When The New Yorker magazine began serializing Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, her “fable for tomorrow” struck a deep chord in the American psyche. She wrote of “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings” until one spring when “a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.” Moreover: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had snuffed out life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
Carson’s fable served as introduction to her painstaking research on synthetic pesticides, DDT in particular. Silent Spring ultimately sold millions of copies and, as the New York Times wrote on the book’s 50th anniversary, influenced “the environmental movement as no one had since the 19th century’s most celebrated hermit, Henry David Thoreau, wrote about Walden Pond.”
Actor Mark Ruffalo references Silent Spring in his forward to Maya K. van Rossum’s book The Green Amendment: The People’s Fight for a Clean, Safe, and Healthy Environment. While important environmental milestones followed Silent Spring’s publication—such as passage of the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—“any honest accounting of where we are as a country must acknowledge that what has been won is woefully insufficient, that in the broader war to prevent the poisoning of the world, we are losing badly,” Ruffalo writes. He has no shortage of examples (Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system being perhaps the most well-known), and convincingly concludes “existing laws have clearly failed us. They are neither strong enough nor serious enough to protect what matters most.”
A new strategy is needed, he writes, and van Rossum’s book “has the power to spark a new movement, just as Rachel Carson’s did so many years ago.”
New Mexico lawmakers, environmental activists and van Rossum herself will try—for the third time—to pass legislation during the session kicking off this week that would allow New Mexicans next year to vote on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing their environmental rights (nmgreenamendment.org). Specifically, New Mexico’s Green Amendment would repeal the state’s pollution control provisions and add a new section to Article 2 guaranteeing New Mexicans’ “right to clean and healthy air, water, soil and environments, a stable climate and self-sustaining ecosystems” and directing state, county and municipal governments “to serve as trustees” of New Mexico’s natural environments.
Green Amendments exist in Pennsylvania, Montana and New York, and are being advanced in Florida, Delaware, Washington, New Jersey, Hawaii, Iowa and Maine. The nonprofit Green Amendments for the Generations (forthegenerations.org), founded by van Rossum, is working to pass Green Amendments across the country and, ultimately, at the federal level.
Given the comparison between her book and Silent Spring, I asked van Rossum what she sees as a key difference between 2023 and 1962 in terms of effective environmental strategy.
She said regardless of whether one looked at the ‘60s or any decade right up to present time, “the way our laws work in New Mexico and nationwide is they really do presume pollution and degradation, and then figure out how much they’re going to allow through permits. They don’t start from the premise that clean water, clean air, a healthy environment, stable climate are actually fundamental rights of people.”
Federal laws from the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, helped “ratchet down” pollution, van Rossum, a lawyer notes, “but then what happened is we didn’t advance the laws any further. We didn’t recognize that, ‘OK, we’ve made progress. Now, how do we ratchet up protection so that it increases over time?’”
The approach the Green Amendment takes appealed to sponsor state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, also a lawyer and former law professor.
“When I first I heard about this, I thought, ‘Oh, joy, just what we need is another constitutional amendment that will be ignored,” Sedillo Lopez tells SFR. But then she read van Rossum’s book and, subsequently, every case involving a Green Amendment. “And I’ve just been so impressed with what people have been able to do using it,” she says, citing a recent case in Rochester, New York in which that state’s recently passed Green Amendment allowed opponents to successfully (so far) sue for protective measures involving a landfill in the area.
In New Mexico, Sedillo Lopez says water is her top priority when it comes to passing a Green Amendment. “We are not going to have enough water and we’re not going to have enough clean water,” she says. “And so the decisions that the state makes about water in the future are just going to be really important.”
The bill’s sponsor on the House side, state Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, referenced the battle environmental groups and residents in Chaparral, New Mexico undertook to fight off El Paso Electric’s new fossil fuel power plant construction in 2021, and how helpful a Green Amendment would have been at that time (the groups ultimately settled with the company). “A lot of kids and people in that area have asthma from [the existing plant], and they came out to object and were telling their stories, that their health had been sacrificed,” she says. “Just think what could have happened if we’d had [a Green Amendment].”
A Green Amendment is useful across a spectrum of environmental issues, van Rossum explains: “Usually, when you achieve a legal or regulatory success, it’s around one issue in a limited context. But the beauty of the Green Amendment is…we’re going to address all of these issues. We’re going to lift all boats. We’re going to be ensuring that all communities are protected equitably.”
The proposed language for the constitutional amendment, in fact, directs the state to protect environmental rights across gender, race and geography.
“We talk a lot about the importance of a green amendment for environmental justice communities and to address environmental sacrifice zones,” van Rossum says, “Too many Indigenous communities in the state of New Mexico are really suffering because the laws are allowing them to be sacrificed to pollution and degradation.”
Advocates also dismiss critics who say the Green Amendment will lead to frivolous and increased litigation. None of the states with these laws have seen an uptick in cases, van Rossum says, and “none of them have been identified or dismissed as frivolous. They’re all meaningful. So even if you did have a lot, as long as they were meaningful, that’s really what counts because it means you have a problem that needs to be fixed.”
Of course, Silent Spring had its critics too. Monsanto published a brochure in 1962 entitled “The Desolate Year” mocking both the book and its author.
Needless to say, that brochure hasn’t aged well.