Perspectives of Twenty-four Pioneers on the Past and Future of Environmental Law

Posted on June 16, 2016 by Leslie Carothers

On Earth Day 2016, the Environmental Law Institute presented to the public a collection of 24 videotaped interviews conducted over the past five years to record the career experiences of many pioneers of environmental law.  The men and women profiled were active in the environmental movement in the sixties and early seventies.  They served as Democratic and Republican legislators, organizers and advocates for public interest organizations, administrators of national and state environmental agencies, academics producing new ideas and educating new lawyers, and legal counsel to business and government agencies contending with a host of new environmental laws.   ELI’s interviewers wanted to learn why these pioneers chose to enter the field of environmental law, what they see as its major successes and shortcomings, and how they view the health of environmental activism and public commitment today.

Among other things, the oral histories provide interesting insight into the roots of activism for early environmental lawyers and what different life experiences and motivations may influence today’s new environmental lawyers.  Practically every pioneer spoke of enjoyment of nature and the out of doors experienced through growing up on a farm or in rural areas or visiting campsites and parks on family vacations and scouting trips.  They witnessed both the beauty and the degradation of natural and scenic resources and were inspired to seek ways to protect them.  The other factor mentioned most often was the example and energy of other social movements in the sixties and seventies, first and foremost the civil rights struggle.  Personal experience and the climate of social activism combined to motivate many environmental pioneers to become leaders in the new environmental movement. 

Most of the pioneers express optimism that new generations of young women and men will take up activism and environmental law to attack today’s agenda of complex and serious problems.   But many worry that the communications technology building young people’s impressive expertise may also be keeping them glued to their screens and disconnected from the natural world.  Robert Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service and the first African American to hold the position, comments in his interview that we should not be unduly critical of young people who spend so much time inside.  He observes that when he was growing up, there were only a few black and white TV channels to compete with going outdoors!   Still, a lifelong activist like Gloria Steinem believes that excessive dependence on electronic connections can weaken the interpersonal qualities of empathy that depend on face-to-face communication and can dilute the emotional drivers for action in concert with others.  Activism means more than making a statement and pressing “send.”    The impact of technology is just one of many issues discussed in an engaging set of interviews available to all.  Visit ELI’s website at http://www.eli.org/celebrating-pioneers-in-environmental-law for a unique source of perspective on the evolution of environmental law and the prospects for further progress on pressing problems in today’s very different social and political setting.