The Power Line 100: Jonathan Adler

It’s about time we start turning our attention to law professors who belong on the Power Line 100 list, and we’ve got a long list of them.  As with the rest of the field of finalists, there is no particular order, so we’ll start with Jonathan Adler, the well-known interior designer whose baubles you can find at Bed, Bath & Beyond—no, wait, not that Jonathan Adler!  We mean the Jonathan H. Adler, who is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.  (You can check out his personal website here.)

I once had an environmental reporter from the New York Times tell me that he thought Jon was “scary smart,” and I understand why.  He is one of the most cited legal scholars in environmental law, but with a decided unconventional (that is, non-liberal or non-statist) point of view that emphasizes decentralization, local knowledge, and property rights in preference to bureaucratic control of resources.  A 2007 study identified Adler as the most cited legal academic in environmental law under age 40, and his recent article “Money or Nothing: The Adverse Environmental Consequences of Uncompensated Land Use Controls,” published in the Boston College Law Review, was selected as one of the ten best articles in land use and environmental law in 2008.

To my mind his most notable original contribution to a revisionist understanding of the environment is his article “Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection,” which offers a iconoclastic history and analysis of the famous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969.  I quote the abstract in full:

On June 22, 1969, just before noon, an oil slick and assorted debris under a railroad trestle on the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The fire attracted national media attention, and helped prompt the passage of federal environmental laws. A river on fire was a symbol of earth in need of repair, and federal regulation was the reparative tool of choice. Much of the Cuyahoga story is mythology, however, a fable with powerful symbolic force. The river did burn in 1969 – as it and other rivers had burned many times before – and today the Cuyahoga and many U.S. rivers are far less polluted. But so much else of what we “know” about the 1969 fire is simply not so. The conventional narratives, of a river abandoned by its local community, of water pollution at its zenith, of conventional legal doctrines impotent in the face of environmental harms, and of a beneficent federal government rushing in to save the day, is misleading in many respects. This paper revisits the context and history of the legendary Cuyahoga River fire to reveal a more complex story about the causes and consequences of various institutional choices in environmental law. The aim is to provide additional perspective to the questions of institutional choice which underlie environmental policy, and to suggest that the decision to reallocate primary authority over water quality to the federal government was neither inevitable nor an unmitigated blessing.

You can read Jon regularly at the Volokh Conspiracy (maybe the best law blog in the country, whose entire roster of contributors may require a group listing on the Power Line 100).  For some reason he doesn’t get a “hotness” rating at, which seems clearly an oversight.  What’s the matter with students these days anyway?  Are they intimidated by “lookism” or something?

If you have the time, you can take in Jon in this hour-long talk explaining his environmental viewpoint with his typical cogency:

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