John Nevius, CLAS ’83, is a geologist, engineer, and environmental attorney. He works at the New York City law firm of Anderson Kill & Olick.
On Monday, Nov. 8, he will participate in a panel on the Gulf oil spill in Student Union 304B at 1 p.m. In a separate interview, he discussed his career in environmental law and the perspective he gained from his degree in geology.
Q – You graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1983, a time when many students were realizing how important environmental issues are to us all. Were there any particular experiences you had as a youth or college student that pointed you to your career?
Nevius – Actually, December 1983. My father was a great influence on me and we used to go canoeing and kayaking a lot. He was the original environmentalist. In learning from him and traveling, I became convinced that access to clean water was going to be a huge issue going forward, and that has always been something in the back of my mind when making career decisions. The importance of water also was confirmed by a UConn graduate student named Evan. Evan articulated how a focus on water would provide a lot of opportunities for an earth science/geology professional. It was good advice and I have followed it ever since.
When I graduated, the energy crisis had waned and all of the opportunity for someone with a B.S. in Geology/Geophysics was in environmental. One of my colleagues, Herb Woike, beat me out for a job doing fieldwork for New England Pollution Control because he had more experience (he had managed six Pizza Huts in New Hampshire). Because I did not get the job, I went to graduate school. I always thought about how that was the biggest favor Herb ever did for me!
Q – You earned degrees in geosciences and civil engineering and began working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority. But then you decided to earn a law degree. Why do you feel you can make more of a difference in the courts than in a federal agency?
Nevius – EPA was a wonderful experience and they gave me a lot of responsibility very quickly. The hours were great. However, there was a lot of red tape and layers of bureaucracy. … It just seemed like the scientists and engineers were brought in to say what should be done, but the lawyers were involved in what could be done and, ultimately, what would be done (along with the politicians).
As a lawyer, I am very busy and constantly challenged. Federal agencies tend to move more slowly and can be highly political.
Q – Your legal career has been focused on environmental cases. Do you find that companies don’t take pollution and environmental problems seriously enough even now?
Nevius – Environmental is a huge issue. My clients take environmental issues very seriously. However, you have to have a viable business before you can do anything, and environmental may not always be top priority. In other words, one must always consider environmental issues, because they can put you out of business pretty quickly if not fully considered and managed effectively.
Environmental issues are like insurance: you know they are out there and important, but most people lack the knowledge and experience (or level of interest) to deal with them effectively. The good news is that this provides me with opportunities to assist clients who would rather focus on other things. Being able to have one foot in law and the other in science/engineering has been enormously beneficial in not only giving me credibility, but also allowing me to effectively communicate with both constituencies.
Q – The Gulf Oil spill will probably result in litigation that goes on for years. But can lawsuits really redress the problems that are likely to occur there for years to come? How does the public ever get compensation for what’s been lost?
Nevius – Let’s start with the last question first. No amount of money will put the oil back in the ground or rewind the harm done. People can get money from BP for lost wages and job opportunities, but there are many intangibles, such as ways of life and a clean environment, that do not lend themselves to being reduced to money damages.
Lawsuits are an inefficient way to resolve things, but they are often necessary to bring corporations to account and give aggrieved parties a chance to have their say. Also, life is largely about gray areas and that’s where the legal system can sort through things and make a decision or an allocation of liability. This finality is key and allows people and businesses to move on. I think an efficient and effective legal system is part of the reason why our country has been so successful. There is a rule of law. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most other alternatives (chaos, self help, the triumph of money and power, etc.).
Q – We read every day about a host of environmental issues – contaminated food, global warming, lack of drinking water, and so on. How can an individual make a difference?
Nevius – Well, you have to get up every day and try. Getting a solid education is incredibly empowering. It’s also the first time in most people’s lives where they have stuck with something over many years to achieve a goal. The world is full of successful people who make a difference. Being a lawyer helps place things in perspective, but there also has to be a certain amount of faith and optimism. You’ll never know until you try. Picking something is better than doing nothing and simply allowing random events to dictate the course of your life … You’ll be surprised how easy making a difference can be. You simply have to try!
Q – One of your ancestors was a founder of New Amsterdam, now New York City. That was literally centuries ago. Do you feel that the future is secure for your children and someday their children?
Nevius – Not really. Geology teaches us that catastrophe could be around the corner. It also puts our human existence in perspective. I mean, in some sense we are all pretty insignificant carbon-based organisms who live for a very brief period and inhabit a tiny fraction of a small planet revolving around a mid-size star in just one galaxy of billions and billions.
Some would see this as pessimistic, but it is empowering. My children will see and experience things we cannot even imagine today. I was taught how to use a slide rule in 10th grade. Today, fax machines are fast becoming obsolete and everybody is literally or figuratively plugged into an iPod, a Blackberry, or talking on Bluetooth.
Nonetheless, we’re all struggling with a lot of the same issues my early Dutch ancestors struggled with, i.e., making a living, providing for our families, enjoying life, and making the most out of it and the opportunities we have. We are all very lucky to be alive!