Bern Johnson, head of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m executive director of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.
What does your organization do?
ELAW helps grassroots lawyers around the world protect human rights and the environment. We’re working with partners in 70 countries and helping them challenge environmental abuses, enforce environmental laws, give communities a voice about the environment, and chart a greener future.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re helping partners in China enforce environmental laws, helping partners in Liberia challenge a polluting Firestone factory, helping partners in the Caribbean protect the Mesoamerican Reef, and helping partners in the Philippines combat air pollution. We’re also taking on climate damage. It’s a big planet, and we are keeping busy.
How do you get to work?
I walk my two daughters to school, then ride my bike.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Growing up in Oregon, I loved free-flowing rivers and thought damming them was wrong. When my mother asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered: “A dam buster!”
Timber money ruled Oregon, and I learned early that we need to fight to protect the environment. I worked for U.S. Congress member Jim Weaver, a staunch environmental advocate. I learned that most people want to protect the environment, but those who want to exploit the environment have more money, more lobbyists, and more lawyers.
In an effort to level the playing field, I headed for Harvard Law School. I was president of the Environmental Law Society, graduated cum laude, then headed back West. I learned about a new organization that would work with lawyers in their home countries around the world to help them protect human rights and the environment. I became the first staff attorney at ELAW in 1991.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Eugene, Ore., traveled east for school, worked in D.C. and Seattle, then settled back in Eugene. It’s a great place to raise a family.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
The people I work with around the world can pay a high price for challenging environmental abuses. Right now, a partner in Ethiopia is facing false charges that could bring the death penalty. When I hear about jailed partners, that makes a really bad day.
What’s been the best?
We recently helped children in Argentina get clean drinking water, helped protect ancient trees in Chile, helped fight off oil companies eyeing Costa Rica, helped a Malaysian community get relief from a polluting latex factory, and helped Liberia save its forests for future generations. These victories keep me going.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Hands down: President Bush rejecting the Kyoto Protocol.
Who is your environmental hero?
M.C. Mehta of India, a good friend and Goldman Prize winner. M.C. is a tremendous lawyer who has won sweeping victories for the environment and human rights.
What’s your environmental vice?
I own too many fly rods. But most of them were gifts!
How do you spend your free time?
Running rivers, camping, growing vegetables, fly-fishing, and helping my wife Hillary chase our two daughters.
Read any good books lately?
I just read The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq, by John Crawford. It offers depressing insight into the disaster that is our war in Iraq.
What’s your favorite meal?
Organic vegetables from my garden with a fried egg from our family chicken, Mary.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I enjoy reading Grist!
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Rivers of the western slope of the Cascades.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A carbon tax, with the money used to find sustainable energy solutions.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t watch much TV, except for the Tour de France. My favorite movie is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Visit our website to learn more about how you can help ELAW empower grassroots advocates in their home countries to build healthy communities and protect the planet.