Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network works throughout the four states of the Delaware River watershed (NY, NJ, PA & DE) and at the national level using advocacy, science and litigation. van Rossum, the original organizer and petition of the Green Amendment movement, is skilled as an environmental attorney, strategist, community organizer, facilitator, coalition builder and manager, has led DRN for over 23 years.
Maya was appointed to NJ Governor Murphy’s transition committee on environment and energy, was named One Of The “10 Most Influential People of 2015” When It Comes to Energy Issues by SNL Energy, and has testified, by invitation, twice before U.S. Congressional committees. She has also served as director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Temple’s Beasley School of Law since 2002 when she founded the clinic.
She is the author of a book titled, The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment, which was selected as the 2018 Living Now Evergreen Awards GOLD Winner in the Nature Conservation category. She is currently seeking to inspire and secure constitutional protection for environmental rights across the nation.
What in your childhood inspired your love of the wilderness and led you to dedicate your life to environmentalism and conservation?
I have to believe it’s because of my parents and how they raised me. They were not vocal advocates themselves, but they advocated with their actions and how they lived their lives. I’ll never forget driving around the neighborhood with my mother every fall, collecting big plastic bags of leaves that people were throwing out as trash. My mother thought it was horrible—she said leaves were important to the natural cycle and shouldn’t be taking up space in the landfill. In the early years, she took the leaves to a pit she had dug in a neighboring forest, so they could decompose and become rich, black compost soil. A few years later, the state cut down this beautiful forest for a massive new highway. Undeterred, Mum continued to collect the leaves and, with Dad’s help, dumped them on a small parcel of
land that had belonged to a neighbor whose house was demolished in the construction of the highway.
Neighbors complained about the leaves. Mum kept collecting and dumping. Eventually, all those leaves turned to rich soil that helped her turn this barren little parcel into a lovely native woodland that provided a natural buffer between Mum’s house and the noisy highway. I soon discovered it also provided an island of healthy habitat for creatures that suddenly had to contend with the loss of their forest, food, and home. Soon enough, even the neighbors came to cherish this beautiful patch of restored forest at the end of the road.
My mother didn’t force me to go on these leaf-collecting forays. It was watching her work so hard, and loving her so much, that made me want to go. As I grew older and began to connect the dots, I helped with 3 greater enthusiasm, encouraged by my mother to shed my concerns about what others thought and to do what was needed and right. Mum was walking her talk in a way that allowed me to see that everything in this world is connected, and that humans must be mindful of the way we live on this planet. It is my belief that the care and concern for animals and the environment expressed by children is either respected and uplifted or diminished and condescended to by the adults in their lives. It is this adult response that determines whether children become protective of, adversarial towards, or indifferent to the natural world.
Prior to your involvement with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, what were some of your early experiences with political and environmental activism?
One of my first bouts of social activism happened in early elementary school. I was driving in the car with my mother, and the public radio
channel was reporting a story about a company known for its low-cost evaporated milk and baby formula. This company had been sending families in impoverished countries four weeks’ worth of formula at no cost. Its marketing tactics deterred women from breastfeeding. By the time these women had used up the formula, their breast milk had dried up and the were left with nothing to feed their newborn children—unless, of course they could afford to order more milk from this company.
It was a sales tactic, and I was disgusted by the injustice of it. So I asked my mother what we could do. She told me to write a letter and let the company know how I felt. I did. And to my surprise, someone responded. I don’t remember the response—but what I do remember is the feeling of empowerment. Someone had read my letter and felt it important enough to respond and explain the company’s actions. That’s when I learned that my voice mattered, that I could help create change.
This sense of empowerment is what our children need—what we all need. When we feel protective over a bird or a tree, we need to know that our concern matters and that it is good and honorable and should be acted upon.
You’ve traveled across the United States and witnessed firsthand many of the environmental disasters you’ve written about. What has struck you most when visiting these devastated communities?
People often believe, justifiably, that their government is there to protect them and their environment. But environmental laws in this country are not written to prevent or stop pollution and environmental degradation— they are written to permit it. And that really shocks people. This is why we need a Green Amendment—to make sure that our rights to clean water and air are given the highest priority under the law. But it shouldn’t stop there. Our rights to healthy forests and wildlife, both for the protection they give us and for the joy and economic prosperity they bring to our lives, must be honored at this highest level as well.
It is possible to enshrine these rights directly into an amendment, as we’ve seen Ecuador do in its own constitution. Healthy human communities depend on healthy natural communities, so protecting nature for nature’s sake can achieve the same goals as protecting people for people’s sake.
How receptive have you found people to the idea of a Green Amendment?
Most people don’t realize that a clean and healthy environment is a right they deserve. They’ve never realized rights like freedom of speech, religion, and private property—even gun rights—have more constitutional protections than their rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment. When I put it that way, well, first comes a look of shock. People get angry. They become incredulous. But then, as we talk more about what we might accomplish with the right kind of constitutional provision, they get
And then they realize how daunting a constitutional provision seems. They ask, “Is that something we can really do?” I say it is, and we’ve seen it done before. Taking people on that emotional journey—one that ends with the realization of their own power in this movement—is what I hope to accomplish in my book, The Green Amendment. Because once we realize our power to secure the inalienable rights we deserve, I truly believe there’s nothing that can stop us.
The damaging influence of industry lobbyists on legislatures and regulatory bodies is a recurring theme throughout the book. How can communities counteract the effects of these well-funded and well-organized groups?
It can be daunting to take on a battle when you are going up against a developer, an energy company, or any other well-funded business. Even something smaller, like confronting local officials, can feel intimidating. But there is power in numbers. Grassroots efforts by a few dozen people are what drive change in our communities and in our country. The best way to start organizing is by gathering good information and then sharing it with as many people as possible. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors—and to the people who are going to be impacted the most. When the truth gets out, industry and government officials ultimately will have to answer for it. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, it will take a toll on your belief in our system. And yes, you may even lose some of the fights you take on. But every
fight matters, because every fight raises awareness. Every fight is another chance to develop more relationships with more advocates, and every fight reminds people about the need to protect this beautiful earth we call home.
By taking a stance against the degradation of our natural spaces, you will go to bed every night knowing that you did what you could to make a difference for the future. And it’s not just for your own future, but for your family and your friends, for nature that cannot speak for itself, and for the children who, in some way, shape, or form, will be better off thanks to your struggle
In particular, you write about the bevy of misinformation propagated by industry players in order to obscure the harm caused by their projects. How can communities protect themselves when they’re deliberately left in the dark about the dangers these projects can cause?
While some industries will always try to hide information from the public, we have powerful tools at our disposal. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the various state “Right to Know” laws give the public access to government information. After all, the information that our governmentreceives and generates is all paid for with our tax dollars. You can get all the assistance you would need in order to fill out and file these requests online or through a local environmental organization. Sadly, government officials are regularly denying FOIA and Right to Know requests, even in direct violation of the law. In those situations, you will need to contact an
attorney and challenge the denial.
Sympathetic legislators and the press are both important allies in these battles. Legislators tend to have better access to government information, and their information requests are not as easily and quickly rejected by government officials. Also, the denial of an FOIA or Right to Know request can be a compelling story for a reporter. So while industry often works hard to hide information, there are a number of strategic pathways you can take to find out everything you need to know.
Political polarization has obviously reached new heights in the United States today, but you argue that environmentalism is fundamentally a bipartisan issue. How have you seen the fight for environmental protection bring communities together across the political divide?
People will quickly change their stance on environmental protection,regardless of their political affiliation, when their own health or community is threatened. Rex Tillerson, former Exxon CEO and secretary of state to President Trump, famously sued to keep a fracking water tower away from his family’s home. This goes to show—ignoring the hypocrisy, of course—that just about anyone can have an open mind when that person is directly affected by dangerous industry.
Many people assume that if you are Republican, then you must be anti-environment. But historically, some of most significant environmental advances happened during Republican administrations. During the Nixon administration, we saw the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. During the Bush years, we saw significant improvements to the Clean Air Act.
So, clearly, political affiliation isn’t always the best indicator of where someone stands on environmental protection. The best approach is to get 7 politicians to take the politics out of environmental issues. Their bodies, their children, their properties, and their future will be just as devastated as everybody else’s if we stay on this path of environmental degradation.
The common narrative is that environmental protections are expensive, are inefficient, and destroy jobs. This is thoroughly debunked in your book. How can communities persuade businesses and governments to pursue long-term gains over short-term profits?
There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge and research proving that good environmental protection policies can lead to good economic development. When you have a politician who is open-minded, this information will be extremely helpful. The reverse is also true. If you have a politician who is beholden to industry, that person is unlikely to be swayed. Climate change is a perfect example of this. Those people who don’t want to believe in the threat to our environment will continue to ignore the science, no matter how overwhelming
the evidence is.
In those situations, you need to continue to present your proof, and use it to persuade as many other people as possible. For the intransigent political leaders, you need to find that hook that forces them to listen. And sometimes you need to recognize that there are folks you simply aren’t going to convince, and you need to change your strategy to focus on someone else.
You advocate for state-level action in the fight for environmental constitutionalism, citing the relative ease of reforms at the local level. Do you think we will ever see a Green Amendment at the federal level?
I know we will see a Green Amendment at the federal level. It is just a matter of how and when we get there. We have never had a real national conversation about the value and importance of a constitutional provision to protect our environmental rights at the federal level.
People are mortified when their constitutional rights are infringed upon, yet they barely understand the environmental protections to which they are 8 entitled. That’s because the box was supposedly ticked in the 1970s, and we moved onto other issues. The fact is, however, that we didn’t do it properly. By starting this conversation about a Green Amendment, we are hitting reset on the fight for the environmental rights and protections we deserve.
What advice would you have for young people who are concerned about the future of our environment and want to take up this cause?
The advice I give to every young person is to stay true to yourself—to your beliefs and goals—and don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. When I was about to graduate law school, I watched so many of my classmates who professed their passion for the environment immediately sell out and start working for firms that defended polluters. They justified this by saying
that they were going to go make money for the next five years, pay off their school loans, and then come back to fight for the earth.
The truth is that once you have contributed to the contamination of someone’s drinking water, or to the razing of a forest, or to the devastation of a species into extinction, it can’t be undone.
So you need to find a way to be true to yourself and to honor your belief system. Beyond that, you just need to get involved. Find a cause to join, and if you can’t find one to join, take up your own. Every bit of environmental protection you can help achieve counts. You don’t have to work for an environmental organization to be part of the solution. You just need to use your time, talents, voice, and skills in the way that is right for you, and to the best degree you can, to contribute to the solution.