Olivier Jarda, McGill University's Law Student and Environmental Activist With Degrees in International Relations, Political Science and Economics

Olivier Jarda,
McGill University’s Law Student
and Environmental Activist
With Degrees in International Relations, Political Science and Economics

Olivier Jarda is a third-year BCL/LLB student at McGill University’s Faculty of Law and an activist passionate about the environment. Olivier shared his experience in Environmental Law with Alex, Kristen (our new team member), and Anastasia over a brunch last November. The refreshing conversation inspired all of us to re-evaluate our relationship with our habitat and encouraged us to successfully complete the final projects of the hectic semester…


Olivier, is there a reason you are vegetarian? Is it a choice or a statement?

Oh, it’s definitively a choice and it’s definitively a statement. I don’t want to ram it down anybody’s throat, but I just like to lead by example, and I don’t think that meat is necessary for my diet. I’m a very healthy individual without meat. If anything, it forced me to diversify my diet and I think my health has improved because of it. My first attempt to stop eating meat was when I was nineteen or twenty. And it was a complete failure. At the time, I just didn’t have a great reason other than this gut feeling that I shouldn’t be eating animals. For some people that’s enough to actually change their behaviour but for me that wasn’t enough, so I tried a few other times. And the time when it actually stuck was after watching the movie called “Earthlings”, which is not an easy movie to watch. It’s about factory farming in the United States. And I just could not… My conscience would be too heavy, knowing what’s going on in those farms, and still investing in those farms, not just eating their product but actually investing in and propagating the experiment. So, that was the main reason. Environmental reasons would be number two: reducing my greenhouse gas emissions.


What about the claims that, if we all convert into vegetarians today, yes, we can significantly reduce the carbon emissions, but we may still underestimate the socio- and agro-economic impacts? What happens to the farmers who are growing the cattle? Who is going to retrain them? What is going to happen with the cattle that we have right now?

Yes, but I don’t really buy those arguments. I think those are very short-term arguments. The Internet didn’t exist fifty years ago. A lot of retraining had to happen. Maybe someone could have argued at that time, “No, we can’t have the Internet because it’s going to be too expensive to shift our profit models”. But that change happened and we’ve benefited from that change. The benefits far outweighed the costs. I mean having access to that much information for tiny amounts of money is huge. So, if we were to make any conscious effort towards reducing the consumption of meat drastically, number one, it would not happen overnight; and number two, some of those skills are transferable. If you can’t raise cattle, maybe you can grow other things. I think there are definitively ways around that and we can’t lose the sight of the bigger picture because we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So the short-term costs of the effects on those farmers and those communities will be greatly outweighed by the benefits of investing in a liveable planet.


How did you decide to go into Law, Environmental Law to be specific?

It was a very circuitous route and I would call Law School my plan C or D, if not E… I did an Undergrad in Political Science and Economics at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Directly after that, I did a two-year Master’s in International Relations (IR) abroad, at the University of Oxford. At the time, many of my friends’ career path was: IR, Law School, practice for a few years, politics… That looked like my career path as well, but I decided to “rebel”. I’m not sure if this is why I was “rebelling”, but I think, to many, Law School represents the status quo, it’s the gatekeeper of the law in many ways… And I wanted to upend the law. I wanted to revolutionize it, think about it differently… I was interested in looking at how other disciplines see the law. How do economists see the law? How do political scientists, philosophers, sociologists, etc. see the law? So I felt that going to Law School would poison my mind in some ways. Following my Master’s, I decided no, I’m going to go to Washington DC and I’m going to work on policy. I got a job there that was focusing on climate change, carbon credits and carbon-trading schemes… We spent a lot of our time lobbying the US government, lobbying Congress, lobbying Senators on specific pieces of legislation that we wanted to push through.


That must have been fun…

Well, it was very frustrating. Because you show up every day and nothing changes; Congress is gridlocked… The political environment around the environment was very poisonous at the time. It’s maybe a bit less poisonous now, but, even if you look at how the Obama administration is pushing through climate policy, it’s all Executive action. It’s not going through Congress. Congress is still pretty much gridlocked on the matter. A lot of action is happening at the state level. But, I was not really focusing on the state level as much as federal and it was very frustrating… I spent about a year doing that. But it kind of opened my eyes to the main environmental issues that are affecting the United States right now. And I think a lot of that can also be extrapolated to the Canadian context. Canada has an insane amount of natural resources. We have a responsibility to manage those resources wisely. And, perhaps, because of the propaganda that I was taught at a young age in the Canadian education system, I still see Canada as a leader and as a moral force to some extent, on some issues. When I was younger I thought that the environment was one of those issues among others, like peacekeeping, universal health care and other social services.


Why do we assign so much responsibility for the environment to humans as opposed to animals? Why do we think humans are in charge of the environment?

I think we have more agency than animals. And I think that agency and responsibility are intrinsically connected. We are the ones destroying this planet. We are the ones who are actually causing the damage. The animals that are causing damage do so because we have domesticated them to do so.


Do you think that we are actually capable of controlling the environment in a responsible way? Because it seems like people just don’t know what they are doing oftentimes…

You used the word control… Some scientists are looking into ways that we can engineer our environment so that, yes, we can, in effect, control it. Now, that’s where we don’t really know exactly what we are doing and the science is very limited on that. However, we are good at managing. We can manage the way we extract resources. We can manage the way we pollute. We can manage the way we recycle. And so I think those are the things that are well within our preserve as “dumb humans”.


So there are things that we can actually do…

Yes. And I’d like to focus on the “dumb” part. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that there is this humility that I think is also necessary when we think about our relationship with the environment, that I don’t really see coming out in the political arena. In Canada, I think the political norm is to look at the environment as a good. I mean some politicians will say that it’s a public good. And some politicians will say it’s a private good and that’s the way that we manage it. But, that is the problem. It always seems to be a good to be consumed, either now or later, and I think that’s very poisonous. So, I see the environment more as a symbiotic, living, breathing organism that we are intrinsically tied to, that is us. So we are the environment. If you want to see yourself as a good then… it’s a slippery slope.


This summer you had an internship with Ecojustice.

That’s right. Ecojustice is a Canadian charity. They have a team of lawyers as well as a team of scientists who get together to figure out which pressing issues there are in Canada in terms of environmental law and environmental law enforcement and they take on cases that can set a new precedent… For example, they’ll sue the government if it does not follow the laws… Ecojustice also provides some legal information to the public. So, in a way, they are not just fighting legally, but also fighting in terms of educating Canadians.


You say, fighting… Is there resistance? Are there any obstacles on Canadian soil?

Yes, there is resistance. There has been political resistance. The Harper government is cracking down on charities through the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA). It hasn’t cracked down on Ecojustice, but did crack down on other environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). When the CRA comes knocking at your door, asking about your political activity, and threatening you with a costly audit, it is not very good for the civil society. Some people think that it’s a heavy-handed way for the government to try to put the environmental NGOs “in their place”… Ecojustice, I’d say, is very conservative compared to some other NGOs. Ecojustice doesn’t spend much of their money on lobbying government. Instead, Ecojustice is going to court; it’s an adversarial process, so, that’s another form of resistance, but it’s not political resistance as much. Nevertheless, it’s the way that they are influencing politics… It’s the way that they are preserving and trying to restore the environment.


Would you say that science has more power in influencing the climate change debate than our political and social efforts?

I think it is problematic to see scientists as those weird people doing weird things in the labs, being kind of detached from the social and political activity. I think a convergence needs to happen. We need activist scientists. I saw a little bit of that at Ecojustice so they are on the right track. And we need more of that because scientists gather and analyze data on climate. They understand what is going on, but oftentimes it’s difficult for them to take a political position because funding might be dependent on them remaining very neutral. I mean if you look at Canada, there has been a political attack on scientists, just like the attacks on the environmental groups. I understand that it’s difficult for scientists to take political stances, but I think it’s imperative that they do. More activism!


What do you mean by activism? Do you mean communicating their messages to the society or do you mean the actual physical action?

All of the above: formulating messages; substantiating messages with proof; helping to mobilize; getting into politics; talking to people; running for office… I think activism is not just at the grassroots and chaining yourself to a tree. I think it’s also trying to use the system, trying to subvert it where it does not make any sense and where it’s unsustainable and unethical.


But isn’t there also a danger of science interacting with politics? Some scientists may have their own political agendas when it comes to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), for example. Plus, scientists may not have all the answers. And, sometimes, it’s hard to say who has better arguments, scientists or politicians…

That’s fair. You can find scientists everywhere on the political spectrum. You can find pro-GMO scientists, scientists who are not as concerned about invasive species and how they affect our ecosystems and biodiversity. But then you also find scientists who really believe that those are important issues and that we can’t just let GMOs run amok. So, I guess I have this idea of the kind of scientists that I would like to see on the political pulpit…


What are some ethical dilemmas that you might have faced working in Environmental Law?

Well, I’ll start first with an ethical dilemma that I tried to avoid. In Environmental Law, if you want to work on the private side, you just start working for a firm. Oftentimes, the actors you’ll be representing may not have the environment’s best interests in mind as much as their stakeholders’, and more specifically, shareholders’, interests in mind. This is an ethical dilemma because, for you as an environmental lawyer, to start working for a firm that is actually trying to subvert the very laws that you feel are very necessary in order to preserve that environment, is tough. And I haven’t been in that situation yet. I would be next summer when I work for a firm. That being said, this firm is very aware of this dilemma. They don’t take on any type of environmental work and they try to do so more from the public interest side. That’s very rare. And this is different from Ecojustice where it’s all in public interest, or it’s supposed to be. But, there are still ethical dilemmas even at Ecojustice. As I said before, Ecojustice tries to find cases that can set precedents. That really narrows the types of cases Ecojustice will represent. And, oftentimes, Ecojustice is the only actor who can actually fight and protect the environment. So it becomes difficult when you have a worthwhile environmental cause that will not set a precedent or that Ecojustice does not feel this is the best way to spend its resources… Who will protect the environment in those cases? I think the environment should have rights… I’m not the only one who thinks that. In Canada, that’s not the case. The environment does not have rights. The rights are always attached to people, and I think that we should actually push that forward. And other countries have actually done this. Ecuador and New Zealand, I believe, have given rights to nature proper.


By nature, do they refer to the earth’s environment, within our planet?

My guess is that it is tied to this planet. In Ecuador, for example, Pachamama has the rights. Pachamama is like Mother Earth. It’s very earth-centric, and I think it’s similar in New Zealand.


It still seems like we tend to try and protect only what we have access to…

Yeah, it gets difficult. Who has standing? Who can sue the government? What happens when a government’s decision doesn’t affect a person directly? There are lots of legal questions and dilemmas such as that… For example, how can Canada respect indigenous sovereignty and the rights of indigenous people and also manage its resources… when those conflict? I think it’s obvious that in Canada, indigenous people are holding on to their rights like they are holding on to dear life. And really, rights and life are very much intertwined… But the kind of narrative you get on the indigenous and environmental rights, not just in the political arena, but also in the media, is quite negative. Yet, I think that Canada has a lot to learn from indigenous people. When information can shed light on that and can shed light on the important inconsistencies in how we see our land, I think that that’s a good thing… So, wait, I didn’t even answer your question about why I went into law!


Ha-ha, we just got so absorbed into the topic…

After being disillusioned in Washington as lobbyist and researcher, it took me two years to find myself. But, I realized that understanding the language of the law was paramount whether I wanted to change the law as a politician, as an activist, or even as a lawyer or as a judge. I knew that I had to get a better grip on this language. And so I decided to go with plan E.


And what is your dream? Would you like to become a judge?

There is no set plan. I can see myself in politics. I can see myself teaching. I can see myself working for a group like Ecojustice or starting up a similar group. For many environmental groups, a lot of their work is focused on where the money is—that’s how they can sustain themselves. So there’s much less of a legal public interest force in some parts of Canada. Ecojustice is doing a pretty good job in trying to cover the regions, but you’ll still see some disparities. For instance, Quebec has a Civil Law system for private law as opposed to the Common Law system. And Ecojustice has only one Civil-Law-trained lawyer. It’s a pretty big gap… So I could see myself trying to push that agenda. I like the Ecojustice model and I think that there is room for growth.


Where do you see the role of information institutions, like public libraries, archives, and museums, in addressing environmental issues?

I think they play an integral role because no matter how awesome the Internet is, you need people to curate information, to make sure that important and valuable information does not disappear… And that’s why libraries, archives and museums are so important. Just like our natural resources, we also need to manage our information resources. And again, the Canadian government has really buckled down hard to cut the funding to these institutions… It seems that the reason behind it is that it’s easier for the government to do whatever they want when there is no information that can counter what it’s doing. So, the information managers are important for a healthy democracy… I think there is a correlation between how well the information is managed and what kind of narratives play out in the media… We need libraries, we need museums, we need archives to provide access to the information resources. And the government plays a crucial role in covering the costs of access.


If you have any questions about the interview, do not hesitate to contact

Anastasia Prozorova: anastasia.prozorova@mail.mcgill.ca.