In Conversation: James Thornton

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In Conversation: James Thornton

“Much discussion of the environment has a negative focus. People often feel disempowered, that there is little they can do. We use law as a tool to mend the relationship between human societies and the Earth. We work in Europe and beyond, bringing together law, science and policy to create practical solutions to key environmental challenges.”

James Thornton, an environmental lawyer and social entrepreneur, is the founding CEO of ClientEarth. A member of the Bar of the Supreme Court and a solicitor of England and Wales, he moved from a Wall Street law practice to found the Citizens’ Enforcement Project at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York, where he brought some 80 federal lawsuits against corporations to enforce the Clean Water Act after the Reagan Administration had stopped enforcing the law. He won these cases, embarrassing the government into restarting environmental enforcement.

In 2007 Thornton founded ClientEarth, Europe’s first public interest environmental law organization. Combining research, litigation, and advocacy, he has had remarkable successes globally in increasing the enforcement of environmental laws, especially in the areas of biodiversity loss, climate change, and toxic chemicals. He and his husband Martin Goodman tell the story in their 2017 book, Earth Client.

In this wide-ranging discussion, James describes the core motivations of his life’s work. The role of his Buddhist beliefs and practices becomes increasingly clear as the motivation and guide for his projects around the globe. We use the concept of ecological civilization as the point of orientation as we explore the current global crisis and the most effective ways to respond to it.


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