Given our imminent turn to a more conservative Supreme Court, and
Given the skepticism that our conservative justices have shown about the constitutional footing of even the most necessary environmental regulation, and
Given the urgency of the climate crisis and widespread ecological collapse,

The time seems right for a constitutional amendment to set federal environmental action on unquestionable legal footing. I propose the following text:

The federal government of the United States, in conjunction with the various states, tribes, and territories, holds in public trust the health of the soils, waters and atmosphere, along with the integrity of the biotic…


A friend recently shared a comment on social media to the effect that conservative justices apply the law, while liberal ones make it up. This is a common view, which I once bought in to. I no longer think this is the case at all, and I would like to explore a particular example to show why. The constitution makes sweeping declarations about our political values, which were not then and are not now fully realized. Should the Supreme Court enforce them or not? If these provisions are not judiciable, then they are not meaningfully the law of the land…


Human rights, as recognized in international and US constitutional law, are routinely infringed by our border policies and infrastructure, in ways not clearly tied to any compelling state interest that might be able to justify that infringement. It is the border, in other words, and not the crosser that is illegal. This is a pressing issue now, and it is about to get a lot more pressing.

image of barbed wire coils in the sunset
image of barbed wire coils in the sunset

The relevant rights as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights are found in Articles 9, 13, 14, and 15.

Article 9 No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or…


image of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC
image of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

I’m surprised by what is missing in popular debates about economic inequality. A few arguments get repeated over and over — namely, that nobody could possibly work hard or smart enough to deserve billions and, in reply, that envy and resentment of the rich is a poor basis for policy. But many other, equally obvious and pressing arguments are ignored. This is my attempt to articulate one of those arguments, one which strikes me as both important and interesting, in part because it does not fit neatly into either partisan agenda.

Wealth inequality must be curtailed because it distorts free…


There is a lot of discussion right now about how to save the economy, or whether certain trade-offs are permissible in order to save the economy, like foreseeable deaths. The animosity in this discussion is partly enabled by the vagueness of the term. People are using the same word, the economy, but thinking very different things. I’m skeptical that this can be fixed by being more precise in defining the economy, which just might be an essentially unwieldy and unhelpful concept. It lumps together too many different things to be a helpful category.

Let’s take the household metaphor implicit in…


Public science is an essential part of our democracy, but not one that is always so well appreciated or supported. This may be because we have not done that great at telling its story. But in times like these, it is important that we have a source of expertise devoted to the public welfare. There is nothing wrong with private research, but the financial interests that move it are not generally aligned with the public interest. At the very least, this affects which inquiries and projects are pursued. At the worst, it exploits public credulity for private advantage.

Now public…


Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard… -Thoreau

The corona virus is not Nature’s revenge on humanity, nor is it Nature’s immune system trying to flush us or put us in our place. The balance of nature is real and important, but it doesn’t work like that. The balance is not that of one, big, integrated system, but a patchy fabric sewn by multitudes of individual organisms and populations working out their relationships with their fellow creatures and the abiotic factors they…


As we face the awful exigencies of the climate crisis, there are choices to make in how we direct our limited capacity to respond. Our tendency, on the American environmental scene, has been to focus on our role as individual components of a destructive system. Respond to climate change, we have preached, by reducing your personal share of the impact — use less electricity, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, and divest from or boycott environmentally destructive corporations. …


This essay is adapted from a talk first delivered at Akaki Tsereteli State University in Kutaisi, Georgia, November 1, 2019. It was part of the “International Multidisciplinary Conference: The Humanities in the Age of Globalization” and is forthcoming in those proceedings.

We all know and love nature in the particular: the tree in my yard, the wolf in Yellowstone National Park, or the peak of Kazbegi Mountain. We show a great deal of concern about nature as well, in both whole and part. We identify ourselves as nature lovers, we make nature preserves, and we encourage our children to spend…


This is adapted from my presentation at the 10th Rooted in The Mountains Symposium, whose theme was “Giduwagi — Appalachian Historical Ecology.” Giduwagi is a Cherokee place name for their ancestral home in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Whether we speak of environmentalism, conservation, preservation, biodiversity, wilderness, or sustainability, the concepts we use to think about our tangled relationship with the rest of nature are themselves the product of our prior experience with nature. We conceptualize and address our environmental problems with the intellectual resources inherited from our previous attempts to conceptualize and solve our environmental problems. The shifts…

David Henderson

David is an environmental philosopher who teaches at Western Carolina University in the southern Appalachian mountains.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store