Environmental Law Heroes

Earth Day 2017 is sparking a renewed national conversation about environmental affairs. The Trump Administration believes that the government’s environmental protection measures need scaling back. The president signed an order dismantling the “Waters of the United States” rule — which regulates pollution of America’s waterways and wetlands. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will see cuts if President Trump achieves his stated policy goals. The EPA budget faces the threat of a 30 percent budget reduction. The potential elimination of approximately 25 percent of staff positions is also possible.

The Future of Environmental Law

In the face of these sweeping policy changes, the environmental law community faces an uncertain future. How will the proposed regulatory rollbacks fare in the court system? What environmental program cuts will elected officials support? What role will public opinion play? Will the current administration have an effect on law students considering environmental careers? Or will it spur renewed activism?

The Past Heroes of Environmental Law

The the future of environmental law is uncertain. On Earth Day, we would to acknowledge the previous “wins” the industry has had for the globe. Here are a few of the many environmental law heroes with notable contributions to awareness, policy, justice, and law:

Rachel Carson

The modern environmental movement says to have began in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” This environmental science book demonstrated the dangers of pesticides (like DDT). The book exposed practices of “disinformation” by the chemical industry. Carson’s writings became a touchstone of environmental activists worldwide.

Gaylord Nelson

In the wake of a disastrous 1969 oil spill off the California coast, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson reacted. He believed the time was right for a national environmental movement. Through his leadership, America’s first Earth Day was held in 1970. Galvanizing the collective energies of various environmental groups, Earth Day was born. Later that year, the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With the creation of the EPA, Congress passed landmark legislation. Those legislations include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Erin Brockovich

Happenstance and hard luck brought Erin Brockovich a file clerk job in a California law firm. At that time, she was not trained in either the legal profession or environmental activism. But when — in the course of her filing duties — she noticed suspicious evidence in a real estate matter, Ms. Brockovich’s curiosity piqued. In the months that followed, her dogged research led to astounding findings. The utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had polluted local groundwater with a chemical agent. That chemical agent was allegedly linked to increased cancer rates. As a result, PG&E paid a fine of $330 million — the largest settlement in a direct-action lawsuit. The case brought notoriety that propelled her into a career of environmental activism.

Al Gore

Al Gore was studying law at Vanderbilt University. Middway through his education, he quit to run for the House of Representatives in Tennessee — a seat he held for four terms. Later — as President Clinton’s Vice President — Gore championed environmental issues and went on to write about them. In 2007, he accepted a Nobel Prize for advocacy work on global warming. Gore’s environmental “town hall” presentations lead to an award-winning movie and book. These works, called “An Inconvenient Truth,” helped raise public awareness of environmental affairs.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader had a multifaceted career in public advocacy. The Harvard Law School graduate also focused on environmental affairs. His contributions to the environmental movement were significant. Advocating for the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Nader was a leader in the industry. He contributed to a movement against nuclear energy. Nader also promoted renewable energy resources and focused efforts to reduce automobile emissions. Nader also worked to achieve ethical “whistleblower” protections for workers reporting environmental contamination.

A New Generation of Environmental Leaders

The inaugural Earth Day is almost fifty years behind us. So it comes as no surprise that many other “environmental law heroes” are standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. Those interested in the future of environmental law will do well to follow the advocacy of opinion leaders.
  • Tara Houska, for example, is the Director of the “Honor the Earth” organization. The Native American-led environmental group works to provide legal resources for indigenous activists. Most recently, they’ve assisted in attempts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Nicky Sheats is another leader to look to. As the Director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State College, Dr. Sheats is regarded as a leader in environmental justice and climate change.
  • Nanette Barragan is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where she serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources. Experienced in environmental justice matters, she chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s environmental task force.
Are you inspired by people like this? As a legal pro, are you looking to make waves to help the environment? 
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