Saturday, November 17, 2018

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Environmental Law?

Inara Scott  is an Associate Professor in the College of Business at Oregon State University

This is the twelfth  in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."

Besides being a legal scholar, I also write fiction. My first published book was a young adult novel, and it was in publishing that I became familiar with the problem of shelving. You see, before you can sell your book, you have to identify the genre. That designation tells booksellers and librarians where to shelve the book; for e-books, it identifies what category to put it in for online searching.

If you can’t label it, they can’t sell it.

Picking a genre determines how the book is marketed and who becomes the audience. Genres also carry deeply embedded connotations: for example, who do you picture reading romance novels? Who do you picture writing them?

The boundaries of genres can make it impossible to write and sell certain kinds of stories. Understanding this, authors consider where their book will be shelved beforethey write and modify their story ideas accordingly.  Until the 1970s, few books were written with teenage protagonists because there was no such genre as “young adult”—the genre of books for young people aged 12-18 wasn’t officially created until the 1960s.  

Like fiction authors, lawyers are trained to think about law in discrete categories. Interdisciplinary efforts may be viewed with skeptical, or even disapproving eyes.  As a professor teaching environmental law at a business school, I can say from first-hand experience that many do not consider me to be part of the “environmental law” community simply because of where I teach.

TheAnthropocene—and more specifically, climate change—offer existential challenges to the survival of humanity and life on this planet. Many instinctively turn to environmental law to solve these challenges. Unfortunately, I don’t think the challenges we face will be solved by items on the environmental law shelf. No, I believe we need to start fresh, create a new genre, and leave environmental law firmly in the past.

To explain why, let’s start with what the environmental law shelf currently contains. Most definitions of environmental law describe statutes and regulations that govern how people interact with the natural environment—the “natural environment” in this context being non-human species, plants, and natural resources. Environmental law is also generally understood to include pollution control and management of public lands and natural resources. The laws most would identify as the cannon of the environmental law genre (e.g., the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act) focus on this relatively straightforward human-environment formula. These laws generally arose out of a perceived environmental crisis, a desire to protect the environment from human harm, and a need to ensure environmental resources were available for human consumption.

Over time, the popular understanding of environmental law, including this human-environment formula, created certain expectations for and limitations on the genre:

1)Environmental law addresses interactions between humans and the natural environment, and ways to limit human actions in order to protect the environment. Conversely, environmental law does not focus on human-to-human interactions or economic transactions. Matters having to do with corporate law, tax, and business are generally not included. It is only recently that energy law—including fossil fuel extraction and electric utility regulation—has been considered alongside or even linked to environmental law. 

2)Environmental laws address narrow targets with narrow solutions. For example, the Endangered Species Act creates a mechanism for protecting individual species. It was not intended to create a mechanism for considering bigger questions—i.e., how do we protect biodiversity?  

3)Environmental law is furthered by liberal white activists. Environmental law is not relevant to conservatives, people of color,  or people living in urban settings who don’t like the woods.

Point number three is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the environmental law shelf. In a time of virulent political division, environmental law, like anything associated with climate change, is associated with one perspective and one political party.  Sadly, it is also associated with one race and one socioeconomic status, and negatively associated with strident activism.  Overall, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is down to 42% (from 78% in 1991).

So, at this point in history, what the public thinks of as environmental law is law that: does not address corporate governance or economic regulation; sees humans as separate from and antagonistic to the “natural world”; is narrowly focused on singular solutions in a complex world; and is not relevant to a diversity of perspectives or identities.

The danger here should be obvious from this list: many of the areas that currently fall out of the environmental law arena are precisely the ones that are essential to addressing the key challenges of the Anthropocene. Lawyers seeking to mitigate climate change mustembrace corporate law as a key part of their toolbox. Shareholder primacy and corporate law that fosters short-termism must be countered if we are to fight overuse of natural resources and a culture of unfettered consumerism. Smart infrastructure development and management of the electricity sector is essential to decarbonizing our economy.  Understanding how to rethink the field of economics could create a path for sustainable development.

To be clear, I’m not talking about simply rebranding the environmental law shelf. Rather, just like the genre “young adult” had to be created to allow for the flowering of teenage literature, I believe we need to develop a new term to describe the legal challenge ahead of us.

I suggest we call this new genre “Commons Law.”

By using the term “commons,” I hope to draw attention to a few issues. First, I recognize that the tradition notion of the commons is a resource shared by the public that is not privately owned. However, Commons Law will refer to regulation of public andprivately-owned resources. Why? In the Anthropocene, I believe we must confront the reality that the Earth is our commons, and whether activity takes place on private orpublicly-owned land, it can have significant impacts on all people.

Second, I hope to call up two environmental law stalwarts that may seem contradictory: Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons,  and Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work regarding the Governing of the Commons.  Hardin’s work is appropriate, because many would say we are living proof of the tragedy that occurs when communities share resources and individuals have the incentive to overuse and pollute, rather than conserve. Ostrom’s work is also appropriate, however, because she provides a response to Hardin, offering ways to govern shared resources that do not end in collapse of the resource and do not require privatization.

Commons Law must be broad, diverse, and big enough to contain seeming contradictions. It must recognize that creation of sustainable communities includes economic activity and must include, or even focus on, the regulation of this economic activity. It must address the governance of corporations that control the majority of global resources and threaten global ecosystems. It must also recognize the value in non-human species, biodiversity, and the preservation of spaces that are free from human development.

Commons law must be interdisciplinary and intersectional. It must avoid the trap of zero-sum environmentalism by casting a wide net for stakeholders and developing new legal tools that consider social justice alongside ecosystem protection. To meet the unique challenge of the Anthropocene we need to start thinking outside the environmental law shelf.

The cannon of environmental law deserves a proud place in environmental history for its contributions to our planet. However, it does not serve us well as a model for the Anthropocene. Moving forward, I believe we need to leave environmental law to the past and start fresh. Educate new lawyers, activists, and community members in a different way of thinking, planning, and legislating.

The Anthropocene demands nothing less.

Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Governance/Management, Law, Sustainability, US | Permalink