Environmental Law/Environmental Literature

59 Pages Posted: 8 May 2013 Last revised: 3 Oct 2015

See all articles by Michael Burger

Michael Burger

Columbia University - Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

Date Written: May 7, 2013


What, is truly “environmental” about environmental law? This Article is the first attempt to answer this question by integrating Law & Literature scholarship with the study of environmental law. I argue that competing narratives of nature and culture common to the American environmental imagination play a more significant role in environmental law and litigation than previously acknowledged. These competing narratives, communicated through a known set of environmental stories and tropes, are used by attorneys to establish, frame, narrate and argue their cases, and they are absorbed, reimagined, reframed and retold by judges in their written opinions, making environmental law a kind of expressive, literary event. To illustrate this process, the Article examines two important and highly visible case studies: the reintroduction of gray wolves into the Northern Rocky Mountains and the public nuisance climate change lawsuit that culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power. A close reading of the pleadings, legal briefs and judicial opinions in these case studies demonstrates that courts respond to and reinforce traditional environmental stories, such as wilderness tales and the environmental apocalyptic, but evince a strong preference for a less well-known story, which I call the Progressive Management Machine. The Progressive Management Machine promises reconciliation of competing environmental narratives through administrative process and science-driven decision making, but, in so doing, masks its own contravention of those same narratives. The approach developed here launches a larger project exploring the dynamic relationship between environmental law, literature and narrative. This Article, like the larger project, seeks to elucidate not only various litigators’ and judges’ rhetorical strategies but also the purposes, content and significance of environmental law.

Suggested Citation

Burger, Michael, Environmental Law/Environmental Literature (May 7, 2013). Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 40, p. 1, 2013, Roger Williams Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 138, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2261858

Michael Burger (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Sabin Center for Climate Change Law ( email )

Jerome Greene Hall
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

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