Luke Cole: An Appreciation

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It is with broken heart that I report the death of one of this nation’s most important and innovative environmental attorneys.

Luke Cole graduated with honors from Stanford, and cum laude from Harvard Law School. He could have done anything. He could have gone to work for any law firm in the country, and made a fortune. Instead, he moved to San Francisco and co-founded the non-profit Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. As described on their website:

The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment is an environmental justice litigation organization dedicated to helping grassroots groups across the United States attack head on the disproportionate burden of pollution borne by poor people and people of color. We provide organizing, technical and legal assistance to help community groups stop immediate environmental threats. In the 16 years that CRPE has been helping the poor and people of color resist toxic intrusions and protect their environmental health, among our many victories we have beaten toxic waste incinerators, forced oil refineries to use cleaner technology, beaten a 55,000-cow mega-dairy, stopped numerous tire burning proposals, helped bring safe drinking water to various rural communities, stopped a garbage dump on the Los Coyotes reservation in southern California, and empowered hundreds of local residents along the way.

His recent work included a groundbreaking case that is succinctly explained by his law school classmate, Ann Carlson:

Cole was well-known for his work on numerous leading environmental justice cases, including as counsel for the Native Village of Kivalina in its pathbreaking case seeking damages from large greenhouse gas emitters from the melting away of their Alaskan village.

If that sounds like he was tilting at windmills, you didn’t know Luke. He wouldn’t have pursued such a case if he hadn’t believed he could win it. His successful pioneering work, taking on the California dairy industry, made him the cover boy of the February, 2002 issue of California Law Magazine, in an article titled: Got Manure? How Environmental Lawyer Luke Cole Brought Dairy Construction in the San Joaquin Valley to a Standstill.

Luke also was on the advisory board of the Center for Biological Diversity:

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature – to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

And more about Luke, himself:

Cole was appointed by EPA Administrator Carol Browner to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), where he served from 1996 through 2000 (including chairing NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee from 1998 through 2000). He also served as a member of EPA’s Title VI Implementation Committee.

In 1997, the American Lawyer magazine named Cole to the Public Sector 45, one of “forty-five young lawyers outside the private sector whose vision and commitment are changing lives.” Berkeley’s Ecology Law Quarterly awarded Cole its 1997 Environmental Leadership Award for “outstanding contributions to the development of environmental law and policy,” and the American Bar Association’s Barrister magazine named Cole one of “20 young lawyers making a difference” for his pioneering legal work. Community organizations have also honored Cole for his contributions to the environmental justice movement.

Cole is the co-founder and editor emeritus of the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment. He recently published, with Professor Sheila Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (NYU Press, 2001). His legal publications include “Empowerment as they Key to Environmental Protection: the Need for Environmental Poverty Law,” in the Ecology Law Quarterly, as well as pieces in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, the Journal of Environmental Law & Litigation, the Fordham Urban Law Journal, and the Michigan Law Review, among others. He has taught as a visiting professor at UC-Hastings School of Law, and also taught seminars on environmental justice at Stanford Law School, UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, and Hastings.

A list of his legal publications can be found here, and he also co-authored the book From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement.

Luke had bright, sparkling eyes, and one of the easiest and most heartfelt laughs I’ve ever heard. He met one of the warmest, most soulful women in the world, married her, and helped her raise her son. He threw himself a birthday party, every year, adamantly refused all presents, and made it an occasion for root beer tastings, having speciality brands shipped in from all over the country. He also held chocolate tastings. He loved music, theater, and art, intensely supported the presidential campaign of the young Illinois Senator who had been just behind him, at law school, and went to Washington both for the inauguration and to be consulted on environmental justice issues.

He was a passionate birder, and traveled all over the world, leading eco-tourist expeditions to Madagascar. I got a postcard from him, just last week. He’d seen his first lemurs, including the rare and once endangered Perrier Sifaka, as well as plenty of new birds. He’d been bitten by leeches, and had been banged up in low-speed motorcycle crashes, on Madagascar’s ragged back roads. He said my toddler son would love the place. He was headed to Uganda, to meet his wife and brother. It was in Uganda that he died, in a car crash. His wife is now twice widowed, and was herself seriously injured.

The last time I saw Luke was on the last night of my last visit to the Bay Area. Mrs. T and I had dinner with Luke and his wife. They brought a toy for our son to play with, on the drive back to Oregon. They were the perfect couple. He was a genuine hero. I loved and respected him as much as I’ve ever loved and respected any man. A world without him is unfathomable.


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    • Turkana on June 8, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    please give to The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

  1. we need more people like this man and the world. You are lucky to have known him personally. A loss to us all. I will donate as I have stoped putting my money in electoral politics and giving to the organizations that seek to make the world a better place not destroy it it for profit. His work will live on, not great legacy to leave behind.  

    • TMC on June 8, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    May the Goddess guide him on his journey to the Summerlands, May his family, friends and all who have benefited from his work find Peace. Blessed Be

    My donation has been made in his memory.  

    • sharon on June 9, 2009 at 1:30 am

    i am very sorry for your and the world’s loss.  i will do what i can.

  2. I feel for his family and for you.

    He was a truly admirable man who seemed to live life to it’s fullest.

  3. A good and meaningful person snuffed out!  So sad and tragic!  I can well understand your pain and, honestly, I “feel” his loss, as well, though I never met him.  I am happy that you did, Turkana!

    Thank you for this, Turkana!


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