Citizen Suits and Sustainability

24 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2008 Last revised: 23 Jul 2015

See all articles by John C. Dernbach

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School


The article explores what we can learn about sustainable development, and the progress the United States has already made or not made, by looking at citizen suits under United States environmental law. The article focuses on four aspects of citizen suits: the manner in which they allow access to U.S. courts, the rules concerning standing to sue, the purposes of the laws that have provisions authorizing citizen enforcement, and the extent to which we would want such provisions in a world that has reached some form of sustainable development.

Citizen suits are an important part of an environmentally sustainable legal system because they provide access to justice for persons injured by violations of environmental laws. The law of standing requires plaintiffs to allege injury to their uses of the environment as a result of the defendant's use or misuse of the environment. It thus suggests, in rough terms, competition between sustainable uses and unsustainable uses. The plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill (1978) provide a useful example of that point. The environmental laws being enforced in citizen suits tend to be based on a damage control model of environmental protection, largely to reduce economic and social costs. In a sustainable society, by contrast, economic development could help drive both greater environmental protection and greater social well-being. Moreover, environmental protection in a sustainable society would be based on the full range of laws and policies that affect the environment, not just environmental regulation. Yet even these laws would need to include citizen suit provisions of some kind, because citizen involvement is necessary for sustainable development.

Keywords: sustainable development, environmental law, citizen suit, Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, standing,environment, public participation, Agenda 21, Rio Declaration

JEL Classification: K32, O13, Q2, Q3, Q28, Q32, Q38, Q01

Suggested Citation

Dernbach, John C., Citizen Suits and Sustainability. Widener Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2004. Available at SSRN:

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

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