Taking it to the next level: Why we need to stop depending on the Supreme Court for environmental change

May 4, 2016 by Margaret Sutton

In April, Jonathan Cannon ’67 spoke at the College on his recent book Environment in the Balance: The Green Movement and the Supreme Court. Cannon emphasized the Court’s growing skepticism of the environmental movement, a skepticism that showed itself recently in the Court’s stay in West Virginia, et al. v. EPA. This action, along with others, placed a burden on federal efforts for environmental protection. Cannon offered up a suggestion for environmentalists: They should try harder to work within the capitalist system, rather than alienating themselves from it. They should advocate environmentalism less as a radical abandonment of American ways, but instead as a means to better them. Cannon is right. In order to effect change, it would behoove environmental activists to work alongside leaders and institutions.

Environmentalists have tried to look to the Supreme Court for answers, seeking their own Brown or Obergefell to ratchet up national support and policy action. But the better route to go with the environmental movement is to look for a solution in the American people, not in nine justices. Such a movement’s success relies on reshaping individuals’ basic habits and ways – all areas that the law cannot ever touch. Law can only do so much. It may be able to regulate carbon emis-sions, halt pipeline construction and preserve land masses – all of which are effective, and necessary factors in dealing with the climate crisis. But the law isn’t enough. It can hardly shift individuals’ passions and spirits; it can’t inspire. Such inspiration comes from within and from each other. And, this inspiration, if coordinated, can actually change the law in a meaningful way.

People ought to move away from viewing the Supreme Court as an agent for immediate change. The more we do so, the more we put pressure on justices to act politically and forfeit their role as interpreters of the law. It is everybody but the justices’ role to change the law. Their job in serving on the Court is to defend both the Constitution and statutory law and, with them, the people’s expressed will. It is up to us, as our will changes, to pass laws that reflect this or amass enough energy to even amend the Constitution. As such, environmentalists should focus their energies on moving people rather than forcing people. To fulfill their goals, they rely on each of us to con-sider our role in shaping the future.

Only through a concerted effort on the part of all of us can the sort of change we need be affected. We should take Cannon’s advice and see this as an opportunity for collaboration, unity and peace. Not only could the quest for renewable energy fuel our capitalist system, but also it could bring us closer as Americans and among our global partners. Just imagine: Rather than sending ground troops, we send environmental scientists; rather than spending on nuclear weapons, we spend on sustainability. We all have the same stake in the fate of our environment. Perhaps if international leaders recognized this shared interest, they would harness their energy to fight for sustainability rather than arms supremacy, credibility or political support. Unlike national security and military alliances, here is a cause that each of us shares an equal interest in. And here is a cause that relies on each of us contributing our individual energies.

We all want to feel purposeful, that we’re here for something greater. That beyond our transient, seemingly minor lives, we leave some trace of ourselves and become a lasting part of this world. I know I do. And I also know this frequently overwhelms me. Perhaps it does for you, too. Especially at the College, there is an underlying pressure to succeed, to measure ourselves less on our own sense of fulfillment and more upon society’s perception of us. But here, in the environmental crisis, lies an opportunity that requires our investment, that requires us to fulfill at least part of the purpose we search for. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have the chance to be inspired and to inspire others to take part in this movement – a movement that only survives so long as this passion in each of us is realized.

Whether you admit it or not, you have a stake in the environment. It is the source of all we do – the books we read, the phones we use, the mountains we climb. It is simple: We should care about protecting it. You’ve been told this before. But, to me, caring does not necessarily mean devoting your career to the environmental movement, fighting in protests or resenting a college administration for its policies. Rather, it means stepping outside each day, breathing in the air, maybe even smiling at the mountains as you walk to class, and remembering that your actions are both reliant on and integral to the world around you. We’re not perfect – we likely can’t and won’t pick up every piece of trash we see on the ground, eat only organic food or bathe in the Green River instead of taking showers. We’re not only used to everyday comforts, but also we’re busy people who have career goals, relationships and bad days, and we just can’t care about everything all the time. But we’re all capable of appreciating. We’re all capable of taking such an appreciation with us as we go on to do whatever we may do with our lives – be it investment banking on Wall Street or sustainability practice. And I think that sometimes that is enough – to realize that, no matter how small you feel, you are powerful and you are needed.

Margaret Sutton ’18 is a political science major from Bexley, Ohio. She lives in Gladden House. 

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