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Review: ‘The Green Amendment’

“The Green Amendment: The People’s Fight for a Clean, Safe, and Healthy Environment,” by Maya van Rossum. Second edition, 2022, Disruption Books, New York.

Much environmental damage has enveloped parts of the world as a result of legal impotency, indifference, or both, and an inability to prevent corporate, governmental, and individual abuse. In “The Green Amendment,” Maya van Rossum relates examples of environmental abuse such as fracking, polluting industries located near minority populations, failure to curb carbon emissions, and other ‘business as usual’ offenses. These and other examples cited caused air, water, and soil pollution; erosion; irresponsible logging and forest management in general; and resistance to the need to control carbon emissions, damages that result in health and financial harm to citizens. Van Rossum details each example, reporting consequences to people living in and downstream of each instance of environmental abuse cited. (All her case studies are documented in about 30 pages of footnotes.)

This litany, familiar to many of us deeply involved in environmental causes, has a purpose: to document the need for green amendments to the constitution of each U.S. state, perhaps culminating in a green amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some examples show that states that have already adapted a green amendment to their bill of rights have been able to redress, and sometimes to avoid, specific ecological damage. Van Rossum stresses that such amendments must be in each constitution’s ‘Bill of Rights’ (however it is designated) to be effective. 

Often, environmental values are included in a state’s constitution in a general way, where they can be interpreted as policy rather than a right. Policy, attorney van Rossum writes, is subject to excessive interpretation and is unlikely to protect our ‘right’ to a clean, wholesome, and health-promoting environment.

Placing the right to a healthy and healthful natural environment in a ‘Bill of Rights’ provides tools for enforcement, she asserts. To summarize, a fundamental right supersedes a law, if the law diminishes or abrogates that right. When such a right is enacted, measures that impair the environment, potentially causing harm to citizens, can be prohibited by suit, before the damage is done, whether or not legislative laws are breached. This strategy avoids the need to prove likely damage before people or land are harmed, often irreparably. The value of such a green amendment depends, of course, on citizens being willing and able to seek its application when threat of environmental damage seems probable. It is not automatic. But neither does it depend on governmental officials.

Van Rossum founded Green Amendments for the Generations, a national movement active in many U.S. states. Her home state, New Jersey, as well as Washington State and Maine, have already enacted the amendment, thereby providing concrete remedies to potential or actual environmental damage. She describes some uses of the amendments as well as efforts to enact a green amendment in a number of other states.

I found the book impressive in its case-building and documentation. As a seasoned full-time environmentalist, my prior view was that governments, almost by their very nature, usually cause more harm than good. Here is an approach that I think, if followed through with utter attention to detail, can provide a tool for genuine solutions based on governmental features.

It would reiterate much of the book to usefully describe the abundant case studies where a green amendment could be, or actually was, useful in stopping or avoiding harm to people. 

A quote from van Rossum here can help paint the picture:

“The damaging human consequences of environmental pollution and degradation — from loss of air and water quality to destruction of ecosystems — together represent an egregious systemic failure of our environmental laws and governance. The intensity of these negative impacts makes abstract ideas like ‘constitutional environmental rights’ deeply personal — in turn making the case for Green Amendments deeply personal. In other words, it’s bad enough that our government and laws allow industry to harm the environment. But when those harms are so widespread, so out of control, and so significant that they rebound on innocent people, too? It’s hard to imagine a more obvious illustration of the wild inadequacy of our current legal framework — and the urgency of getting back to first principles: making the rights of people to protect the environment, versus the right of industry, our starting point.” 

A Sample Green Amendment

The Green Amendment closes with a sample starting point for an amendment of any state’s bill of rights.

“We the people of our state have a right to a clean, safe, and healthy environment, including pure water, clean air, stable climate, and healthy native ecosystems and environments.

“These are rights that belong to present and future generations.

“And you the government may take no action that may infringe upon these rights. 

“More than that, as trustee, you are constitutionally obligated to conserve, protect, and maintain our state’s natural resources for the benefit of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth or generation.”

Clearly, slight editing for specifics, specifying Vermont, for example, would strengthen this general wording to a stronger proposed constitution.