• Fifty Years from Now: A Thought Exercise
October 30, 2019




By Lin Harmon-Walker

This year, GW Law is celebrating 50 years of the Environmental and Energy Law Program. Read on to learn about Interim Director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program Lin Harmon-Walker's vision for the future of environmental law for the program's yearly newsletter.

Fifty years ago, a generation of American visionaries (and a few pragmatists) created many of the environmental laws we know today in response to that generation’s well-publicized disasters (the silent spring of DDT, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the deadly brown smog of Los Angeles, the fire on the Cuyahoga River). The new slate of environmental laws of the 1970s and 80s became the models for many environmental legal systems around the world. Nations adopting similar laws added their own refinements, and now many innovative environmental and energy laws are being generated in other areas of the world. 

Here at home, the visions of the US founders (such as the “fishable, swimmable waters” promised in the Clean Water Act) have not fully materialized five decades later. The laws and regulations are showing their age. There are improvements in most categories of environmental protection, so the laws have done most of their jobs, but their original intent has been watered down and innovation has ground to a halt. The laws conceived as proactive and curative have resulted in the regulations that were doable. These are, for the most part, being managed statically rather than adaptively. They also are vulnerable to non-enforcement and subject to the vagaries of political administrations. The laws are, in short, not up to the task of restoring a nation that is rife with new and increasingly complicated problems that cross political boundaries and academic disciplines. 

In March, GW Law convened a conference dedicated to "Re-Imagining Environmental and Natural Resources Law." In November, GW Law, in conjunction with the Environmental Law Institute, will host a follow-up conference at Airlie House, a historic location that once hosted a national conference on the emerging field of environmental law back in September 1969. This coming year of anniversary events will further explore that re-imagining theme. 

We hope to share a harvest of new ideas over the course of this coming year. In the meantime, let me offer an admittedly optimistic, but conceivably possible 50-year future, of the many we can still choose from at this point in history. Feel free to unleash your imagination, create your own version, and share it with us.

One Potential Future

In 2070, the 100th anniversary of the now-superseded National Environmental Policy Act, the worst effects of climate change are ameliorated because in 2020 the governments and corporations of Earth finally came together. Responding to the worldwide children’s climate strikes and popular uprisings in every nation, China and the United States collaborated with the EU and ASEAN and brokered a proactive response to the issue. (In 2070, this historic period is known as "The Great Awakening.") Like the drafters of the early 1970s responding to the crises of their time with proactive laws, the nations of the early 2020s ("20s") created a comprehensive set of agreements to guide the Earth back towards a livable climate. 

Working together, national and local political leaders, corporation owners and managers, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and community groups, with assistance from the UN and world financial institutions, took the necessary steps and created the aid and incentives required to transform industrial economies and transportation systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, efficiencies, and near-zero-waste storage devices. New laws encouraged ongoing innovation to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remediate damage to the oceans. Fossil fuel workers and managers received paid training and employment in new fuel technologies. Slowly but surely, from this sustained and heroic effort, there emerged a booming economy in zero-pollution energy sources, ecosystem remediation technologies, and innovative transportation and industrial systems.

Slowly but surely, from this sustained and heroic effort, there emerged a booming economy in zero-pollution energy sources, ecosystem remediation technologies, and innovative transportation and industrial systems.

The changes in energy economies also led to a transformation of wasteful linear materials economies. The 20s became a renaissance era for ecology-minded scientists and inventors. The move to circular materials economies in the early 20s resulted in a world where, in 2070, virtually nothing now goes to landfills and valuable materials are automatically reclaimed and reused, eliminating hazardous and toxic mining and drilling. All fossil fuel-based plastics and microplastics were banned in the early 20s, completely replaced by new forms of recyclable organic and biodegradable materials. The massive cleanup of fossil-based plastics from the oceans and land masses continued for decades. These efforts were aided by the invention of intelligent cleanup devices that gathered polluting materials without interfering with living ecosystems. 

In 2070, children and grandchildren of the employees who worked in the hazardous and polluting jobs of antiquity are now employed in the thriving clean and green economy which is transforming the Earth. Nanotechnology guided by humans continues to do its part to clean up old landfills and salvage valuable materials for reuse. Radioactive waste is no longer being generated, and the ad hoc nuclear waste storage sites built a century or more ago have been remediated with the help of new technologies introduced in the 2030s (“30s”), although there are still old sealed-off areas around the world awaiting remediation.

In the early 20s, emergency response to the massive storms caused by rising ocean temperatures was slow and dangerous, and millions died in the chaos and confusion of communication difficulties and crippled transportation systems. The crises precipitated the development of a universally available simultaneous translating system that allows anyone on Earth to communicate fluently with anyone else. In the late 20s and early 30s, an advanced distributed network of shielded and/or underground AI maglev trains was constructed, capable of delivering emergency supplies and healthcare workers almost anywhere on Earth. As the megastorms have slowly decreased, these communication and transportation systems continue to work in tandem to aid distribution of restoration resources such as building supplies, agricultural seeds, catchment and water recycling systems, ecologically appropriate live plant and animal specimens, and other necessities of life. New generations of transportation systems are on the way. 

For nearly 50 years, since the nations came together to solve the climate crisis, basic primary education in all parts of the world has included history, including in-depth studies of why humans allowed climate change and other global existential threats to go as far as they did; interdisciplinary sciences and humanities; ecosystem care and management; empathy, conflict resolution, and negotiating skills; and critical thinking and problem analysis. Students are connected to classrooms across the globe. Budding lawyers can learn the basics about sustainability law, policy, and science in middle school. Humanity’s growing ecological and social literacy has effectively reduced pollution, war, and famine, and their impacts on human and non-human societies and cultures. 

Visionary planners continue to develop feasible scenarios for a better standard of living for all humans while maintaining a small ecological footprint adapted to local conditions, allowing for continuing recovery of endangered species and ecosystems and support for a network of species reserves and genetic banks. Because population pressures have decreased through disasters over the years and now by choice, as the rise in life expectancy and security has reduced the size of human families, humanity has finally achieved optimum planetary carrying capacity. Whole populations in formerly war-torn or resource-deprived areas are no longer starving and are benefiting from education and sustainable food systems, enabling them to participate in a fair and sustainable network of interlinked local economies. Local teams are now capable of responding preventively and proactively to the remnant effects of climate change. People everywhere are sharing ways to maintain productive ecosystems in changing conditions. Designated migratory corridors established during the worst climate periods continue to enable people and animals to find habitable and peaceful places in which to live. 

In 2070, the Moon is a launching point for space exploration with a comprehensive suite of environmental and energy laws governing renewable fuels, waste, reclamation of space junk, and cradle to cradle recycling. Mars is being colonized, but with strict environmental laws including an advanced version of the Endangered Species Act that identifies and protects whatever nascent or opportunistic life forms may be found. Small-scale experimental terraforming is strictly controlled within tight-security domes until scientific studies have proven that it is ecologically and humanly safe and feasible. The laws of the circular economy (preserving the precious resources brought from Earth) ensure that all water, food, breathable air, or other resources are recycled, fairly distributed, and not wasted. 

Throughout all these changes, several generations of adaptive environmental, energy, and natural resources laws have been guiding the careful transformations of Earth and our closest neighbors. Environmental, energy, and natural resources law programs work seamlessly with programs across the spectrum of laws and policies to ensure that no matter where humans go, they and their ecosystems can ensure a livable future.


Celebrate 50 Years of Environmental & Energy Law