Environmentalism and the Supreme Court: A Cultural Analysis

This article views the Court’s environmental decisions as depicting a dialectic between the dominant national culture, embodied in law subject to interpretation by the Court, and the claims of the environmental movement, as a distinct cultural perspective seeking institutional recognition. It concludes that the Court’s interpretations have worked both to sanction environmentalism and to contain or even marginalize it. In some of its decisions, the Court has unanimously endorsed interpretations urged by environmentalists.  In other cases, however, the Court has gone so far as to reject interpretations consistent with environmentalist beliefs and values in the face of clear legislative preference, and in still others, while purporting to adopt pro-environmentalist interpretations, it has qualified its interpretations with expressions of skepticism or concern.  It has advanced cultural values, such as personal autonomy and mastery of nature, that while not diametrically opposed to environmentalism, are in significant tension with it. It has shown particular resistance to environmentalist notions of regard or reverence for the non-human other, a resistance signaling the cultural strangeness of environmentalism compared to other recent social movements.  Some factions of the Court have also resisted legal implications of the ecological model -- the environmentalist view of the world as highly interconnected.  All this does not mean, as some have argued, that environmentalism is no longer a force for change within the law, but it does mean that the challenge for environmentalists seeking to transform the legal culture is much more complex and difficult than it may have seemed in the early enthusiasm of the movement.

For more information, or to request a copy of this article, please contact Jon Cannon at [email protected].