• Anasuya Krishnaswamy

The Future is Ours to Create

With the shifts and challenges around the globe in the political, environmental, and cultural arenas, I wanted to celebrate the environmental laws and consciousness that resonate around the globe. Below I summarize some of the history of environmental law in the United States, European Union, India, and South America.

While I will not be providing citations for these statements (as I have done in the past), they come from studying environmental law at UC Davis Law School, working on a Climate Change Project with other students and the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and interning at the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Environmental law in the U.S. has a common law history (following judges decisions when no written law has been passed by the government) based in nuisance and tort (harm) law. When your water or air was polluted, your view blocked, or noise levels disturbed your ability to enjoy your property, you were able to sue for money damages and/or to stop the nuisance or harm. Public trust doctrine is also a non-statutory common law understanding that some land and water is part of the public trust and should be available for use by the public for the common good. An early example is New Jersey’s granting of public access to the “tideline” in order to fish. In coastal states, this doctrine has preserved access to the coast and most beach areas. National park designation recognized special areas to protect natural landscapes, plants, and animals from most resource and industrial development, or at least overuse.

Three events are often seen as the catalyst to modern (1970s) environmental law – the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire due to industrial pollution, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring on the physiological and environmental effects of pesticides. The public and their political representatives moved to protect water, air, and public spaces with lawsuits, local and federal laws.

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) required an analysis of the environmental impact of federal government projects, or those requiring federal permitting/permission.

NEPA Section 2 states


…encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment, promote efforts…prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man, to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”

The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Acts established mechanisms to set standards for air and water quality and enforce the standards. Additional federal statutes were enacted regarding toxic substances, toxic site clean up and endangered species. The Endangered Species Act requires mitigation of habitat destruction for endangered species and is one of the laws with the most teeth. The national standards are usually considered a floor, and in some states like California, certain air, water, and carbon emission standards are higher.

The European Union has similar laws or directives regarding air and water quality, waste management, toxic substances and the protection of nature and biodiversity. The Declaration of the Heads of State and Government, Paris 1972 states

“economic expansion, which is not an end in itself, must give priority to allow mitigation of the disparity in living conditions. It must take place with the participation of all social partners and should result in an improvement in quality as the standard of living. According to the European genius, you will devote special attention to non-material values and goods and to the protection of the natural environment in order to put the progress in the service of man”

India has an Environmental Protection Act that encompasses prevention of air and water pollution, waste management, and forest and wildlife conservation, and action on biological diversity. India also has a national park system.

Peru has a national greenhouse gas inventory system, a general law for the environment with a National Environmental Council that enforces compliance in industries such as fishing, mining, and agriculture, a National Commission on Biodiversity (Peru is one of the countries in the world with the most biodiversity) to comply with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and a code on Natural Resources and Environment and the Conservation of Wild Flora and Fauna. The National Agreement (Acuerdo Nacional) of July 2002 sets:

“’Sustainable Development and Environmental Management’ as a national priority. “The National Agreement became the framework for the government’s strategy and consists of 29 policies, including “Sustainable Development and Environmental Management,” as part of the country’s strategy to increase competitiveness and foster economic growth.”]

You may have heard of the Bolivian Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, or Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, that gives both Mother Earth and life-systems (which combine human communities and ecosystems) as titleholders of inherent rights specified in the law

[Mother Earth is defined as "...the dynamic living system formed by the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings whom are interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, which share a common destiny.” and “explicitly includes the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human communities.” The law enumerates seven specific rights: the right to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to live free of contamination.

Some of the enforcement mechanisms and structure of the laws, directives, and programs differ, making them stronger in some cases or weaker in others. However, the consciousness behind the development of these policies is, I would posit, is largely the same. It is a human consciousness with the awareness that we are inextricably linked with and to the other animals and plants, the landscapes of our planet, Earth, Mother Earth, Pachamama.]

Often it may have taken tragedies such as the Cuyahoga River fire, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the London Smog of 1952, or the Bhopal Gas accident in India, in order for the people’s representatives to take bold and broad action. However, these representatives, elected by the people, have recognized what many societies have known from ancient times to through industrialization, that we humans are part of a larger, interdependent, biodiverse, whole, living and breathing system. And to reserve our place in it, and protect our existence as a species, we must honor and respect the interconnectedness, wholeness, and sacredness of the entire planet.

The future is ours to create.