In the fables of environmentalism, lawyers are heroes. They invented the legal theories and mustered the facts to stop countless dams, mines, timber sales, and other harmful projects.
But somewhere along the line, environmentalists stopped treating litigation as a tool and started behaving as if it’s an end in itself—an end to be preserved even at a steep cost to the environment. That’s the lesson of recent legislative sessions in California, culminating in the blockbuster housing bills of 2023.
If you ask any environmentalist about housing, they’ll tell you that states like California need to allow a lot more of it in urban areas, especially near transit, and to put the brakes on exurban sprawl, especially in environmentally sensitive areas. This mantra dates to the 1990s, when the Sierra Club labeled sprawl “the dark side of the American Dream” and the Natural Resources Defense Council teamed up with the American Planning Association to forge a “smart growth alliance.”
You might suppose, then, that groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC would enthusiastically support bills that pressure cities to approve denser “infill” housing, and that they’d fight like mad against bills that grease the wheels for sprawl. You would be wrong.