Planet saver from PMB

2008-04-09 00:00

As a child, Cormac Cullinan spent hours roaming and observing nature in Pietermaritzburg’s Townbush Valley, where he grew up. So it made perfect sense for him to dedicate his internationally acclaimed book, Wild Law — A Manifesto for Earth Justice, to his parents, Chatelaine (a passionate permaculturist) and Brendan, and to “the hills, forests and creatures of Townbush Valley”, all of whom, he says, “instilled in him a love of Earth”.

Cullinan, an environmental attorney now based in Cape Town, has recently been included in a new book, Planet Savers: 301 Extraordinary Environmentalists, as one of 301 people in history to be commended for their important role in saving and conserving the environment and promoting sustainable governance. His name is up there with the likes of Buddha, who promoted the concept of oneness with the Earth, St Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals and ecology, and Henry Thoreau, author of the book Walden, which explores natural simplicity and harmony as models for social and cultural justice.

The book, which was published in London earlier this year, is aimed at galvanising all individuals into greater action towards saving the environment. The book points out that there is an urgent need for environmental leadership and demonstrates how individuals can change the world for the better.

A former anti-apartheid activist and Student’s Representative Council president on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then University of Natal, Cullinan is internationally recognised for his contribution to developing the emerging theory of Earth jurisprudence — a concept which proposes an overhaul of the existing legal system to allow for the planet and all other living creatures to be accorded rights. Earth jurisprudence is aimed at ensuring that legal and governance systems support, rather than undermine, the integrity and health of the Earth.

While most of the world’s legal systems advance the interests and concerns of the human community and provide no real protection to other species, or to the planet itself, Earth jurisprudence proposes a radical relook at approaches to law making, to ensure that the planet and all species have rights, by virtue of their existence as members of a single Earth community.

Theologian, scholar and cultural historian Thomas Berry first conceived of the idea of Earth jurisprudence and, in his book The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, he explains how the world’s legal system holds the key to dealing with the ecological crisis facing the world.

When we meet in his office in Cape Town, Cullinan expresses his delight at having been included in the book.

“I get teased by my friends about being in a compendium which includes Buddha and St Francis of Assisi,” he says.

“But I feel extremely honoured to be included among the ranks of so many of the men and women whom I most admire.”

Cullinan ascribes his love for the environment to his Pietermaritzburg childhood and his endless hours of discovery in the then much wilder Townbush area.

“Growing up there was extremely formative in how I think.”

His early love for nature was also inspired by the books of Gerald Durrell. “He was my childhood hero. I first found one of his books in my father’s office and was completely amazed. I loved Menagerie Manor and My Family and Other Animals.”

After completing his Ll. B. at the University of Natal, Cullinan did a masters in environmental law at King’s College in London.

He practised as an international shipping and commercial lawyer with firms in South Africa, Luxembourg and London, and in 1994 he founded EnAct International Ltd in London, an international environmental law and policy consultancy. Cullinan moved to Cape Town in 1999 and became a director of Winstanley and Cullinan Inc, the first specialist environmental law firm to be established in South Africa. He is also an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town.

Since 2000, Cullinan has worked with representatives from around the world — including the Gaia Foundation in London — to develop an ecocentric approach to law and governance. He published Wild Law in 2003, in which he argues that humans cannot survive except as part of the community of life on Earth. He believes strongly that the world’s environmental and social crisis will only get worse, unless humans are compelled by law to respect the laws of nature and the rights of other members of the Earth community. His ideas are fast taking root in the imaginations of others who recognise the urgency of the environmental crisis facing the world. A Centre for Earth jurisprudence has been set up by universities in Florida and Earth jurisprudence is now taught in law schools in the United Kingdom, Ghana and Ethiopia. Since 2005, the UK Environmental Law Association has held an annual “Wild Law” conference.

Cullinan has worked on environmental governance issues in more than 20 countries in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, South America and South East Asia and his firm is a key player in the development of environmental law and policy in South Africa.

The firm advised the South African Constitutional Assembly on the formulation of the environmental rights in the Bill of Rights. It was also involved in significant environmental litigation, including the successful application for access to information on behalf of Biowatch SA and others.

The firm also acted as lead consultants and drafters of a range of new environmental laws in South Africa and other African countries.

Cullinan is a sought-after lecturer and trainer, and has trained government officials in a number of countries on environmental law and governance issues.

When he is not working, he loves to walk on Muizenberg beach and takes every opportunity to enjoy nature. He loves the trails of Umfolosi and observing turtles laying eggs at Kosi Bay. He thrives on gardening and is committed to maintaining a “green” home.

The environmental issues which preoccupy him the most are climate change — “but there is a great danger of seeing climate change in isolation” — the challenges facing fresh water supplies and the destruction of the world’s bio-diversity.

As Cullinan says in the preface to his book: “The truth is that the dominant civilisations on the planet are behaving in a way that is leading our children and us into a bleak, unsustainable future that most of us do not want. It is a future that involves the casual destruction of ancient human cultures and biological communities, and the extinction of a shocking number of living things.”

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