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The Edge of the Wood: Youth seek future in court

For the past several years, I have been among those predicting our youth would have to resolve the problems we oldsters have wrought upon our home. It turns out they’re already at it – and doing more than merely crying out, “OK, Boomer!” when they detect a problem.

Monday, a group of young people—ages from early teens to mid-20s— became the first in the nation to present their case in a state courtroom as they sued the state of Montana for failing its constitutional mandate to clean up the air and water we all depend on for continued life aboard Starship Earth.

Even small rural creeks need protection so that when several of them gather,
they create rivers of clean drinking water for man and the other critters.

The state’s attorney attempted to minimize the case, arguing that since the problem is worldwide and since Montana’s estimated 1.1 million population is relatively insignificant, the state cannot be held responsible for dirty air, polluted water, and climate warming.

“Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,” Michael Russell, an assistant attorney general, said during the state’s opening statement. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.” (Quoted by the New York Times, June 12, 2023).

It is a claim we have heard often from our courts and politicians. Like children in a schoolyard, they point fingers at their playmates’ transgressions as justification for their own.

Meanwhile, the state Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning reported collecting in 2021 more than $43 million in severance tax for coal mined within its boundaries. Most of that coal was transported by rail to markets in U.S. and Asian-Pacific nations, scattering clouds of coal dust along the rails.

The Montana trial reportedly is the first in the nation to enter a state courtroom, but it is not for lack of trying. In 2017 the Pennsylvania supreme court shot down an effort by seven young folks to sue the commonwealth for not obeying a state constitutional requirement to protect its natural resources.

The Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment (Article I, Section 27), adopted in 1971, declares, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

The young folks filed suit in Commonwealth Court claiming then-Gov. Tom Wolf and a half-dozen relevant state agencies were failing in their constitutional responsibilities to “conserve and maintain (those resources) for the benefit of all the people.”

Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer declared the young people had standing to pursue the lawsuit since their health was, indeed, being affected by the polluted air and water. Financial profits, on the other hand, trumped healthy lungs.

“While expansive in its language, the ERA was not intended to be read in absolutist terms so as to prohibit development that enhanced the economic opportunities and welfare of the people currently living in Pennsylvania,” Jubelirer declared in her July 2016 opinion.

The following March, the state supreme court agreed with Jubelirer.

Elsewhere, legislatures are enacting laws that mandate companies’ responsibilities to earn profits for their shareholders rather than protect people and their environment. Some 20 states have enacted laws prohibiting water regulations more restrictive than federal standards and, as demonstrated earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the United States is hard at work limiting federal agencies’ authority to establish standards that stand in the way of industrial money-piling.

I grew up when kids knew there were problems but did not know what to do about them. By and large, we believed our parents and other leaders when they said our only option was to obey the rules, get good jobs and make money. Some of us rebelled, but success was spotty at best.

A common aphorism has declared our youth “is our most valuable resource.” It will be interesting watching how that fertile fodder for corporate profits balances the technological wealth with which it has flowered against the environment that makes its continued existence possible.

One thing is clear: The elder establishment will not go gently into that good grave.

John Messeder is an award-winning environmental columnist and social anthropologist, and lives in Gettysburg, PA. He may be contacted at

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John Messeder is a freelance reporter and photographer who resides in Cumberland Township. He may be contacted at

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Bill Serfass
Bill Serfass
11 months ago

The newest moniker for my age group is now “Generation Jones”. I grew up as you stated in your secong to last paragraph. Those of us in scouting programs were taught to leave a place better than the way we found it, especially after spending some time camping out. I’m still trying to do that! It’s a good thing. We didn’t ask why then. Now we understand. Then we were just following ‘orders’. I’m glad to see younger people taking on the money at all cost people and I hope these young folks get the support they need to carry… Read more »

John Messeder, Jr.
11 months ago
Reply to  Bill Serfass

Can you feel the future breathing down your neck?

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