5 minute read  written by  . Published on June 24, 2013


“All students in this course, whether they choose it or not, will be given opportunities in their lifetimes to affect the next generation of environmental law in their countries”

-Don Hornstein

Don Hornstein, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is teaching a free online course (MOOC) on Coursera called Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy. The MOOC is modeled after an award-winning undergrad course Hornstein teaches at Duke and UNC. The course starts on August 30, and lasts six weeks.

In Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy Hornstein will teach how to conduct basic online legal research. Students will identify environmental problems near them and post it on the course discussion fora. Students will be able to concentrate the collective results of their research, even if they may not have direct access to these sources in their own countries.

Hornstein was able to participate in an interview with Class Central that reviews his course, and dives into important issues facing environmental law.

How has environmental law changed the world? How can it change the world?

Environmental law has done plenty, but plainly has not done enough. On the one hand, people living in countries with strong clean-air laws on the books have demonstrably healthier lives because of those laws than people living in polluted airsheds. So, too, will their children’s lives be better. The same is true with water quality and countries with a legal infrastructure governing water quality. Countries that have a legal system protecting endangered species and ecologically significant natural areas similarly will have both better qualities of life (for both their human and non-human inhabitants), and also a greater storehouse of potentially useful natural resources for future use. Thus in all these respects, environmental law literally “changes” the “world.” On the other hand, even in countries with a modern tradition of environmental law, there are serious problems with under-enforcement, with gaps in coverage, with political rollbacks in the face of short-term economic pressures, and with a lack of imagination in the design of next-generation legal frameworks.

What are the main topics that will be covered in the course?

In addition to covering the “big” topics in environmental law – how environmental law relates to liberty and to property rights, how environmental law recognizes the needs of future generations and non-human life – the course will cover particular areas of air and water-pollution law, of endangered species law, of water law, of energy law. Overarching these topics, the course will teach students how to read legal “cases” (opinions written by judges), how to “think like a lawyer” in integrating judicial opinions into understandable legal rules and policy approaches, how to read statutes and regulations, how to do basic legal research online.

Where do property rights come from? Where do environmental rights come from? How do the two conflict and complement one another?

For starters, none of this comes from God. Both property rights and environmental rights come from what is called “positive” law, which means law as designed by humans and human societies. And both forms of law have track records of being both practical and aspirational: property rights are designed to allow rights-holders to capitalize and develop economically the underlying property unless and until it interferes with superior rights; so too environmental rights are designed to protect the public’s interest in such common property systems as the atmosphere, the oceans, the world’s waters, the world’s forests and grasslands and wildlife.

How does the interpretation of environmental law change across nations? Are there absolutes that can be taught to a world of learners?

Many of the underlying policy issues are universal: what rights are owed future generations, wildlife, one’s neighbors, etc. And there are pockets of plurality in environmental law, such as the common law shared by many (English) Commonwealth countries, and the fact that more modern environmental law, such as that developed in the United States, has been borrowed and adopted widely elsewhere. To that extent, there are some lessons that can be taught and learned worldwide. But there are also some important variables, in which we can see different, even radically different, approaches taken by the environmental laws of different countries. Those, too, can and should be studied worldwide. Part of environmental law is generative in nature. It is still being designed and we are still learning what has worked, and what hasn’t. This can and should be studied by learners who will be designing their own country’s next generation environmental law.

In what ways will a student who completes this course be able to affect environmental policy?

All students in this course, whether they choose it or not, will be given opportunities in their lifetimes to affect the next generation of environmental law in their countries. Students who complete the course will go into this endeavor equipped with insights from what’s been tried, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and with insights into the big-picture issues with which all environmental law must grapple, such as potential trade-offs between environmental quality and economic growth and with the range of potential policy options that can reduce the dissonance between the two. Even more immediately, this course will offer an unprecedented platform from which to learn the art and skill of online environmental legal research, with a never-before-been-tried dimension in some of our discussion fora, in which students worldwide will be able to describe environmental problems in their countries and have our worldwide collection of learners turn their collective online research skills onto those problems, contributing knowledge that might not have been as easily available to a student on his or her own. We’re particularly excited about this crowdsourcing aspect of this Coursera course.


Learn how to change the environment by signing up for Don Hornstein’s Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy course on Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/course/environlaw