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What if, like free speech or religious freedom, our right to a healthy environment was enshrined in the constitution?
That’s the kind of right Maya K. van Rossum would like to see added to state constitutions across the country. She calls it a Green Amendment, and it would guarantee Americans the inherent right to clean air, water, land and climate and give them the legal standing to challenge government decisions that infringed upon it.
Through her nonprofit Green Amendment for the Generations, she works with partners in various states to introduce and enshrine Green Amendments. In 2021, New York became the first state to add a Green Amendment as part of these efforts; Pennsylvania and Montana had previously added similar amendments to their constitutions in the 1970s. There are active campaigns to add Green Amendments in 15 other states, with legislators proposing to add the Green Amendment in Texas, Nevada, Connecticut and Tennessee this year.
In Montana, where the constitution guarantees a “right to a clean and healthful environment,” young environmentalists have taken the state to court over its failure to protect their generation and future generations from an environment impacted by climate change. Their case goes to trial in June, and could make its way to the Supreme Court.
Now, van Rossum works with her 26-year-old daughter, Anneke, to advance Green Amendment legislation and at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit that works to protect the Delaware River and its watershed. In more recent years the mother and daughter have started a podcast called Green Genes.
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The 19th spoke with Maya and Anneke van Rossum about the Green Amendment, the power of multigenerational work in the environmental space, and meaningful actions to take on Earth Day this year.
Jessica Kutz: My first question is for you, Maya. Can you tell me about your journey into environmentalism?
Maya K. van Rossum: I don’t really think I had a journey into environmentalism. I think I was born into environmentalism. I was born with a love of nature. I was also born with a very deep sense of justice and standing up for what was right, especially in the face of injustice.
My parents were not were not activists themselves, but they would live their beliefs. I would watch my mother very often make decisions that were about environmental protection, although that’s not how she characterized it — it was just the right thing to do. So I think that I was sort of born with it, but I also think my mother modeled it in the real world.
What led you to this idea of a Green Amendment? And what is that, exactly?
Maya: A Green Amendment is an amendment that’s added to the Bill of Rights section of our state and federal constitutions and recognizes the right of all people to clean water, clean air, a stable climate and healthy environments. It results in environmental rights being lifted up and being given the same highest constitutional standing as the other fundamental rights we hold dear.
I just want to emphasize that a Green Amendment and an environmental rights amendment, that language is not synonymous. There are dozens of states that talk about environmental rights and the right of the people to healthy environments, but they don’t use the proper placement and language that gives the environment this highest constitutional standing. Instead, they declare environmental rights to be a good policy, the policy of the state, which essentially is advice or that these are rights that are defined by the legislature and so all of the power is really given to the legislature to decide what is protected and to what degree it’s protected. And, frankly, that changes nothing in our system of governments.
What does it mean to you as a mother to fight for the Green Amendment from the standpoint of thinking about your daughter and her life and that of the next generation?
Maya: It’s very important to be clear that these natural resources are to be protected for present and future generations.
I, of course, am protecting the earth for my children and for all children. But I do [this work] for the earth, I do it for all kids, I do it for all the critters, and the trees and the flowers that don’t have a voice unless we the people give them a voice. But one of the things I do make very clear to people is the generational power that comes legally from having a Green Amendment.
It empowers young activists to really embrace their ownership of the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment. I think kids are born with that. And it gets kind of beaten out of people as they grow up to adults.
Anneke, you’ve since become an environmental activist yourself. How do you think your perspective from this younger generation influences how you do your work compared to your mom?
Anneke: The biggest thing, honestly, is that I’m on social media and I consume that. I think it’s been very cool to see how people in my generation have amplified messaging and amplified action through graphics and short phrases. That’s a tool that this generation now has, and I think that has really been instrumental in a lot of movements. Whenever we do things, I’m always kind of saying, “How do we make it shorter and punchier so that it inspires other people?”
But also, I think we have a lot of new perspectives. It’s awesome to come to the table with that. But I encourage people to realize that there are, and I’m lucky, because I’ve gotten to work with so many of them, activists that have been doing this work from day one, or from for the last 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and there’s so much to learn from them.
I think that’s how activists get more powerful as each generation learns and grows from the one before. And so I think it’s this balance of, we might have new tools that we know how to use and go forth with them, but always be learning from the people who came before you, because they have knowledge and tools that will serve you in so many ways.
Maya, as a follow up why is this multigenerational work important?
Maya: Working together with Anneke, what I would say is I appreciate that she does respect that my colleagues that are older than her have knowledge and have skills and tools that are very effective, and are well complemented by the tools that she and her generation have. And then the key is for us to work together and blend them together.
Because we do have such a unique relationship, we work hard to bring our talents together and weave them to try to get a more successful outcome that reaches all generations and all people.
If you have this broad diversity of messengers, then you have the best chance of successfully delivering your message and winning. It cannot be that it’s only about the young, or it’s only the old. Everybody has power and importance and something to bring to this. You just have to be open to it and hear it and find it and bring it together.
Your podcast covers an array of topics, and I noticed that some episodes tend to touch on other issues. For example, you veer into discussing the recent attacks on drag queen story times, and also abortion. Why do you think it is important to talk about these things on a podcast that is aimed at covering environmental topics?
Anneke: I think part of the reason we did it was this multigenerational perspective that we have. There’s a lot of things we talk about that I don’t think were as big of conversations or issues as when my mom was growing up. The abortion one I think really hit home because it’s the first time I think for so many young women or people that we have less rights than our parents.
Maya: And I think also, when we were conceiving of the podcast, we really did talk about justice writ large. All justice movements are connected, whether you’re talking about environmental justice, social justice, civil rights.
Whenever you’re battering down one group of people or one aspect of our world, you are denigrating and degrading everybody else. So truly, I feel like if you’re an activist for any kind of justice, you may have your area that you focus on, but you really are interested in lifting up everybody, and ensuring equitable protection and care for everybody, human and non-human.
Earth Day is coming up. What advice do you have for readers in terms of tangible actions they can take to protect the planet?
Maya: For those who are still trying to think of what they can do, I would suggest three things.
First, make one change in your day-to-day life that, in an ongoing way, can help lighten your footprint on the earth and help advance environmental protection. Buy that reusable coffee mug and vow to always use it, or that cloth bag, or that reusable straw and cutlery set you keep in your car, handbag or backpack so you can avoid the unnecessary plastic. Do something that, over time, will result in meaningful change.
Second, buy a native plant and plant it on Earth Day. Put your hands in the soil and lovingly plant that native tree, shrub or flowering plant so you can enjoy that moment of engaging with nature, can support a plant that will help support the bees, birds, wildlife and pollinators in an ongoing way, and that will grow over time providing benefit to present and future generations.
Third, engage in a little bit of activism. Sign a petition, write a letter to the editor, or a letter to a decision-maker about environmental protection or urging a needed decision on a critical issue such as whether to cut down a forest for an artificial turf field, which is a very bad idea for the environment and human health.
Anneke: Sit down and make a list of the things you could do in your daily life to improve upon being a good steward to the Earth. Maybe it’s bringing reusable containers to a restaurant for takeout, finally buying the reusable water bottle, keeping your lights off for more extensive periods of time. If someone in your life maybe isn’t so environmentally minded, buy them something they could use to help them be a little bit more ecofriendly that maybe they wouldn’t have thought of.
But I also view it as a day to really remember that the biggest thing all of us have in common is that we share this beautiful place called Earth as our home, and I think in being kind to our Earth, we can do that in ways of also being kind to each other.