Southern Environmental Law Center attorney provides lecture on value of environmental stewardship at MTSU

Photo and story by William Green / Contributing Writer

An attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged an audience of students not to take the environment for granted in a lecture Monday in the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building at Middle Tennessee State University.

Anne Pasino’s lecture, titled “From Common Sense to Protecting the Commons: The Value of Environmental Stewardship,” was part of the Honors College’s Spring 2018 weekly lecture series.

Pasino’s presentation focused on the challenge of addressing environmental issues that affect resources all people count on collectively, such as water and air.

Through this lens, Pasino explored the history and nature of the idea of “the commons,” the shared environment owned and used jointly by a community.

In pre-industrial times when most people grew or gathered their own food, she explained, community norms dictated how much each person could or should reasonably draw on shared resources like forests, rivers or grazing areas. But in today’s modern and industrialized world, most people rely on others for their food and water, which is often harvested or is sourced from private property. This modern arrangement makes it much more difficult to limit exploitation of the environment as a community, Pasino said.

Who does air, water and land belong to?” She asked of her audience. “Do they belong to landowners or the public?”

Pasino highlighted this question with a quote from 19th century American environmentalist John Muir, one of the chief advocates of the American National Parks system, who once said, “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.”

According to Pasino, this dilemma between public cost and private gain manifests today as a true crisis: climate change. As such a widespread phenomenon fueled by the private activity of nearly everyone, Pasino explained, climate change is almost impossible to address within the paradigm of individual responsibility.

While the issue is difficult, Pasino said, some activists are trying to force consideration of the issue. She addressed a landmark lawsuit, Juliana v. U.S., filed in federal court in 2015 by 21 children and young adults in Oregon against the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry. The young plaintiffs claimed the government and oil industry had failed to meaningfully address climate change and were threatening their constitutional right to inherit a “stable climate system,” as one judge put it in 2016.

Oil companies are no longer defendants in the case, but the case has survived numerous attempts by the government to get it dismissed. And in March the case was unanimously allowed to proceed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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