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Exploring “Enlightened Ecosystem Zones:” A new collaborative research activity for university students

by Stepan Wood, Director, Centre for Law & the Environment, University of British Columbia; and Emma Dolhai, Inspirathon Coordinator and JD candidate, Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia

“Walkathon,” “bike-athon” “hackathon,” and more recently, “researchathon” – these terms have been coined to describe events in which people come together in a fun and energetic spirit to pursue collective goals or solve shared problems.

Often these events advance environmental causes. Some of them mobilize university students to research and brainstorm solutions to environmental law problems. Examples include UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd’s 2021 researchathon on environmental sacrifice zones, and UNEP’s 2020 researchathon on good practices in environmental rule of law.

The Centre for Law & the Environment at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada has developed a unique new twist on this idea.

A new kind of event: the “Inspirathon”

Until November 30, 2022, the Centre is hosting a virtual “Inspirathon” as the capstone of its First Annual Green Rights & Warrior Lawyers Virtual Academy.

The Inspirathon is an innovative collaborative exercise, free and open to teams of undergraduate and postgraduate university students in any discipline, anywhere in the world.

Students will work collaboratively to advance a campaign championed by one of the Academy’s featured Warrior Lawyers, the Philippine lawyer, activist and educator Tony Oposa, to transform nation-states’ unsustainably exploited Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) into sustainably stewarded “Enlightened Ecosystem Zones.”

Part brainstorming exercise, part citizen research, part social media activism, the Inspirathon is more than a researchathon. Students conduct research into the current status of the EEZ of their chosen state, but they also use their imaginations to come up with a vision of what an Enlightened Ecosystem Zone might look like for their state. And they record a short video pitching the idea to the public or high-level decision makers. Finally, unlike actual marathons, the Inspirathon is non-competitive. Students pull together toward a shared objective. There will be fun prizes, but they are not competitive.

Enlightened Ecosystem Zones

The Inspirathon theme is inspired by Tony Oposa’s mandate as the Normandy Chair for Peace, the motto of which is “To have peace on Earth, we must have peace with the Earth.” 

As international lawyers know, the Exclusive Economic Zone is an area in which coastal states have exclusive sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage natural resources and engage in other economic activities. It extends 370 km from a coastal baseline and contains some of the most productive, biodiverse, sensitive and significant marine ecosystems in the world.

Recent decades have witnessed an alarming acceleration in human exploitation and degradation of the oceans, exemplified by plastic pollution, coral bleaching, overfishing, oil spills and other marine ecological disasters. These trends are threatening the ability of oceans to support the human and non-human communities that depend upon them.

Meanwhile, countries continue to fight over ocean resources and EEZ boundaries, and to project their military and economic power over the seas.

While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes certain provisions for conservation or access to resources for land-locked and geographically disadvantaged states, much farther-reaching solutions are necessary and possible to protect the world’s oceans.

Other models and ways of being exist – ones that lift up oceans themselves as inherently worthy of protection, that prioritize collaboration to ensure that these waters and their beings are cared for, and that centre the needs of all people and other beings who depend on them.

The Inspirathon invites students to explore what it would take to transform EEZs into Enlightened Ecosystem Zones devoted to stewardship of oceans for future generations, restoration of the oceans’ ecological roles as planetary life support systems, and respect for all non-human relatives with whom humans share the oceans.

Open to both undergraduate and post-graduate students and using a teamwork model, this event will not only produce a range of ideas for marine stewardship, but act as an inspiration in miniature for exactly the sort of global collaboration needed to tackle these issues.

The GRAWL Academy and Inspirathon are sponsored financially by the At the Kitchen Table Foundation and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

To learn more about the Inspirathon and to register a team, please visit the event webpage.

Emma Dolhai

By Emma Dolhai

Emma Dolhai is a third year law student at the University of British Columbia, currently completing a degree specialization in environmental law. Prior to law school, she worked in non-profit operations and the arts sector. Passionate about climate justice, she has organized with a variety of climate groups in and around the Vancouver area, working on campaigns spanning issues from fossil fuel divestment, to organizing for a Green New Deal and more.