Environmental History

Justice Breyer’s Nuanced Voice for the Environment

Not much for rhetoric, but a reliable vote for environmental protection.

There was a lot of speculation last summer about whether Justice Stephen Breyer would retire. At this point, the answer is obviously “not yet.” As we move further into another Supreme Court term, it seems timely to take a look at his environmental record.  No doubt the question his retirement will arise again next June …

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Environmentalism and the Supreme Court

Some cases belong to the environmentalist legal canon, others to an anti-canon of reviled precedents.

Every field has its texts that form part of its intellectual canon, and others that form a kind of anti-canon of rejected ideas.  The same is true in environmental law. The issue goes beyond which side wins. From the pro-environmental side of things, some Supreme Court rulings form guideposts to rely on, whereas others represent …

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Jefferson’s Bridge

Anticipating modern environmental views, Jefferson viewed nature as a public trust.

Today being the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to think about how the author of the Declaration of Independence felt about nature. A revealing example involves some land Jefferson owned between Lexington and Roanoke, which he sought to preserve. Two years before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land  from the …

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The Clean Air Act Turns Fifty

A half century of progress in cleaning up the air began New Year’s Eve 1970.

On December 31, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act.  William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, who later led the way in implementing the new law, stood by his side with beaming smiles.  Nixon supported the basic features of the bill. But he had considered vetoing the final version because Senator Ed Muskie …

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When Republicans Supported the Environment: Bush 41

The GOP wasn’t always the sworn enemy of environmental protection.

Younger people today probably know about George Herbert Walker Bush (R) as the father of George W. Bush and (perhaps) as the architect of the first Iraq War. But he also had some notable environmental achievements to his credit. Here are some of his accomplishments: Air Pollution Law. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were …

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Lessons of the Little Ice Age

What can we learn from the climate disruptions of the previous millennium?

The Little Ice Age wasn’t actually an ice age, but it was a period of markedly colder temperatures that began in the 1200s and lasted into the mid-1800s, with the 1600s a particular low point. It was a time when London winter fairs were regularly held on the middle of a frozen Thames river, glaciers …

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Happy Birthday, NEPA!

NEPA turns 50 today. Its passage was the beginning of modern environmental law.

Welcome to 2020.  Before we start worrying about the year ahead, it’s worth taking a look backward.  Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, usually called NEPA for short. When he signed NEPA into law, President Nixon said: “It is particularly fitting that my first official act in …

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The Decade in Review

Like many humans, the Twenty-First Century’s teenage years were stormy.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  That pretty much sums up the ten years from January 2010 to January 2020. As the decade began, Barrack Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress but were one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority in the House.  Under …

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Holmes, Brandeis, and the ‘Great Ponds’ Debate

Some issues are perennial, like property rights v. public rights in water.

I suppose most of you, like me, have never heard of the Watuppa Ponds.  But in 1888, a battle broke out over the legality of their use to supply drinking water for a nearby city.  The issue closely divided Massachusetts’s highest court, and led to a heated debate in the recently launched  Harvard Law Review …

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The Forgotten Environmental Legacy of Jimmy Carter

Carter saved millions of acres of wilderness, signed the Superfund law, and began the renewables revolution.

Many people today know Jimmy Carter as an ex-President who has strongly advocated for human rights. His Presidency is probably best remembered for the Iranian Hostage crisis. His post-presidential career was at least as notable as his time in the White House. Historians find his presidency flawed by micro-management and lack of rapport with the …

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