Working Out an Environmental Ethic: Anniversary Lessons from Mono Lake

55 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2007

See all articles by Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold

Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold

University of Louisville - Brandeis School of Law


Can environmental law actually achieve environmental conservation or implement an environmental ethic in practice? The environmental movement has been captured by a legal centralist perspective, which asserts that legal institutions and processes are integral to achieving environmental conservation and environmentally ethical behavior.

This article uses a case study of the Mono Lake Committee to explore the role of law in the Committee's success in substantially reducing Los Angeles' water appropriations from Mono Lake's feeder streams and the subsequent restoration of the Lake's unique and valuable environment. The Mono Lake effort is an ideal case study because it involved the landmark case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, in which the California Supreme Court adopted an innovative legal theory that water rights are subject to the public trust in the environmental conditions of navigable waters. National Audubon has been ranked by legal scholars and environmentalists as among the most important environmental law cases of the twentieth century.

This case study demonstrates that legal institutions and environmental law, while important, are insufficient to achieve actual conservation outcomes, even when environmentalists win major litigation victories. Sustained, effective conservation outcomes depend on: 1) the ecology and psychology of place; 2) public participation, education, and engagement; 3) politics; and 4) creative, collaborative problem-solving. The most significant role of law is to upset settled expectations and entitlements that inhibit innovation and negotiated problem-solving.

This article makes a case for the inter-relationship of multiple forces and factors in achieving environmental conservation and in developing society's environmental ethics. It also makes a case for futher multi-disciplinary study using insights from many different disciplines to map the complex interaction of multiple legal, political, social, cultural, psychological, economic, ecological, educational, policy and planning, and ethical forces in environmental conservation.

Keywords: environmental law, conservation, environmental ethics, public trust, environmental litigation, prior appropriation, water rights, ecology, psychology, place, public participation, public education, deliberation, politics, innovation, collaboration, problem solving, negotiation, interdisciplinary

Suggested Citation

Arnold, Craig (Tony) Anthony, Working Out an Environmental Ethic: Anniversary Lessons from Mono Lake. Wyoming Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 1, 2004, Available at SSRN:

Craig (Tony) Anthony Arnold (Contact Author)

University of Louisville - Brandeis School of Law ( email )

Wilson W. Wyatt Hall
Louisville, KY 40292
United States
502-852-6388 (Phone)
502-852-0862 (Fax)


Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics