Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
If you want a primer on what law can do in a short period of time, think about the air you breathe. Chances are you don’t have to do that very often. When the air is smoky from wildfires, maybe you avoid running for a few days. Or if you’re in a Utah inversion during winter, you may go to the treadmill instead of to the trails.
But if you were an athlete in 1970, you may have had to think about the air all the time. In some places in the United States, walking outside would have been a nightmare for your health. And we’re not just talking major cities. Places like Steubenville, Ohio, were as polluted as modern-day Beijing.
Everything changed with the bipartisan passage of the Clean Air Act. A 2011 study found that the Act saves around 200,000 lives a year and prevents asthma exacerbation in about 2,000,000 more. Hundreds of millions of years have been added to lives. Even as population has increased by over 50 percent, pollution levels have decreased by more than two-thirds. The same pollutants that were killing people and contributing to asthma are especially bad for athletes with higher respiratory rates during exercise.
Want to rip your hair out? The 1970 Clean Air Act passed the Senate 73 to 0. It was signed into law by Richard Nixon. The 1990 amendments were passed by a 89 to 11 margin, signed by George H.W. Bush. (Included in the ‘yes’ votes was Mitch McConnell, who said “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”) Nowadays, some legal scholars question whether a major environmental law will be passed again.
Athletes have a role to play. I’m not telling you that you need to advocate like Western States 100 winner and environmental activist Clare Gallagher (follow her for specific tips on actions you can take). I’m just telling you to keep your eyes and ears open to the motivations of anyone who questions the importance or effectiveness of environmental laws. There’s a chance that your life depends on it.
That was a bit dramatic. Many environmental laws are more boring than that, but they too are indispensable to your modern life as an athlete. Let’s go over four big ones as a primer.
Clean Air Act
I love the audacity of the Clean Air Act. I think of it a bit like the policy equivalent of the moon landing. Remember how JFK pledged that we would step foot on the moon? You could imagine engineers being like, “You do realize that our total computing power would be a fraction of a TI-83 calculator, right?” But they did it. They set a goal, and ingenuity plus cooperation made it happen.
That’s the Clean Air Act, but instead of a lunar landing, it involves air-quality standards. A good overview is in this 2011 Congressional Research Service brief. The law establishes levels of air pollutants to protect public health against anticipated adverse effects. It’s primarily implemented by states, and, if standards are exceeded, certain measures to reduce pollution must be taken in those non-attainment areas. In 1970, much of the country’s air was, in the words of Richard Nixon, royally screwed. (He didn’t actually say that, but it feels like he could have).
Land on the moon, make it happen.
It happened. Pollution levels dropped rapidly and permanently.
Around 1990, you may remember how big of a problem “acid rain” was in the public imagination. Whatever happened to that? Much ado about nothing, right? Stupid environmentalists. Actually, the problem was addressed by 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, along with ozone depletion and other toxins. Industries said it was financially impossible. Within a few years, much of the problem had been solved. To put numbers on it, studies found $100-plus billion in annual benefits at around $1 billion annual costs.
I already went over some of the stats above, but, to summarize: life as an outdoor athlete before the Clean Air Act would not have been fun in many urban settings in the country. Life expectancy for athletes would have been significantly lower, asthma rates astronomically higher.
Over the last 50 years, lobbyists and politicians have been publicly skeptical that the law would cost too much, or not solve problems, or needed to be amended to be more friendly to business. Well, those well-funded critics have been proven wrong, repeatedly and emphatically.
It goes far beyond athletes. Like most environmental issues, the air pollution problems were disproportionately borne by minorities and people with lower socioeconomic status. Over decades of progress, the Clean Air Act helped change the environmental conversation to one focused on justice for all.
But over the last 50 years, lobbyists and politicians have been publicly skeptical that the law would cost too much, or not solve problems, or needed to be amended to be more friendly to business. Well, those well-funded critics have been proven wrong, repeatedly and emphatically.
There’s room for debate about future applications of the Clean Air Act, like how it regulates greenhouse gases (see this 2019 article in the Georgetown Environmental Law Review). But remember that history when hearing news reports or enjoying your afternoon run in breathable air.
Clean Water Act
In the 1900s, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland had a persistent problem. It continually caught on fire. And other waterways were catching on fire too. Generally, catching fire is a sub-optimal trait for water.
On that backdrop, the Clean Water Act was signed into law in 1972 by noted friend-of-slimy-creatures Richard Nixon. It was stunningly ambitious. The law outlaws any discharge of pollutants from a point source into navigable waters. Simultaneously, it forces technology to catch up, requiring best practicable control technology to clean up discharges. If you are asking yourself how you could possibly determine what any of those words even mean, check out this 2016 summary from the Congressional Research Service. Every time you say the words “Clean Water Act,” a lawyer bills eight hours.
On that backdrop, the Clean Water Act was signed into law in 1972 by noted friend-of-slimy-creatures Richard Nixon. It was stunningly ambitious. The law outlaws any discharge of pollutants from a point source into navigable waters.
Unlike the Clean Air Act, the benefits of the Clean Water Act are more debated (partially because it’s harder to directly tie water pollution back to health outcomes). But as former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus said: “Even if all of our waters are not swimmable or fishable, at least they are not flammable.”
For athletes specifically, every time you find yourself near a body of water, think about what would be going through your head without ambitious environmental laws. Before, waterways were essentially an industrial toilet. While there is still room to apply Clean Water Act principles to other pollution sources like agricultural runoff, at least chemical companies aren’t allowed to flush into our stream crossings.
Endangered Species Act
When thinking about the Endangered Species Act, let’s start with a quick digression. Why do we need environmental laws in the first place? A good place to have this brainstorming session: a post-race public porta-potty.
The reason porta-potties can be such horror shows is that the problems one person creates are shared by many. It’s not a perfect fit for what lawyers call the “tragedy of the commons,” but the same basic principle is at work. Shared resources will not be valued properly by individual actors without further incentives, whether those are rewards or penalties. It’s why climate change seems like such an intractable problem right now. But these environmental laws show that undervalued shared resources can be valued appropriately with a slight legal nudge.
Since it passed, only a couple species have gone extinct, while hundreds have been saved. As runners, if we value wild places, then the Endangered Species Act gives real-world life to our imagined values.
The Endangered Species Act turned a slight nudge into the continued existence of hundreds of plants and animals. Passed in 1973 by … Richard Nixon (SERIOUSLY?!), the Act classifies at-risk species as endangered or threatened, outlawing illegal “take” of those listed species, and conserving critical habitat (Congressional Research Service summary here).
What’s the value of a bald eagle? The meat probably costs a few bucks. Multiply that by all the bald eagles out there in 1973, and you’d get an expensive dinner, but a cheap species.
The Endangered Species Act essentially tries to account for value that might not make it into a cost-benefit analysis, mostly through land-use regulation. Since it passed, only a couple species have gone extinct, while hundreds have been saved. As runners, if we value wild places, then the Endangered Species Act gives real-world life to our imagined values.
National Environmental Policy Act
Let’s end with the least sexy law on the list, but possibly the one that needs to be fought for the most right now. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1970 and requires environmental review before undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment (Congressional Research Service summary here). It’s procedural, not substantive. Boring lawyer stuff. Only that boring lawyer stuff is partially a reason that the mountain west isn’t a mix of fracking wells and four-wheel-drive parks.
That’s just one possible example. Essentially, by introducing procedural review, NEPA is how other environmental laws often get applied and litigated. Will a project have cumulative impacts to the environment and climate? How about socioeconomic and justice impacts? Without NEPA, a lot of our idealistic laws might be neutered of their world-changing benefits.
During his administration, former President Trump announced proposed changes to NEPA rules, primarily cutting out consideration of cumulative climate change impacts and applying a time limit to reviews. Notably, the changes largely echo recommendations made to the White House last year by industry groups including the American Petroleum Institute. It’s easier to go faster when you cut the course.
Every unique public comment from a citizen has a major weight in final decisions in times like these. Perhaps NEPA can be reformed in a reasonable way, but according to experts with good environmental records, that proposal was not it. The proposed changes could have had particularly devastating impacts for vulnerable communities.
As an athlete, if you spend time on public land, this matters. If you care about climate, this matters. If you care about justice for all and preventing damage that can’t be undone, this matters.
Way back at the beginning of this article, I mentioned how much law can do in a short period of time. In the 1970s, these four laws and others after them made an immediate positive impact on the health and economic prosperity of the country. But the reverse holds true too. Sometimes, it’s hard to realize how tenuous environmental health can be until it’s too late. As they say, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.
The American Petroleum Institute and similar voices have been fighting the bad fight every step of the way. And every step of the way, history has proven them wrong.
As athletes, let’s fight the good fight.