Victor John Yannacone Jr. is nothing special to look at; he has to be heard. And there is, decidedly, nothing silent about Yannacone except the final "e" in his name. When he is outraged, as is frequently the case, his voice rises in pitch as it increases in volume until it resembles the terrible, putative wail of an Old Testament prophet. "Just look at this excrescence on the face of the earth!" Yannacone typically cried the other day as he drove past the Islip, N.Y. sanitary landfill project. "It is neither very sanitary nor very filling. They preincinerate garbage to warm it up for the rats!" That evening Yannacone showed color slides he had taken in Montana, which he had recently visited with his wife Carol and his 8-year-old son Victor John III. ("Victor's absence," Yannacone wrote his son's school, "was occasioned by a trip to Missoula with his parents, who were studying air pollution at the time. Victor saw the Mission Mountains, Flathead Lake and the herd of mountain sheep on Wild Horse Island, as well as a particularly miasmic example of industrial air pollution—the Hoerner Waldorf paper-pulp mill.... please fell free to question him on his trip.") Nearly all of Yannacone's slides portrayed what he calls "the effluent of the affluent"—dismal columns of smoke or great layers of smog. "Pure crud!" he shouted as he flashed the slides on his living-room wall. "The rape of the West! You can't see the purple mountain's majesty, much less the fruited plain. Oh, what a putrescent excrescence on the face of the globe!"
Yannacone, an exclamatory, 32-year-old Patchogue, N.Y. lawyer and Sunday-school teacher who was once the state's youngest Eagle Scout, is not, of course, alone in being infuriated by the rape of the West (and East), but he may be the only one who is wholly convinced he can do something about it. To perform this feat, Yannacone has become a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund—or, as he dolefully refers to it, the Fund-less Environmental Defenders.
"Vic really thinks he can save the world," says Dr. Charles F. Wurster Jr., assistant professor of biological sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and chairman of EDF's Scientists Advisory Committee. "He's a brilliant guy. If you aim him in the right direction he'll raise holy hell."
The Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. of Brookhaven, N.Y., which was founded 16 months ago, is the most militant of the nation's 150 conservation organizations. "We're hawks," says Wurster, not without relish, "but we operate entirely within the sociolegal structure. We don't block traffic. We don't sit in. We don't riot." In fact, EDF would rather not be counted among conservation groups. "Conservationists are a nice, placid, quiet, law-abiding group of citizens," says Wurster, "some of the best we've got, but they have a way of talking to themselves in a closed ecosystem. They are legally weak, scientifically naive and politically impotent. They lack an offense. EDF isn't content to do things in the usual, slow way with limited accomplishment. We want to do more faster, even if we have to crack a few skulls."
It is EDF's position that the traditional appeals of conservationists, largely based on esthetic and emotional grounds, to the legislative and administrative branches of government are too often ineffectual and that the last, and perhaps the only, hope lies in going to court armed with irrefutable scientific evidence. EDF's motto: Sue the Bastards.
EDF believes that the people of the U.S. are constitutionally entitled to the full benefit, use and enjoyment of the environment, and that natural resources must be administered in trust by one generation for the next. "Unfortunately, the Constitution says nothing about biospheres," Wurster admits. This omission has not, however, deterred EDF from bringing legal action against those who degrade the environment; Yannacone ingeniously rings in the "due process" and "equal protection" clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments, as well as the entire Ninth: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
The commonplace that a lawsuit is a last resort runs counter to one of Yannacone's Laws: "Litigation is like a club. It's got to be used or it becomes a deadweight." In a rousing address he delivered to the 1967 National Audubon Society convention, Yannacone promulgated what amounts to the EDF manifesto. "Sad experience," he said, "has shown that at this time in American history, litigation seems to be the only way...to focus the attention of our legislators on the basic problems of human existence, short of bloody revolution. Conservationists cannot riot in the Everglades, for who would notice but the few remaining great denizens of the swamp? Look to the 50-year history of the human-rights struggle in the American courts. Look to the success of the American labor movement and the surprising survival of General Motors in spite of the court's recognition of the rights of the United Auto Workers. All of the major social changes which have made America a finer place to live have their basis in fundamental constitutional litigation. Somebody had to sue somebody before the legislature...took long-overdue action."
In slightly less emotional moments, Yannacone argues that the conservation movement has rarely influenced Congress because legislators are often no longer responsible to the people but cater to special-interest groups whose concerns only occasionally coincide with those of the public. Appeals to administrative agencies are equally fruitless, he claims, since, to paraphrase his rhetoric, the original purpose of these agencies has been perverted and they act as judge, jury and executioner of their own actions without regard to the will of the electorate. "Yannacone's Law," says Yannacone. "Civilization declines in relation to the increase in bureaucracy."
His greatest wrath, however, is reserved for another popular tactic of conservationists—the letter to the editor. "Don't write letters!" he shrieks. "Do something! Yannacone's Law: When someone shoves, shove back. Don't write sterile prose. A letter to the editor! Bleahhh!"
Yannacone has an almost reverential regard for the law. "Litigation," he says, "frames the issues as no other procedure short of physical combat can. I practice law with the philosophy that if there is something that morally must be done, there is a legal way to do it. Of course, you've also got to make the thing swing. If it doesn't swing you're going to get yawned out of court."