Alibi V.29 No.7 • Feb 13-19, 2020 

Environment

A New Mexico Green Amendment

Van Rossum in the Land of Enchantment

Maya van Rossum
Maya van Rossum
Eric Williams Photography

Green activist Maya van Rossum is in New Mexico this week to talk about her new book, The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.

While in Albuquerque this past Saturday, Van Rossum stopped by Weekly Alibi HQ to talk about the book and how it applies to the state of New Mexico, where she hopes to foster the introduction of legislation to amend our state’s constitution to include the green amendment. She plans to have such a measure ready at next year’s 60-day legislative session.

The adoption of a green amendment to the state constitution would ensure a future grounded in conservation and environmentally healthy priorities to make life here happy and sustainable.

Essentially, van Rossum believes that regulatory laws enacted and enforced by legislators with regards to the environment just don’t work. Her book, in fact, argues that such laws and regulations are designed to accommodate pollution, not prevent it.

This is an untenable situation that can only be resolved by making state constitutions the arbiters of environmental law. Van Rossum, a lawyer from Pennsylvania, is also the head of a non-profit group called the Delaware Riverkeepers, where she is the chief Riverkeeper.

Background

Maya van Rossum is a lively, positive human being. She’s been actively engaged in environmental advocacy and litigation for over 25 years. Not only is she known nationwide as the Delaware Riverkeeper—part of an organization that spans four states where the Delaware River runs—but for her advocacy for the Green Amendment.

“My Green Amendment movement, which is what brings me to New Mexico, is really an outgrowth of that 25-plus years of environmental advocacy.” Van Rossum’s history as a advocate for river biospheres specifically and environmental protection in general is well-regarded and when asked to describe her vision, she does so enthusiastically.

“It’s twofold. Throughout that time, I have come to starkly recognize that no matter what state you’re in—Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware or the state of New Mexico—our environmental laws are failing us. They are failing us because they are focused on permitting and managing environmental pollution and degradation. They’re not about preventing that.”

To van Rossum’s mind, it all has to do with the function of government in our postmodern society. “Government does whatever they want to do, and at the end of the process, they say, ‘Okay, let’s think about the environment.’ At that point, it’s too late. The environment is already polluted, contaminated. So at that point, they issue a permit to manage the degradation that we’re allowing to happen.”

Fundamental Rights

Because of what she sees as a long-term imbalance between government processes and the protection of the environment, van Rossum is convinced that there is only one solution that will get our culture back on track to prevent further spoiling of the Earth while establishing sustainability as the overarching force in American environmental law.

“We’re going to change the entire landscape. We’re not just going to change our perceptions, but also the legal structure. We’re going to transform it and the way we’re going to do that is—hopefully here in the state of New Mexico and my goal is to do this in every state of the nation—to have added to the bill of rights section of the state constitution what I call a Green Amendment.”

Van Rossum’s book makes it clear that such an amendment would enable great change, “leveling the playing field in contests between environmentalists and industry.” A green constitutional amendment “promises to effect a broader cultural and intellectual transformation.” This sea change, according to van Rossum’s main thesis, is about explicitly recognizing the right to a healthy environment. Such constitutional recognition would “alter how people think about the environment and our relationship to it. The mantra ‘pure water, clean air and a healthy environment’ would take on the stature of an entitlement in people’s minds, becoming far more that what it is now—a nice idea.”

All Change

In the midst of a 2020 legislative session focused on finance and education, van Rossum is looking to next year’s session to introduce a measure to amend the state’s constitution as outlined above. The passage of such a measure would ultimately result in a voter referendum on the issue. “It’s an amendment that recognizes and protects the inalienable rights of all people, including future generations, to pure water, clean air and a stable climate. It will be the duty of government officials to protect those rights.”

In a state where the major operating money to keep the state running—and even advancing—has lately been coming directly from a booming oil and gas industry, Weekly Alibi asked van Rossum how she plans to sell such a change to the state’s constitution to working people in the northwest and southeast parts of the Land of Enchantment. We also wondered how change might be affected at the currently anti-regulatory federal level.

Van Rossum’s answer was clear. “Of course we want people to understand, to act justly and morally. We want to make it clear: We don’t want you to not have a job, we just don’t want you to have a job that kills people. So let’s make that transition, let’s create clean energy jobs, let’s help citizens learn new trades so that they can have good paying jobs that don’t jeopardize future generations.”