Jon Cannon

Environmentalism and the Supreme Court: A Cultural Analysis

Ecology Law Quarterly


This paper traces the Supreme Court’s response to key tenets of environmentalism in decisions over the last four decades. It concludes that the Court’s interpretations have worked to both sanction environmentalism and to contain or even marginalize it. The cases make clear that, while environmentalism may not be opposed on its own terms within our political culture, it challenges beliefs and values that are deeply embedded in our core institutions – such as personal autonomy, limited government, and a laissez faire economy. Many of the Court’s environmental decisions have limited the reach of environmentalist values out of deference to these competing considerations. At the same time, however, the Court has accommodated environmentalist values where competing values were not seen to compel their rejection. Taken as a body, the Court’s environmental cases not only reflect the degree to which the movement has penetrated and changed the culture, but they also suggest promising pathways for furthering environmentalist beliefs and values in the future.


Jonathan Z. Cannon, Environmentalism and the Supreme Court: A Cultural Analysis, 33 Ecology Law Quarterly 363-441 (2006).

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