoning comes with a dollar valuation) I will use my J.D. and my career to make sound and progressive environmental policy. I hope we can find a way to stop doing this to ourselves, but the best I can do is try.

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r1 - 28 Feb 2020 - 02:36:48 - StarGulant
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