It may be hard to believe now, but the idea that people can fight for their environment (and win) is still a fairly new concept. Like many things revolutionary, the idea began in America with a case that brought unlikely allies together against the largest power company in America — all in an effort to preserve the Hudson River and its inhabitants’ livelihood. Since that time, lawsuits brought on behalf of the environment have spread around the world, and with each new case protections for threatened environments as well as entirely new notions of justice and democracy are created and spread forth.

In Taking Back Eden: Eight Environmental Cases that Changed the World (Island Press, $35), Oliver A. Houck, a law professor at Tulane University, chronicles eight groundbreaking cases that helped lay the foundation for the environmental justice we enjoy today. Beginning with the famous Hudson River case known as Storm King Mountain, “which opened the courthouse doors to a new kind of lawsuit and shook the pillars of government and industry,” Houck takes readers back to a time when environmental laws simply did not exist, so they had to be earned, one by one, case by case.

One of the most distressing stories that the author highlights is that of the Cree Nation’s repeated attempts to protect their environment from a series of water projects that threatened to destroy their way of life. Though in the end their fight was in many ways unsuccessful, it did help develop the idea that even when government or environmental agencies won’t put up a fight, the people can still have their day in court. Another case, involving the Philippines' rain forests, introduces the novel concept that lawsuits can be waged on behalf of the protection of future generations of unborn children. 

The point of retelling these stories is, of course, to remind people that the right to sue for environmental protection wasn’t just given to the people; it had to be earned. As a result of Storm King and other environmental cases, people would now be able to go “toe to toe with the most powerful forces in America to protect the environment by legal process,” Houck writes. This idea came to fruition in April 1970, the first Earth Day, when half a million people appeared in Washington, D.C., to protest environmental atrocities happening in the world, such as rivers catching fire and chemicals poisoning iconic wildlife.

But though Taking Back Eden will give readers a new appreciation for the environmental laws that we so often take for granted, the book fails to connect readers with the characters, perhaps because the author seems more focused on explaining the facets of the law than developing the characters’ personas. As a result, the book often reads more like a law report than a collection of triumphs and tribulations of some of the most courageous people on the planet who, in some cases, sacrificed their lives to give us the environmental protections we enjoy today. It is a worthwhile read, but readers may be left feeling underwhelmed by the author’s somewhat dry storytelling style.

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'Taking Back Eden: Eight Environmental Cases that Changed the World'
Tulane law professor Oliver A. Houck chronicles a set of lawsuits that altered the landscape.