John C. Dernbach
worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources in 1992 when he took a week long vacation in Brazil to attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – more commonly known as the first Earth Summit – in Rio de Janeiro.
An attorney who previously viewed environmental law as a means of preventing pollution, he attended a seminar at the conference that sparked an epiphany, a moment when he realized that the economy and the environment are inextricably intertwined. “The environment is connected to everything we care about,” he said.
Dernbach joined the faculty at Widener Law in Harrisburg the following year, and in 1997 taught a class on sustainability and the law. For a class project, he assigned students to write about how well the United States had followed Agenda 21, a plan of action for sustainable worldwide development agreed upon by the world’s nations at the Earth Summit. He synthesized his students’ research and published it in The Environmental Law Reporter
and posted it online. When he attended a follow-up conference about Agenda 21 at the UN, the paper was the only one of its kind. “I went to New York and found myself famous,” he said.
In 2002, Dernbach led a campaign to publish articles about sustainability efforts in the United States, resulting in a second review, Stumbling Toward Sustainability
, a collection of 31 essays by experts nationwide. In 2009, Dernbach, by then director of the Sustaining America project, edited the influential book Agenda for a Sustainable America
, published by the Environmental Law Institute. He called on the United States to take a leadership role in sustainability efforts worldwide.
“This country has a major role to play,” he wrote. “Our nation’s global energy, ecological, and economic footprint is so large that it is difficult to imagine how the world can achieve sustainability unless the United States also does.”
For his efforts, Dernbach has received many commendations. The university named him a distinguished professor of law, and he won a 2010 award for distinguished service from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Environmental and Energy Law Section. He also has been named to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and he is frequently invited to speak at conferences and events worldwide. Calling sustainability a topic of the utmost importance to all human endeavors, he said, “Environmental law is not just about the Earth. The primary benefit of environmental law is protecting human health.”