Greg Thomas

Moving Into the Environmental Field

Recorded: January 15, 2013

Dr. Greg Thomas loves his work and cannot imagine doing anything else. Beginning his career as a trial lawyer, he found that he would rather be working in the environmental field and became a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). His years of work as senior staff attorney for NRDC's international program eventually led him to found The Natural Heritage Institute (NHI), a non-governmental organization that provides technical assistance to countries to guide them toward sustainable management of their natural resources.

A natural resource attorney, Greg Thomas has been able to meld his love of the environment, law and world travel to create a better world. Greg founded the Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) after many years as the senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program.

He is a Fulbright Professor and advisor to the national environmental ministry of China, and has taught law at UCLA and UC Berkeley.  Greg Thomas’s practice of natural resource law and management has involved energy, air quality, water issues, biodiversity, environmental planning and international conservation. Greg has more than 35 years of experience in litigation, administrative trials, legislative advocacy, policy analysis, institutional design, and consensus building processes. At NHI, he develops and manages large-scale projects in California, throughout the United States and internationally.

Greg Thomas:    This is part of what needs to be said to young people thinking about their lives.  It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying, rewarding, nourishing way to occupy one’s adult life than in doing this kind of work.  Honestly, as hard as it is to achieve significant gains, so I never want to not be doing this work.  To get to this stage of my career you know it’s been kind of a meandering pathway, so as you suggest I did start my professional life as a lawyer, in fact as a trial lawyer before I discovered that my time and effort was better spent on something that was socially relevant and important for the future wellbeing of the planet and discovered this environmental work initially as a government lawyer briefly.

You know long enough to discover that the real change, the real agents of change were nongovernmental, the newly emerging nonprofit environmental law firms.  So I pretty quickly, you know jumped over the other side of the table frankly and enjoying the ranks of the, of the, you know the titans really in those days of the new era of environmental advocacy.

Huey Johnson:    Can you reflect on lessons learned that might be valuable to others?

Greg Thomas:    Well let me just say first, we’re all learning together and no one has a monopoly on it and what we’re finding as we learn is how much more we have to understand in order to do the kind of jobs we need to do in the future to restore these damaged environments.  It isn’t as though you start these fights with the idea that you know you’re going to compromise before it’s over.  I think that indeed, you know wheeling out all the artillery you can possibly, you can possibly marshal in these fights is exactly the right way to go.  But it isn’t – it’s more the exception than the rule these days that you’ll be able in the end to accomplish a complete victory.

Huey Johnson:    You’re defining I think maybe the emergence of diplomacy in the environmental arena.

Greg Thomas:    There’s that, there’s also you know part of the art form here is just figuring out you know what’s a new and better way to manage this resource that can provide a, you know a more optimal result than kind of zero sum game tradeoffs that are usually imagined.

Huey Johnson: I tend to view population growth as a driving factor creating all the problems.  If people want to stop dams, if people want to have a quality of life, it has to decline as you bring more human pressure on it.

Greg Thomas: That is so true.  That is one of the fundamental realities that has been so apparent since the early, earliest debate about how to be good custodians of this planet.  It is interesting; the demographic changes that are going on around the world are extremely interesting in that regard.  You know we do have large areas of the world now where there’s negative population growth, Europe being a prime example, Russia being a prime example, many others where its begun to stabilize and then other places where its still completely out of control, Africa probably being the best example right now of unsustainably high birth rates, impoverishing the people, putting unsustainable demands on their natural resource base and so on, still a huge problem.

But the interesting thing to ask about that is you know what has made the difference in places where population has begun to stabilize, voluntarily, not like China with its coercive one child policy, which by the way, may have been the only rational choice available in that country as obnoxious as it is from a human rights standpoint.

But take a country like Bangladesh, much of Asia, much of Latin America these days where birth rates have declined markedly.  You know I think the common factor that accounts for that more than any single thing is the education of women and their enfranchisement into the, into the economic life of the country.  Where that’s happened, populations are now you know under control.  Where it hasn’t happened, they’re still way out of control.  It’s very interesting.