Protecting Future Generations, Just as Earlier Ones Sought to Protect Us

Minor Sinclair

April 21, 2022

This blog post is the third in a series outlining the Center for Progressive Reform's strategic direction. We previously published "Strengthening the 4th Branch of Government" and "A Turning Point on Climate."

I'm hopeful the recent disco revival won't last but that other resurging movements of the 1960s and '70s will. That era saw the birth and explosive growth of the modern environmental movement alongside other sweeping actions for peace and equality.

Public pressure led to critical environmental laws that continue to protect our natural resources and our health and safety. In 1970, Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enacted the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the federal government to limit air pollution, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which established the first nationwide program to protect workers from on-the-job harm. Two years later came passage of the Clean Water Act, a landmark amendment to existing anti-pollution law that requires our government to restore and maintain clean and healthy waterways across the land.

That was some era — the last great upsurge of government protections.

As successful as those solutions have been in cleaning up our air and water and making our workplaces safer and healthier, we need to adapt and strengthen them — and innovate additional, robust ones — to address the challenges of today. Those challenges stem from a globalized economy, our accumulated dependence on fossil fuels, an intensifying climate crisis, and extreme inequity in capital and power. They require new paradigms for government intervention. Change won't be easy, but the public demands it.

We're on the verge of another such heyday of social movements and legislative change. The environmental justice movement — long known for its storied opposition to toxic dumps and contaminated waterways alongside communities treated as sacrifice zones — is taking local fights against whole industries to the national level. The climate movement is big and brawny and unyielding, a far cry from its 1970 Earth Day inspiration.

Political movements like the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement are upturning elections, shaping policy, and building a national imperative for higher environmental and public health standards; stronger regulations; major public investments in a clean economy and overburdened communities; and tighter regulation of markets and the functions of corporations.

It's a fraught time, but an exciting one as this movement (of which we are a part) seeks to transform public demand into political will and policy action. If successful, it will also force major legislative change and spawn a new era of vigorous government action.

Three Core Ideas

What does this moment mean for us? Our Public Protections program centers on three principles:

  • We need visionary ideas and progressive solutions. Our small but mighty team of environmental lawyers, specialists, and legal scholars rises to this challenge. We promote public policies, practices, and regulations that hold corporations accountable for harming workers and communities. We conduct research that is grounded in people's experience and lay out policy solutions for change. In February, we published a groundbreaking report highlighting unfair hiring practices that rob 80 million workers, disproportionately from marginalized communities, of their right to a free and fair trial. We published another report in 2020 that led Maryland to pass a law protecting drinking water for renters who rely on private wells, some of which may be contaminated by pollutants from large poultry operations. And that's just the beginning.

  • States are laboratories for "novel social and economic experiments," as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed. They also spur momentum for federal change through bottom-up and state-by-state initiatives. We're especially active in the Mid-Atlantic, calling on state governments to hold industrial polluters to account and convening an environmental enforcement network in Maryland. We also work at the nexus of public protections and climate change in key states. For example, we recently published a report on the dangers of unregulated aboveground chemical storage tanks in Virginia that drew statewide and national attention to this largely unrecognized danger.

  • Partnering with affected communities is fundamental. Environmental and workplace harm disproportionately falls on low-wealth people and communities of color. Failing to address regulatory shortcomings will exacerbate the effects of cumulative, compounding pollution in overburdened communities, widen health disparities, and deprive marginalized communities of their human rights. But we won't be able to right wrongs unless those most affected are front and center in movements for change; we must listen to their voices and lift up their experiences in our work for change.

As we look back at the generation that brought us disco, we're thankful for the sweeping laws of that era, which still protect our air, water, and workplaces. It's up to us to address the challenges of our time. It's up to our era to ensure our legacy is equally worthy — and more lasting than virtual reality, Uber helicopters, and squishy furniture. That is the challenge, and goal, of our public protections program at the Center for Progressive Reform.

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