The Occupy Wall Street protests have been characterized by their lack of a set of specific policy demands, so it may be that a short answer to the question “What does Occupy Wall Street mean for the future of environmental law?” is “not much.”
As a left-leaning, anti-establishment counterpoint to the Tea Party movement with which it has often been compared, the OWS protests are natural allies of the environmental movement. To be sure, individual OWS protesters include those with signs opposing hydraulic fracking for natural gas as well as protests against big oil and its climate impacts. But the prime mover of the OWS protests seems to have been a reaction to income inequality, and the outsized financial industry profits (made possible only by government bailouts), at a time of widespread unemployment, diminishing incomes, and economic pain that has pushed environmental concerns off of the public agenda.
This has led to the usual voices on the right claiming that the OWS jobs agenda is inconsistent with an environmental protection agenda. (For an explanation of how relaxed environmental regulation does not in fact create jobs, see Paul Krugman’s column today, “The Party of Pollution”).
Whether the OWS protests will succeed in becoming a political force, or whether it will ever develop any affirmative policy agenda, and whether such an agenda will give a priority to environmental concerns remains to be seen. But there is some reason for hope that OWS can help lead to a second environmental law decade. The youth-oriented OWS protests are themselves an echo of the anti-establishment, anti-war protests of the 1960s which helped set the stage for citizen activism that lead to Earth Day and a series of aggressive environmental protection initiatives — the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act among others, the likes of which this country has not seen before or since.
Some have lamented that the OWS protests are nihilistic, having been prompted by a magazine, Adbusters, which promotes symbolic events such as “by absolutely nothing day” as a protest against the consumerism inherent in Black Friday, and “watch no TV week” as a protest against media influence. But there may be the seeds of something positive in the negative message of the OWS protests — certainly an emphatic rejection of big business and its outsized influence on legislation and policy making in the United States can only be a positive for the future of US environmental law.
And even the nihilistic Adbusters message has the seeds of positive, and ecologically necessary, culture change. Our huge environmental and climate footprint in the United States is in large part a result of our cultural definition of success and well being that is so heavily tied up with consumerism and material wealth. This cultural definition is heavily promoted and reinforced by commercial media that exists primarily to convince people to buy products and buy into a product-oriented definition of well-being. A movement that starts with the principles of “buy absolutely nothing” and “watch no TV” may or may not be what our monetary economy needs right now, but it certainly is what the global climate economy needs right now.
Nihilistic prank, or cultural shift? Time will tell. But to the extent the OWS protests reject conventional politics, abhor corporate control of government policy, and resist consumerist definitions of well being, there may be a glimmer of hope for a second “environmental decade” that is going to be needed to address global climate change and needed fundamental changes in the relationship between energy use and the definition of wealth.