500-Year Flood, Last Straw, or Asteroid Strike? Metaphorically Testing the Resilience of Environmental Law.

Posted on August 28, 2018 by JB Ruhl

Regardless of your politics, it’s hard not to describe the environmental policies of Trump Administration as…very different. Indeed, that’s exactly what his supporters want and his opponents fear. But the question is how much different. Enough, I would say, to test the resilience of environmental law.

With origins in ecology, resilience theory has swept into the social sciences as a way of thinking about how social systems withstand forces of change, especially extreme events like the so-called 500-year flood—the flood so big it is expected on average only once every five hundred years. It’s now common to read commentary and proposals on how to build resilience of cities to natural disasters, resilience of corporations to consumer crises, and resilience of the financial system to economic shocks. Well, as I have suggested previously, legal systems are social systems, and they have either enough or not enough resilience to bounce back from extreme “pulse” disturbance events or from a long onslaught of less intense “press” events. If they don’t have enough then, just like an ecosystem experiencing desertification after prolonged drought, a legal system could experience a regime shift and look nothing like its former self on the other side.

One thing that’s entirely apparent now is that, after 35 years of arguing and name calling in environmental law between the “left” and the “right,” we’ve been playing between the 40-yard lines after all. We see that because there’s a new team in town, and they are trying to set up their offense on the 10-yard line, first-and-goal. But I shift metaphors. Back to resilience, and floods, though I may come back to football.

Had any other Republican who threw his or her hat into the ring back in early 2016 been the nominee instead of Donald Trump and won the White House, we’d all have expected “disturbance” events of some magnitude—some pushback on the Clean Power Plan, some softening on climate change policy, some pull-back on the WOTUS rule. Democrats would have waved arms and sounded alarms. But really, in retrospect it would have been just a bunch of 25-year floods and a rare 100-year flood here and there. Then a Democrat would eventually take over and we’d have more of the same in the opposite direction, with role reversal. Hey, that’s politics (or it was politics). The bottom line is that 45 years after the environmental law statutory big-bang of the early 1970s, all these disturbance events added up have never swamped environmental law as we have known it—the laws and agencies are still there, plugging away, albeit it with different playbooks (football again) from administration to administration. In short, environmental law had resilience to spare!

The Trump Administration, at the very least, is a 500-year flood—it’s intended to be that or more. 500 years is a long time, but 500-year floods happen. The smug complacency of the previous paragraph missed one little problem: when a 500-year “pulse” event flood comes along after decades of continuous lesser-magnitude “press” disturbances, it’s possible the resilience reserve just isn’t enough to stave off the assault and prevent a regime shift. Maybe it can, but maybe this 500-year flood is the last straw. And then there’s also the possibility that the Trump Administration is more like an asteroid strike—you know, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Even when the resilience reserve after a long press assault is at three-quarters, that’s a challenge. As in, no way.

So which is it: a 500-year flood environmental law can withstand, the last straw, or an asteroid strike? Everyone has his or her own positions, and I’m not (in this post) trying to tell anyone what they should hope for. Rather, stepping back from the political fray, what’s the evidence? Here’s my take.

First, I don’t think this is an asteroid strike. Those happen fast, and are unequivocal impact events. For environmental law, that would mean something like we wake up one day and there is no Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and so on—they went the way of the dinosaurs. There is no evidence that is in the cards, even if it were in the plans. The fact is that our governance system, notwithstanding the critiques, makes it immensely difficult for any new administration, regardless of its agenda and mandate, to accomplish an asteroid strike on environmental or any other field of law. Power is too dispersed, procedures are enforced, courts step in, the public pushes back, election cycles are short, politics can turn to molasses, and so on. Notwithstanding all the hype from both sides, the Trump Administration so far has not proven to be that big of an event. Arguably, though, asteroid strikes have happened in our not too distant past—the Great Depression and WWII were impact events that threw our entire governance system into a regime shift, leading to the dawn of the regulatory state. Were an external global event of that magnitude and threat to occur, its combined effect with the Trump Administration’s agenda could be a very hard blow indeed.

Rather, the evidence thus far is that the Trump Administration, for environmental law and many other fields, looks like a 500-year flood.  It has pushed really hard on all those resilience mechanisms just mentioned, but they are pushing really hard back. And I don’t see it getting near the last straw. I follow the Endangered Species Act very closely from a centrist position—I am no starry-eyed fan or red-eyed critic—and I from what I observe there is zero chance of it going away. But there is a 100 percent chance it will experience broad and deep regulatory and policy reform—it’s well underway already—and perhaps some legislative tinkering. This almost surely will be an outlier disturbance event, like a 500-year flood, and may deplete the resilience reserve more than usual, but it will not wipe it out.  As for other corners of environmental law, I leave that to their respective experts, but my sense is that it is largely the same story.

Again, I’ve tried not to imprint my own politics onto this analysis. Like an ecologist studying an ecosystem under disturbance, I’m simply asking, how big a disturbance to environmental law are the policies of the Trump Administration? We all agree they are big and intended to be so. But ten years from now, will we be playing between the ten, twenty, thirty, or forty yard lines on the football field, or will we be playing soccer on the pitch? I guess only time will tell, but I’m sticking with my seats on the 50-yard line for now.