Publication Title

Vermont Journal of Environmental Law

Document Type



This article looks at the "top ten" environmental laws enacted in the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It asks: What were the pin-up qualities that made these laws look good on paper? What were the features sponsors bragged about or critics deplored? How were they understood and described at the time of legislative birth? What was thought to be new, different, and better?

We know some of these things about all of these laws. I’ll exercise editorial judgment and declare four common features of these revolutionary laws to be the most conspicuous displays of merit and excellence. These are (1) best science, (2) public participation, (3) effective and aggressive judicial review, and (4) citizen enforcement.

Retrospective criticisms of the environmental laws confirm that they did not meet the higher ambitions of their creators. The environmental agenda is glaringly unfinished, and it is topped by the climate change issue that is deservedly mentioned as the gravest challenge ever faced by human civilization.

Still, the environmental laws of the 1970s reached boldly, challenged deeply, and provoked the settled order profoundly. That they fell short is not necessarily attributable to drafting errors or failures of imagination. All statutes mark out a range of prospects and every goal achieved could have been otherwise.



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