Warrior Lawyer profile: Michelle Maloney, Australia’s Awesome Activist

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Headshot of Michelle Maloney
Photo: TheGreenInterview.com

By Roderick Reynolds

In an age of environmental crisis and political inaction, our world needs leaders and warriors. Enter Dr. Michelle Maloney, an Australian lawyer at the forefront of advocating and strategizing towards systemic change within our legal system and broader society.

Dr. Maloney, who received a Bachelor of Arts Laws (Hons) from the Australian National University and a PhD in Law from Griffith University, is the Co-Founder and National Convenor of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA). Dr Maloney is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Law Futures Centre at Griffith University. Further, Dr Maloney’s book, co-authored with Dr Peter Burdon, an Associate Professor at the Adelaide Law School and entitled ‘Wild Law in Practice,’ provides part of the inspiration for the AELA’s present theory of law, that being Earth Jurisprudence – an emerging idea based on the work of Cormac Cullinan and his book Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. Wild Law seeks to evolve law and governance in a fashion that recognizes our relationship to the broader Earth community.

Dr Maloney described herself as the child of an environmentalist mother in her 2014 conversation with The Green Interview‘s Silver Donald Cameron. After a quarter century designing and managing projects on climate change, sustainability and environmental justice, she shifted her focus to Earth Jurisprudence and Wild Law in 2009. This includes working to promote the understanding and practical implementation of Earth-centred governance and ethics in Australia through her position in AELA.

The transformation Dr. Maloney hopes to drive in this world is a fundamental change in the way in which corporations and governments interact with our Mother Earth.

Dr. Maloney observes that today’s capitalist society, which promotes an economic desire to accumulate resources and wealth, has fostered a human-centred growth system that undervalues the environment.  Consequently, Dr. Maloney contends that this culture of putting business and economic desires first, and looking at their impact on the Earth second, is fundamentally backwards. Instead, Earth Jurisprudence and Wild Law tell us that in making decisions we must consider the Earth first and what the Earth needs to survive before deciding how our actions and plans fit within those limits.

Recently, through her work with AELA, Dr Maloney has been advocating for the rights of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia.

Unlike countries such as Ecuador, Mexico and New Zealand, Australia does not have laws that grant rights or legal personhood to the environment.

Aerial photo of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

As such, with the very existence of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, in question, Dr Maloney and the AELA have begun advocating and petitioning for new laws to recognize the rights of the natural world, and by extension the Great Barrier Reef, to live and flourish, allowing communities to defend the rights of the Reef from Australia’s unhealthy obsession with coal mining.

Beyond her involvement in the AELA, Dr. Maloney developed Australia’s first university course on Wild Law, which she now teaches annually as a week-long intensive subject at Griffith Law School in Queensland. The course, Wild Law: the Theory & Practice of Earth Jurisprudence, was first taught in 2016. It enables students to analyse and critique the current legal system and design new approaches to law and governance in the 21st century. Dr. Maloney’s advocacy work in promoting Earth laws and Earth-centred governance also targets the next generation of leaders as she regularly visits high schools throughout Queensland for lectures and workshops on the need to be Earth conscious.

Another of Dr Maloney’s recent projects was the Wild Law Judgment Project. This initiative, in partnership with Southern Cross University, called on academics, practitioners, judges and students alike to re-write judgments of key common law decisions from a Wild Law perspective to build up a body of Earth-centred jurisprudence. The project critiqued the original judgments on a range of legal topics including taxation law, constitutional law and property law. The project scrutinized Australian judicial decision-making and challenged the hegemony of anthropocentrism in the common law. In 2017, the project culminated in the publication of the book Law as if Earth Really Mattered co-edited with Dr Nicole Rogers.

Not content with what is already an impressive body of work, Dr Maloney is presently writing two new books to be released in 2020. The first is focused on bioregional governance and the second on ancient and emerging ecological governance. Moreover, Dr Maloney creates and edits the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature’s annual publication.

While Dr Maloney may not be a front-line warrior lawyer, her work in academia, advocacy, education and awareness is crucial to the future of environmental law, and by extension the environment, most especially in Australia.

You can watch Silver Donald Cameron’s 2014 interview of Michelle Maloney on The Green Interview website, which contains interviews with more than 100 environmental thinkers, defenders, lawyers and activists around the world, along with feature-length documentary films about struggles for environmental rights (teasers are free; full access requires a modest subscription).

Headshot of Roderick Reynolds
Photo: Roderick Reynolds

About the Author

Roderick Reynolds is a JD candidate at Melbourne Law School having earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Melbourne in 2016. He spent the Northern Hemisphere’s Fall term 2019 at the Allard School of Law. Roderick’s passion for the environment stems from a childhood spent among the farms of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. While a career in corporate law beckons in 2020, Roderick acknowledges that his long term future may lie within the sphere of public law.

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