by Mark Shulman

Lately I’ve started to give more thought to how different societies define environmental law.  That’s not as simple a question as it might seem. Learning more about how societies define this key field can tell you much about their environmental priorities, perceptions about the proper role of law for ordering their society, and the vibrancy of their civil sectors.

Last week I attended a fascinating program on the “Environment, Health and Activism in China” at the Council on Foreign Relations.  As I listened to the conversation, I was struck by how widely definitions of environmental law vary from country to country.  I recalled that some of my friends in Brazil wrap together consumer protection and the field of environmental law.  From what I was hearing at the Council, it appears that Chinese environmental lawyers focus mostly on clean air, clean water and energy.  Fair enough; these are enormous and pressing concerns because of the nation’s rapid industrial development.  Despite the important early efforts of Liang Congjie who passed away last month, they do not pay as much attention as some to such issues as land use, conservation, preservation or animal law – to name a few fields that Americans usually include within its scope.

Also, the field of environmental law is seen by some as an indicator of the vibrancy of Chinese civil society.  As I noted in a recent report issued by the New York City Bar, movements to advance political and civil rights face a number of important obstacles posed by the Party and the state.  In contrast, environmentalists in China face different and sometimes less daunting obstacles.  Their issues are not necessarily labeled “sensitive.”  So observations about the state of the environmental law movement may give you insights into the ability of civil society to come together and voice important concerns.

In my future blog postings, I expect to continue exploring the question of how and why different societies define environmental law in different ways.