Putting Policy Over Partisanship in a Polarized World

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

1969 was an important year for the environment. A number of headline-making environmental crises that year, including the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga River fire, and deadly smog in cities from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, raised the profile of environmental degradation and led to public outcry for a healthy and safe environment. Barry Commoner, a leading ecologist and early environmentalist, famously described this period as one where “the heavens reek, the waters below are foul, children die in infancy”.  

That same year, ELI was established. This was not mere coincidence. In September 1969, a group of 52 lawyers, practitioners, and academics gathered for a conference held at Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia, to discuss the emerging field of environmental law. Attendees left the conference with a mandate: establish an expert publication to collect environmental statutes, regulations, and court decisions and educate a practicing bar on how the law might respond to the environmental crisis. With this as its driving force, the Environmental Law Institute was incorporated on December 22, 1969, as a 501(c)(3) organization—the same day that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed by Congress—and the Environmental Law Reporter (ELR) began in January 1971. 

The Institute became a clearinghouse for information on the rapidly growing body of environmental laws passed during the Environmental Decade. As the Institute has been fond of saying ever since, ELI and environmental law grew up together. Author Bud Ward said it thus in the Environmental Forum, “ELI and environmental law didn’t just grow up together, they established a symbiosis, a mutual nurturing. Environmental law would still have been created and evolved over the years in the absence of an ELI; but the system would have taken more time to emplace and wouldn’t work as well in practice. And people, from decisionmakers to ordinary citizens, would be less satisfied with the result.” And the results have been significant, as Bud points out "our rivers are cleaner, our air far healthier, our toxic waste dumps are getting cleaned up, and the bald eagle is no longer endangered”. 

While the problems we face in the climate decade are in some ways different in nature, the how has not changed. To address today’s most complex issues, we need good environmental governance. This isn’t so different from how we met the environmental degradation of the 1960s. Despite increasing polarization, ELI remains committed to being an inclusive, nonpartisan forum for advancing evidence-based and effective environmental law, policy, and governance. ELI’s mission of providing nuanced and balanced perspectives is in many ways countercultural —almost never splashy or attention-grabbing.  

The Institute’s annual Training Workshop on Water Quality Assessment and Plans is a prime example of the unique and valuable role that ELI plays in the environmental field. Year after year, this Workshop has convened state, territorial, and tribal managers of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) programs to share lessons learned and discuss promising practices in water management. As ELI President Jordan Diamond jokes in the latest episode of People Places Planet, TMDL is not exactly “happy hour talk,” and yet the Workshop is an invaluable opportunity for practitioners from all across the country to come together to roll up their sleeves and improve and innovate the on-the-ground implementation of the Clean Water Act and make meaningful progress on addressing water pollution. 

For more on how ELI has grown while remaining true to its roots, listen to Jordan Diamond’s insights into the impact (past, present, and future) of ELI on the latest episode of People Places Planet