John-Mark Stensvaag, College of Law
Law professor John-Mark Stensvaag has a theory about career direction: that people often pursue jobs in their parent’s second-favorite subject area. Case in point: Stensvaag’s father became a minister but loved the law. Another case in point: Stensvaag and his wife are passionate about music, and one of their five children does development work for the San Francisco Symphony.
Stensvaag, the Charlotte and Frederick Hubbell Professor of Environmental and Natural Resources Law, has been teaching courses such as Civil Procedure, Environmental Law, and Evidence at The University of Iowa since he first arrived on campus as a visiting professor in 1987. When the Minnesota native graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974, the environmental movement was just starting to take shape. He recently sat down with fyi to reflect on his own career path and how his field has changed.
When and how did law spark your interest?
I was in high school during the civil rights movement, and law played such a powerful role in that. It was really interesting to read the paper because just about every day law was involved: discussions about law, discussions about cases, changing the law. It was an interesting time to be alive. I went to law school thinking that I would be involved in civil rights, but in the turbulent context of the Black Power movement, it was humbling to think that as a white person I could step in and make a difference. I guess I was a bit of a coward that way.
So why environmental law?
The timing was right. The first Earth Day was in 1970—I entered law school in 1969—and it was on the news everywhere. Walter Cronkite was the news reporter that everybody watched, and he had a series called “Can the world be saved?” We had satellite images of Earth from outer space, and that made quite an impression on me. And there was a great deal of potential—a whole new field was opening up.
What were the major motivators back then for the environmental movement?
There were approximately 50 statutes passed between 1900 and 1990, but a huge number of them passed when Richard Nixon was president. A lot of people don’t realize that. He created the Environmental Protection Agency. The original concerns were air and water, with the massive Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. It wasn’t until 1976 that Congress said, “Oh my gosh, there’s hazardous waste.” Nobody talked about hazardous waste, really. Then there was a big, public to-do about a place called Love Canal in New York and that was the motivating factor in passing the hazardous waste statute in 1976. Statutes kept being enacted and Congress kept seeing one more problem after another. It was almost like Whack-a-Mole. Every time they created a new statute, they saw two more problems that needed to be dealt with.
It was an interesting time to become a lawyer. The Clean Water Act has a section in it that says, “After 1985 there will be no discharge of any pollutant into any navigable water in the United States.” That’s how naïve we were. We thought pollution could be eliminated from the earth. That section is still in the statute. My students smile about that now because they realize we are in a holding action.
How has the field of environmental law changed?
There has been a tremendous push back along the lines of cost-benefit analysis. In 1994, a statute that would have required that every environmental regulation be shown to be cost-beneficial came within two votes in the Senate of being enacted. It would have had a tremendously devastating effect on environmental law. It would be so costly to develop the information necessary to prove it. Industry is happy to provide the costs of compliance, but calculating the benefits of compliance is very difficult.
So, people who want to rein in environmental regulation have been very successful at riding this cost-benefit wave and making it much harder to enforce environmental laws. There’s been no major environmental statute enacted since 1990. When you look at the statutes that were enacted before 1990, legislators were marching right along. Some years saw four or five statutes passed.
Why the regression?
It’s complicated. Certainly there is very powerful lobbying—and a lot of money—involved in trying to stave off environmental regulations. In one way it’s kind of a depressing time for environmental advocates, but as Robert Kennedy Jr. said when he was on campus a short time ago, “There are a lot of really good laws on the books. If we take advantage of them and try to enforce them, we can still accomplish a lot.”
How can business benefit from compliance?
If we take seriously global warming and controlling greenhouse gases, the amount of technology that we will need—the researchers, the engineers, the industrial production of pollution-control technology—will present wonderful opportunities for jobs, for meaningful careers, for world competition. If you create a company that solves a serious environmental pollution problem and you become the leader in the field, you can compete internationally. But if you have an administration that isn’t serious about enforcing environmental laws, these opportunities for technological fixes just dry up. It doesn’t matter how committed you are as an engineer to develop these technologies if there’s no market for them.
What ideas do you like to instill in your students?
I tell them that it’s not unusual to come into a class like Environmental Law thinking that there are only good guys and gals and bad guys and gals, and that you can’t do meaningful and good work in environmental law unless you work for one of the big mainline public interest groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Wilderness Society. But the truth of the matter is that we have to have good, honorable, and ethical advocates representing industry or else the system is never going to work. We have to have people of integrity representing the polluters, saying, “Look, this is what the law requires. You really are better off complying with the law.”
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?
Meeting a new crop of students every year is always invigorating and exciting. One of the things I really enjoy is trying to get to know the names of all the students before I first meet them in class. I’m not perfect, but even if I have 150 or 160 new students in a semester, I really try to learn their names. I think it’s important that we show them that level of respect.
My biggest challenge as a teacher is to make sure that every day I give the students something of value so that their time is not wasted. I feel it’s my obligation to make that hour worth their time.
What attracted you to The University of Iowa?
My wife and I are from the Midwest and we have five children, and the chance to move to Iowa City and come to this great university and the public school system here was just a godsend to us. Our children got a wonderful education. In fact, the happiest check my wife and I write every year is for our property taxes, because that is the only way you have good schools.
Whom do you most admire, and why?
Nelson Mandela is one of many heroes. I think his story is unbelievable—that he could come through 27 years of imprisonment without bitterness and actually turn that country around. I still can’t believe it happened. And he’s a lawyer. When young people start talking about lawyers in a negative way, I always remind them that Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were lawyers. You could hardly have better role models. I also tell them that nobody knows what kind of grades they got—or cares.
by Sara Epstein Moninger