Why Environmental Law Fails

In Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau said: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” In Familiar Letters, Henry David Thoreau said: “What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

forest fire

Environmental law has been the main mechanism used to advocate natural resources conservation, pollution control, and other forms of environmental protection. The sphere of International Environmental Law (IEL) has grown to circumscribe international and regional treaties, national laws, and administrative regulations. Unfortunately, the expeditious creation of IEL has not significantly slowed the even more expeditious acceleration of ecological degradation.

In spite of differences in international and national lawmaking processes, no clear boundary delineate where International Environmental Law leaves off and national law begins. In many instances, national environmental laws have been enacted for the sole impetus of meeting obligations imposed by international agreements.


In developing states, many conservation and sustainable development legal mandates stem from requirements imposed by foreign aid programs, international development banks, U.N. agencies, or other multilateral organizations as preconditions for grants, loans, technology transfers, or economic assistance.

To appear as accountable members of the “community of nations,” developing nations enact “model” legislation emulating environmental laws drafted by developed states, even if such laws have little relevance to the ecological and social circumstances of the Third World states embracing them.

river effluent

Unfortunately, environmental laws are only homiletic words unless they are implemented effectively; yet, non-implementation, non-enforcement, and non-compliance are so common that they must be viewed as the norm rather than exception in most nations.

There are three reasons why conservation laws have always failed in developing states:

Inadequate Administrative Capacities

Environmental protection is a convoluted and costly undertaking that must be maintained, revised, and renewed on a continuing basis. The developing nations lack the vital scientific knowledge, managerial expertise, trained personnel, financial resources, institutional frameworks, political commitments, and popular support necessary to implement effective environmental protection programs on a wide scale.

Inadequate Political Commitments and Popular Support

The prodigious priority of governments and entrepreneurs in almost every poor nation is to increase economic growth and development opportunities; and most of the common citizens are so caught up in day-to-day maintenance activities such as paying room rental at Nin Residence or settling Singapore renovation loans that their priorities are also enormously economic.

lake filter

Inadequately Designed Legal Mandates


Most international environmental laws and national laws in developing states have been poorly conceived. They are overly general, intentionally ambiguous, often self-contradictory and too lenient.


However, even thoughtful environmental laws reactive to the specific ecological and social conditions in each country can seldom serve as the premise for successful conservation in most nations, for environmental law can not succeed when people lack feasible economic alternatives. Poor people will not let their families go unfed to save trees or tigers, no matter how much they appreciate nature–and most people in developing nations want more than minimal subsistence.


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