An Earth Day Conversation with Professor Cannon

Jim Dennison '18
Guest Columnist

The first Earth Day in 1970 marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Horrified by environmental disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the burning of the severely polluted Cuyahoga River, and inspired by the student anti-war movement, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) launched Earth Day as a nationwide day of teach-ins, clean-ups, and demonstrations. Twenty million Americans joined together to demonstrate and volunteer for a healthy environment. Participation took many forms, including some rather colorful ones: “Oil-coated ducks were dumped on the doorstep of the Department of the Interior . . .  A student disguised as the Grim Reaper stalked a General Electric Company stockholders’ meeting . . . Demonstrators dragged a net filled with dead fish down Fifth Avenue, and shouted to passers-by, ‘This could be you!’”1

The event transformed thousands of localized efforts to curb pollution and environmental destruction into a unified movement made up of citizens with widely varying backgrounds, circumstances, and political views. For many of its participants, Earth Day was the first realization that so many others throughout the country and the world shared their concerns for public health and sustainable interactions with nature, which society inevitably depends on for food, resources, recreation, and inspiration. 

In 1990, Earth Day was expanded to include events in 141 countries worldwide, in recognition of our interdependence and the global nature of environmental issues. Earth Day 2017 events include the March for Science on April 22 and the People’s Climate Mobilization on April 29, both to be held in Washington, D.C. with solidarity demonstrations throughout the country.

The first Earth Day was a formative and galvanizing moment for the founding generation of modern environmentalists, who include influential activists, scientists, lawyers, and politicians like John “Planetwalker” Francis, Rachel Carson, Dr. Robert Bullard, and Rick Middleton. We are fortunate to have a pioneer of modern environmentalism here at UVA Law. Professor Jon Cannon served as general counsel to the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration. He wrote a groundbreaking memorandum that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gas emissions are regulable under the Clean Air Act. VELF interviewed Professor Cannon to learn how the spirit of Earth Day 1970 can continue to inspire the next generation of environmentalists.

Q: You participated in the first Earth Day in 1970. What was that experience like?

A: Well, I picked up trash on the Potomac River near where I lived at the time. We lived in Williamsport, Md., which is right on the Potomac, and I used to go running on the Potomac C&O towpath. There was a group that was going down to the river to pick up trash, and I was with them, and that’s what I did. Nothing dramatic.

Q: How did your experience at Earth Day influence your outlook on the environment and your career?

A: It had a huge impact on my career. I think prior to Earth Day I, like a lot of other people, had concerns about the environment, about pollution, about land use changes, about degradation of areas that I thought were important to protect. But those registered as private grievances. That is, they were things that concerned me, but I didn’t connect them with a broader movement or political response. And what Earth Day showed me, and I think it showed everybody who participated, was that there were a lot of people out there who had similar concerns and that a collective recognition of those concerns could lead to political action and positive change.

Q: How do you think the state of the environment, the environmental movement, and environmental law and policy have changed since the first Earth Day?

A: Well, all of those things have changed. I think after the first Earth Day there was an apparent consensus and support of relatively strong federal environmental legislation, which produced the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and most of the other laws that we have today. There was a sense then that the movement had changed the configuration of national politics. Those laws made a big difference. I think we have an environment that’s cleaner and higher quality than we would without them. But things have happened in the meantime that make our present situation difficult, I think. One is that the apparent consensus that existed in the early ’70s and extended really into the mid ’80s has eroded so that now we have polarized views on environmental policy that are roughly identifiable to major political parties. And we have also, while successfully dealing with some of the more conventional problems that we faced in the 1970s, encountered new problems that we have not yet come up with adequate solutions to, like climate change. In our present polarized political environment, it’s very difficult to do that.

Q: What direction do you see environmentalism heading in from here?

A: I think for a long time, environmentalists were identified with folks who thought we should do with less, that we needed to sacrifice in order to protect the environment. I think the conventional view of environmentalism also included a notion that there was some sort of pristine nature that needed to be protected, at least in substantial portions, from human development or influence. There was also an anti-technology component, I think, to some environmentalist thinking as well. The idea that large, industrial scale technology could be expected to have adverse effects on the environment. 

My own view, and this is shared by many other people, is that the movement needs to make, and is already making, some changes to meet the current challenge. I think it’s clear now that there’s probably not any such thing as pristine nature in the sense of nature not influenced by human activity. And so the question becomes less about preserving that ideal and more about managing effectively the environment that we have, and that in significant part have created or are creating. That changes the emphasis from protectionism to more of a management focus. And I think as part of that there’s a greater recognition that technology, while it’s the cause of a number of our environmental problems, also offers solutions to those problems, and that to deal with issues like climate change and the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions we’ll need new technologies, deployed at an industrial scale, and taking full advantage of the power of markets to deploy. So in that sense, to be effective in the modern circumstance the movement has to be more accepting of technology and markets and active management of the environment.

Q: What do you think the value of Earth Day and similar events is, in terms of keeping the environmental movement strong and keeping folks educated and motivated?

A: I think Earth Day remains important, maybe because it happens every year. People aren’t as excited about it as they were on the first Earth Day, but I think as new problems come forward and new circumstances occur that make these issues fresh, that Earth Day has a potential to renew excitement and commitment about environmental issues, and to galvanize action. 

Q: Perhaps we saw some of that when 175 countries signed the landmark Paris Climate Agreement on Earth Day 2016.

A: Yes, there was sort of a symbolic portion of that. And, you know, there are going to be activities on or around Earth Day this April that I think will be important as collective expressions of ongoing concern. There’s a demonstration of scientists on April 22, and a climate change march in D.C. on the April 29.

Q: Do you have any advice for students or aspiring environmental lawyers on Earth Day 2017?

A: My advice is follow your star. If you’re interested in environmental issues and you want to make a difference, I think the law is a good instrument to do that. And the law doesn’t operate by itself—it needs lawyers to make it work, across the spectrum from private practice to government service to nongovernmental organizations. So people who have a sense for these issues and a basic engagement can find a very satisfying career doing environmental law.

Q: I talk to a lot of people who value the environment and are interested in issues like climate change, but who have other career aspirations or are unable to commit their careers to environmental law. Are there good ways for folks in this situation to make a difference?

A: Oh absolutely. We have lives as professionals, but we also have lives as citizens, and people can participate in all kinds of ways. They can join groups that advance positions on the environment or make concrete contributions to environmental protection. They can participate in local politics or state politics or politics at the national level on these issues. They can talk to their congresspeople. They can grow vegetables in their back yard without pesticides. There are all sorts of ways to express environmental concerns that don’t involve making a career in environmental law. So I would encourage anybody who is so inclined not to feel that they have to devote their lives to this. They can devote a portion of their lives to this and still make a big difference.

Earth Day is this Saturday, April 22. To celebrate and participate in Earth Day’s tradition of civic engagement, VELF has organized a volunteer trip to UVa’s Morven Kitchen Garden from 2 to 4 p.m. The Morven Kitchen Garden is a living laboratory in sustainable market farming that features a community supported agriculture program and a robust set of student-led research projects. All are welcome, and you can contact Courtney Koelbel at if you are interested.

1 Jack Lewis, The Birth of EPA,