Natasha Affolder

Long before she was an academic, UBC Law faculty member Associate Professsor Natasha Affolder was actively advocating for the importance of environmental issues. Now, as a leading scholar in the field of the environment and the law, she talks about current trends in environmentalism and what concepts as diverse as transnationalism, human rights and behaviourial psychology have to do with environmental law. 


What are you working on at the moment?

I’m in the middle of a book project that I’m very excited about. It’s an unorthodox view of environmental law.

The dominant narratives about environmental law tend to fixate on what governments should do. There’s a singular focus on the courts, statutes, and regulations. But there is a lot happening beyond those arenas that is highly significant – many actions that are dynamic and progressive on the ground are not being captured in scholarly works. This book relies on empirical research – including lots of interviews – to capture what NGOs, communities and companies are doing that uses the law to shape environmental protection in ways that go beyond the courts and government.

An example might be an NGO that bids against a forestry company to get the rights to a forest concession. When they win, instead of cutting the forest down, they hold the land for conservation. They are using the same laws as the forestry companies, with the same contractual obligations, but using them for different ends. There are many stories like these, and I think it’s important that they become part of the body of scholarship about these issues.

You also have an interest in human rights. How is environmentalism linked to human rights?

Some approaches to environmentalism have traditionally ignored people and focussed solely on the natural world. This can be counter-productive and risks alienating the people who also must live in that environment. I don’t think we can have one conversation about the rights of humans and another separate conversation about ecosystemic integrity. I’m interested in the contested and complicated world of taking action to protect nature that also takes into account the humans who live in those environments.   

What is the single biggest issue in your field at the moment, in your opinion?

A significant issue whether you are combatting climate change or addressing biodiversity destruction is thinking about the 'who' of environmental law — who needs to get on board for change to occur. There is a body of scholarship that is emerging at the moment on individual responsibility for the environment. I find this work both fascinating and motivating. There is often a knee jerk reaction in environmental law – blame the government, blame the corporations, blame the courts, blame other countries and what they are doing or not doing, blame other people’s consumption. We’re much more likely to blame the company that mines the metals used in a computer than to consider the person who chooses to buy it. But the field of behaviourial psychology is giving us the language to think about theories of individual responsibility. I find them fascinating because they don’t let anyone off the hook in terms of changing behaviour.

What does individual responsibility look like?

It starts with thinking that takes ecological integrity seriously, and takes into account the global repercussions of the way we live.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching transnational law in first year is that it gives students a way to develop this globally integrated thinking that doesn’t just see every legal issue as terminating in Canada. Even now, only a handful of law schools teach transnational law as a required course, even though so many legal issues cross national boundaries. Environmental problems rarely respect jurisdictional borders. It's great to see students grappling with ways that law can better integrate this reality.

What’s your favourite part about your research?

I love doing this work at a large research university like UBC. I have many opportunities not only to talk to lawyers and legal professionals, but also to biologists, social scientists, or statisticians. There’s some mind-blowing research going on across campus, and there’s enormous richness in talking to, say a physicist, and then coming back to your research the next day from a whole different angle. I find it really exciting.

What do you think you will see in the next ten years in the area of environmental law?

Well, when I did my doctorate, environmental law was still seen in a number of places as a nascent field. At the university where I studied, it wasn't a recognized academic subject at that time. Now the academic field has changed and people from a wide range of backgrounds are working in the field. The next ten years will give us the addition of a whole new generation of environmental law scholars who will take the field in a new direction. Terrific students are highly attracted to environmental law and this is very reassuring for the future development of the field.

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