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In 1962, Rachel Carson named the natural environment. Scientists were beginning to understand the complex web of ecological cause and effect; naming that web gave it independent existence and invested that existence with political meaning. In 1996, James Boyle named the cultural environment. Boyle’s act of naming was intended to jumpstart a political movement by appropriating the complex web of political meaning centered on the interdependency of environmental resources.

But naming, although important, is only a beginning. The example of the natural environment shows us that to build from a name to a movement requires two things. First, you have to do the science, which means generating detailed descriptions of how this environment works and what harms it. Second, you have to generate a normative theory powerful enough to overcome all competing narratives: a story about what makes this environment good. In the context of culture, however, there is an important difference: Cultural harm is less amenable to scientific proof. Cultural change may be empirically and anecdotally demonstrated, but cultural harm is in the eye of the beholder. This means that the normative theory needs to do heavier lifting.

Proponents of cultural environmentalism, then, need to tackle the normative theory: to formulate a theory of “the network” as a whole that explains what makes it good. This is part of the point of Boyle’s original argument, and also the point of Susan Crawford’s excellent paper. Although carving out open enclaves is important, in the final analysis the cultural environment won’t be saved a piece at a time. It will be saved only when we recognize it as an entity that is more than just the sum of its parts.


© 2007 Julie E. Cohen. Originally published in Law and Contemporary Problems. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. This article is also available at

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70 Law & Contemp. Probs. 91-95 (2007)