Thursday, April 20, 2017

Summer Reading for a soon-to-be Environmental Law Student

At a recent admitted students event, a soon-to-be 1L with an interest in environmental law asked me what she should read this summer.  I thought it was a good question, so I shared it with an environmental law professors’ listserve.  This post takes suggestions I received and turns them into a short summer reading list.

The list comes with a few caveats.  First, I focused on environmental law books.  There are many wonderful books about environmental issues more generally, including classics like A Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring that helped inspire the environmental movement, and thus helped create environmental law.  Many wonderful books have also been written about law more generally.  Those other categories contain enough good books for many summers of happy reading, and perhaps in another post I’ll say more about the general environmental category, but the focus here will be somewhat narrower.

Second, while this list reflects the input of dozens of professors, I didn’t do a formal poll, and any glaring omissions or weird choices can be blamed on me alone.

So, the recommendations:

  1. The Favorite

Three decades ago, industrial solvents contaminated two wells that the City of Woburn used for municipal water supplies.  The awful consequence was a leukemia cluster that killed many Woburn residents.  The tragic story also produced what I think is the greatest environmental law book ever written.  Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action tells the story of the contamination and the subsequent litigation.  The book is as gripping as a top-notch thriller, rich enough in its legal discussion to be assigned as a companion to first-year civil procedure courses, and deeply humane in its treatment of the human dramas of the tragedy.  If you want to read just one environmental law book, this is it. 

There’s also a movie, but don’t bother.

  1. The Storytellers

There are many great storytellers in the field of environmental law, but among academics, no one spins tales better than Oliver Houck and Zyg Plater.  In The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River, Plater (now a professor at Boston College) tells the story that gave rise to (and followed) Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, a classic case you’re likely to read in your environmental class, if not before.  And in Taking Back Eden: Eight Environmental Cases that Changed the World, Houck tells the stories behind a series of David v. Goliath environmental cases from around the world—with David sometimes winning.

  1. The Backstories

You’ll read a lot of cases in law school.  And you’ll often wonder about the stories behind the cases.  Some cases—like TVA v. Hill—have whole books devoted to them.  But if you want shorter summaries, as well as an introduction to the lawyering that goes into an environmental case, Environmental Law Stories is a great choice.  Each chapter in the book tells about a major environmental case and the details are sometimes surprising and occasionally even humorous.  For example, Jody Freeman’s account of befuddled, bored, sleepy judges stumbling their way through environmental cases is not to be missed.

  1. The Consolidated History

In 2004, Richard Lazarus, who now teaches environmental law at Harvard, published what is still the most comprehensive historical account of American environmental law.  The Making of Environmental Law is wonderfully accessible—it would make a great companion to an environmental law course, but you would also be able to follow it without prior legal coursework—and it does a great job of explaining the interplay between legal developments and changes in politics and society.

  1. Coal

If you’ve followed environmental controversies recently, you’ve heard about coal.  President Obama’s efforts to tighten environmental regulation of the coal industry were widely cheered by environmentalists (and economists), but Donald Trump has now made a coal revival into a major priority.  But this is nothing really new; coal has been generating environmental controversies, and good writing, for a long time.  In The Buffalo Creek Disaster, Gerald Stern tells the story of a disastrous coal sludge spill in the early 1970s and the litigation that followed.  Like A Civil Action, the book sometimes serves as a companion to first-year law courses; it introduces you to a wide variety of lawyering challenges in the context of a compelling story.  It also is just part of a longer tradition of environmental writing about coal country, with older and more recent examples here and here.

The books I’ve listed here are, of course, just the tip of an iceberg, and if I were to include general environmental writing, the list would grow much, much longer.  The list also leaves off several books (Paul Barrett’s The Law of the Jungle is one example) that colleagues recommended and that are now on my own summer reading list.  In other words, it’s not at all complete.  But sampling some of the works mentioned here would be a great way to introduce yourself to the study of environmental law.

- Dave Owen

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