At the height of the Vietnam War and during the early years of the Nixon Presidency, environmental activists blamed the federal government for helping to cause the “environmental crisis.” Reversing the earlier liberal embrace of agencies over courts, a new generation of environmental lawyers set out to fight the administrative state. Small but powerful legal organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, quickly achieved landmark victories. The young lawyers delayed the Alaskan pipeline for more than three years, defeated a Disney resort proposed for the Sierra Nevada mountains, and pushed the pesticide DDT off the market in the United States. They also sued to block a host of other government infrastructure projects, including highways, bridges, airports, dams, urban redevelopment, and harbor dredging.
Now environmental activists again look to public interest litigation as an essential tool to counter a presidential administration hostile to environmental regulation. What lessons can be learned from the history of the public interest environmental law movement? What are the limits to law as a tool for environmental action?
Paul Sabin is the author of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (2013) and Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940 (2005). His current research examines environmental law, citizen activism, and the remaking of American liberalism. Sabin teaches environmental history at Yale and helps lead Yale’s undergraduate environmental studies major. Prior to joining the Yale faculty, he served for nine years as the founding executive director of the non-profit Environmental Leadership Program.