The Struggle to Keep at it- The Balance between reactive and reflective lawyering and trying to avoid climate fatigue


I was meeting a dear friend and fellow environmental lawyer for coffee after six years; we had continued to work with each other remotely on many things, but we were meeting in person after much had changed. We had visibly aged, but we maintained the same degree of enthusiasm and excitement about all things environmental law. Our conversation began with the politics of practicing environmental law in authoritarian settings like India but most of our conversation ended up being about toxic work cultures in the organizations we worked with and the pressure to be constantly on when working on an issue like climate change and environmental justice.

This blog post I dedicate to the environmental lawyers who feel they are fighting a lonely battle but many times the battle being fought is the one within of overworking, burning out and constantly dealing with climate fatigue. I am no guru of environmental lawyering but an approach that I think may work is finding a balance of reflective and reactive lawyering. Lawyering that is sort of a stepping into being active lawyers and stepping out to becoming passive observers. We need to build teams that enable such flexibility. Without teams the act of solo lawyering in these contexts is a dangerous and almost impossible proposition.

The Stepping in and Stepping Out

It was 2014 and I had found myself leading a small group of young environmental lawyers in India and we were working across four states along side forest-dwelling communities with very different legal struggles. The team though young we often struggled with keeping at it and carrying on- an approach that worked for us since we were based in a design school was taking a step back and reflecting on our lawyering. It might seem like a luxury that as practicing environmental lawyers we were able to take that step back but since our work was niche and focused on engagement with administrative procedures it offered us space for reflection. This space became vital to all of us, a magical pool where we could cool off and rejuvenate. Being located in a design school also pushed us to think outside the box which was another way of stepping back too.

The stepping out became key as we started to critically engage with our stepping in back into the role of lawyers for the communities. We found ways to reimagine how we could practice the law and at least tried to find ways to work with the law in ways that was empowering to the local communities. The dynamism of stepping in and stepping out gave us a unique vantage point but more so than anything it shielded us to an extent from fatigue with these losing battles that environmental lawyers find themselves in.

Shielding from Climate Fatigue: Reimagining Success and the Big Win

The battle for environmental lawyers in the climate context is an uphill one. Despite many recent successes of climate litigation, the problem of enforcement remains. Climate fatigue and fatigue in general is a very real possibility and this is where perhaps redefining what success means becomes important. Success need not be the big court win; it can be a dialogue with the local bureaucracy about climate change or communities finding the energy to keep at it.

The urgency to see legal outcomes and results in terms of climate action may pressurize us for the big wins. These big wins are key but perhaps the way to keep at it and countering climate fatigue is to celebrate those small wins as we pave the path towards that big win. As my dear friend and environmental lawyer shared it is a marathon and not a short sprint, so we need to find ways to recharge, rejuvenate and more importantly get creative!


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