To tackle climate change, “environmental law needs to shift radically.”

An Interview with Amy Knisley, PhD

Amy Knisley, PhD, on her farm.


A specialist in environmental law as it relates to land use and natural resources, Warren Wilson College environmental studies professor, Amy Knisley, has a PhD in Philosophy from University of Colorado and a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School.  She brings this educated perspective, as well as the knowledge gained through years spent running a small organic market farm and farmer’s market, to contribute to tonight’s Amuse Bouche panel on the current state of our food system, at Fearrington Barn, the pre-conference discussion and gathering that will whet our appetites for the tomorrow’s Climate Adaptation Conference for farmers, researchers and food activists.

Dr. Knisley’s teaching and research blends environmental ethics, political theory and the law. She grapples with questions like: What are the implications of the “risk management” paradigm in environmental protection? When is “compromise” tantamount to irretrievable loss? Then again, when can the perfect become the enemy of the good?

I caught up with her on the eve of the conference, to get a little taste of what we’ll be discussing tonight at Amuse Bouche.


The Interview:

What drew you to farming in the first place?  What do you love about it?

It seems instinctive. As with so many people, I love the labor of it. As a labor, it is inherently absorbing and gratifying, participating with dirt and water to make food.

How did you get interested in environmental law?

That too is kind of instinctive, in the sense that my mind bends toward abstractions, and I am fascinated by the human capacity to project its ideas about truth, right, wrong and so forth into systems like laws, and morality, and then have those things actually be “real” in the world.

They are real.  They make a real difference. That’s the philosophical side.

Practically, my original graduate training is as a philosopher, a PhD emphasizing environmental ethics and political theory. I did that for a number of years, and then I wanted a more applied dimension, so I returned to graduate school – in a law school this time – and got a degree in environmental law and policy. That’s allowed me to shift my research, teaching and community work into a more applied setting, while keeping the philosophical and law dimension I love intellectually.

How does environmental law benefit or harm farmers?  How does it need to change?

Here in the U.S., environmental law falls mostly into two big categories: 1. curbing pollution – both hazardous and non-hazardous – and 2. conserving natural resources. There are some other realms, like noise control and efficiency in use of material resources, but pollution and conservation are the two big areas.

And another feature of U.S. environmental law (not necessarily unique to the U.S.) is that various economic sectors receive special treatment, in the form of tailored rules or even specific exemptions, under various provisions and programs in our environmental laws. Two sectors are singled out repeatedly for this kind of treatment in the U.S.: oil and gas exploration and production, and agriculture.

For examples: under the recently-promulgated Clean Air Act greenhouse gas emissions tracking rules, livestock operations only have to report manure-management related emissions, and only if those top 25,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year. This carves out emissions from livestock digestive processes, agricultural burning, non-manure management composting, etc. Under the Clean Water Act, a variety of ditching and draining that would, off a farm, trigger wetland protection provisions, are exempted.

Federal regulation of toxic and hazardous constituents of, or final formulations of, pesticides and herbicides is generally minimal, and usually just relates to registering, labeling and requisite training for applicators.

I don’t want to give the impression that farming is exempt altogether. It isn’t, and there are a range of state regulations that impact farming. But it is noteworthy that it does sit next to oil and gas as the two most-exempted sectors in our scheme of environmental protection in this country.

The Farm Bill is not usually listed as part of environmental law, but in law programs that have enough depth in environmental law to take on agriculture, several provisions of it do come up. Interestingly, this omnibus of incentives and disincentives, over time, has become a source of positive changes in farming, providing funding incentives for various conservation measures, and gradually shifting direct commodity payments into insurance arrangements.

So, over its long lifetime the Farm Bill hasn’t encouraged sustainable farming, but in recent years that has been changing.

Environmental law could do a lot to help good farming in the U.S., but it would need to shift – radically – from its media-specific and problem-specific approach (that is, being organized around air, or around water, or around waste) and shift into a systems-approach. Another big topic!

Knisley ran a farm in Maine before moving to Western North Carolina.
Knisley ran a farm in Maine before moving to Western North Carolina.


Your farm is currently in hiatus, but in your years of farming for market, have you felt the effects of climate change?  In what ways? 

The main thing we’ve seen is increasing unpredictability and the need to prepare for it with things like season extension mechanisms (high tunnels, etc.) and also greater willingness to lose crops to pests.

Who do you think has ultimate responsibility for ameliorating climate change?  Farmers?  Consumers?  The government?

Well, “ultimate” is a big word. Given the trans-boundary, highly complex nature of the phenomenon and the problems it presents, I would say that government has an over-arching responsibility.

Climate change is bigger, more systematic and more far-reaching, arguably, than other great social issues, such as poverty. And other great social issues have, traditionally, needed a big infusion of government leadership to get going on fixing them.

That said, it’s the whole system, and we all play a part.

How can your average layperson put pressure on lawmakers to change the law in such a way as to help slow climate change?

In NC, we have a lot of representatives in the GA House, and it’s not necessarily too hard for a group of folks to sort out a strategy to target small blocks of those representatives.

They’re more accessible than people think, especially if the people present as something of a coalition.


Continue the discussion!

Tickets are still available for Amuse Bouche, $5 in advance and $10 at the door!