October 23, 2021

This election day, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing us the right to clean air and water and to enjoy a healthy environment. All that in just 15 simple words!

And after we’ve passed this amendment, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Dominick Calsolaro’s Oct. 22 Albany Times-Union commentary rhapsodizes about the amendment. Saying it will prevent “government agencies and departments approving corporate projects over the health and safety of citizens.” They’d be “obligated to minimize pollution, degradation, and environmental harms . . . to put people first.”

So “no more Hoosick Falls, where residents have used water contaminated for decades.” No more public housing complexes, like Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes, built in an industrial-zoned area. No more landfills, like the one in Rensselaer, next to a school. No more incinerators like Norlite’s operating within city limits.

It sounds like passing this simple amendment will be like waving a magic wand, all our environmental problems will be solved, and we can march forward into the bright sunshine of a new day.

If only it were that easy. But this is just a feel-good measure, nothing more. Its fifteen simple words are so general they mean nothing, requiring nothing of anyone. Applying its lofty language to nitty-gritty situations like those Calsolaro enumerates would be very arguable. There are always trade-offs. Indeed, if his expansive reading were actually correct, the amendment would be a strait-jacket, barring sensible consideration of such trade-offs. “Putting people first” can conflict with environmental concerns.

Meantime, state agencies will likely spend extra time and money giving lip service to the amendment. Needing more state workers to crank out more empty verbiage.

And, as Calsolaro himself points out, the amendment will invite more litigation, giving people more legal tools for nimbyism and obstructionism. As if we don’t already have enough of that. As if New York’s economy is not already hamstrung by a welter of business-stifling measures. The amendment could actually be exploited to stymie clean-energy projects like wind farms.

Then of course there’s the law of unintended consequences. It’s hard to say what those unintended consequences will be. But unintended consequences don’t tend to be good.

I’m all in favor of clean air and water and a healthy environment. But that requires hard work, facing painful trade-offs. This amendment is a cynical excuse for not actually doing anything. It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.

There’s no free lunch. Dressing up a nothingburger as a free lunch is a bad thing.

I’m voting no.