The Phony Environmental Rights Amendment

This election day, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing us the right to clean air and water and to enjoy a healthy environment. All that in just 15 simple words!

And after we’ve passed this amendment, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Dominick Calsolaro’s Oct. 22 Albany Times-Union commentary rhapsodizes about the amendment. Saying it will prevent “government agencies and departments approving corporate projects over the health and safety of citizens.” They’d be “obligated to minimize pollution, degradation, and environmental harms . . . to put people first.”

So “no more Hoosick Falls, where residents have used water contaminated for decades.” No more public housing complexes, like Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes, built in an industrial-zoned area. No more landfills, like the one in Rensselaer, next to a school. No more incinerators like Norlite’s operating within city limits.

It sounds like passing this simple amendment will be like waving a magic wand, all our environmental problems will be solved, and we can march forward into the bright sunshine of a new day.

If only it were that easy. But this is just a feel-good measure, nothing more. Its fifteen simple words are so general they mean nothing, requiring nothing of anyone. Applying its lofty language to nitty-gritty situations like those Calsolaro enumerates would be very arguable. There are always trade-offs. Indeed, if his expansive reading were actually correct, the amendment would be a strait-jacket, barring sensible consideration of such trade-offs. “Putting people first” can conflict with environmental concerns.

Meantime, state agencies will likely spend extra time and money giving lip service to the amendment. Needing more state workers to crank out more empty verbiage.

And, as Calsolaro himself points out, the amendment will invite more litigation, giving people more legal tools for nimbyism and obstructionism. As if we don’t already have enough of that. As if New York’s economy is not already hamstrung by a welter of business-stifling measures. The amendment could actually be exploited to stymie clean-energy projects like wind farms.

Then of course there’s the law of unintended consequences. It’s hard to say what those unintended consequences will be. But unintended consequences don’t tend to be good.

I’m all in favor of clean air and water and a healthy environment. But that requires hard work, facing painful trade-offs. This amendment is a cynical excuse for not actually doing anything. It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.

There’s no free lunch. Dressing up a nothingburger as a free lunch is a bad thing.

I’m voting no.

7 Responses to “The Phony Environmental Rights Amendment”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Maybe kood function like NEPA [1970 et seq] to get ball rolling…fond memories; occasioned mid-career WH floruit before professor & Smithsonian days. Homo futuris, having conquered the stars, can die in peace–duty done.

  2. Lee Says:

    The measure would add a Section 19 to Article I of the New York Constitution. The following text would be added:

    §19. Environmental rights. Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.

  3. Lee Says:

    Ballotpedia includes:

    Pennsylvania adopted the country’s first environmental rights amendment in 1971. Like New York Proposal 2, the amendment established a state constitutional right to clean air and clean water. The Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment also contained a provision declaring the state’s natural resources to be “common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.” As of 2021, at least six state constitutions included language on environmental rights. The states were Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

    We should be able to look at these six states to see what the legal consequences of such an amendment would be in New York.

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Everything begins w/a beginning [except the kosmos]…

  5. David Lettau Says:

    The amendment seems like virtue-signaling at its most nebulous.I am reminded of the Kellog-Briand pact back in the 1920”s where most of the worlds nation states agreed to outlaw war. We know how that turned out.

  6. Don Bronkema Says:

    H. semper unsapiens is grievously deficient in virtue-signaling. The history of the future is yet to be drafted: it’s not inconceivable that peace will come by technical force majeure…NASA’s geostationary graphene orbisols could reglacialize the planet; proteomics could reinstall mammoths on Great Plains. We have too little DNA to restore giant ground sloths or sabre-tooths, but Deutsch-emergent quantels could regenerate them from ‘neocules’ [viz: MIT]. Considering how far we’ve come, excluding even Kardashoff I-II-III seems premature to this nonagenarian. You young folks [e.g., my first-year college dottir] should broaden your horizons.

  7. fgsjr2015 Says:

    “It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.”

    I recall then-president Barack Obama drinking a glass of Flint, Michigan water, signifying that the water was safe to drink, which he must have known really was not. As a then-admirer of Obama, I muttered ‘Say it isn’t so’. I henceforth saw U.S. presidents, along with Canadian prime ministers, essentially as instruments of big corporate and power interests.

    I know that the lead-tainting was not his doing; however, what he did was a major shock to and disappointment for the lead-poisoned Flint folk, who’d expected far more/better from him. To a lot of people, he had behaved like some TV-promotion actor hired by an (in this case) seriously ethically/morally challenged corporation. Though I would expect it from a Republican president or even then-president Bill Clinton, I found it very disappointing of Obama (maybe because he is Black, as were many/most of the lead-water-ingesting Flint folk), regardless of the big business and/or political pressure he probably had on his head. …

    Meanwhile, a common yet questionable refrain prevails among capitalist nation governments and corporate circles: Best business practices, including what’s best for consumers, are best decided by business decision-makers. This was most recently proven false with Facebook prioritising the expansion of its already huge profit margin over the health of its younger users. … It was proven false when long-term care-homes put profit maximisation before their residents’ well-being, neglect that resulted in needlessly numerous COVID-19 deaths. … And proven most false when the pharmaceutical industry knowingly pushed its new, very addictive opiate painkiller.

    Western business mentality and, by extension, collective society allow the well-being of human beings to be decided by corporate profit-margin measures. And our governments mostly dare not intervene, perhaps because they fear being labelled anti-business by our avidly capitalist culture.

    Sadly, maximizing profits by risking the health or lives of product consumers will likely always be a significant part of the big business beast’s nature. But that does not mean that we should give in to it. Rather, it should be a call to society, and especially our elected leaders, that the economy and jobs be there foremostly for people, not for corporate profit’s sake.

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