March 1, 2012
Modern corporations trace their origins to the trading companies of imperial Europe more than three centuries ago. Their rise in power and influence has been a steady trajectory to the point where today they are the dominant institution in society. Governments have freed corporations from legal constraints through deregulation, and granted them even greater power through privatization. The Supreme Court has declared corporations are people and money is free speech. The latter has turned Congress into, as one commentator put it, “a forum for legalized bribery.” Many citizens feel that pleading to corporations is insufficient and that it is time to examine the nature of this artificial institution. Endless single-issue crisis-based activism, one grievance at a time does not address the core problem, which is the corporation itself. Is ending corporate rule an obtainable goal? How would it happen?
This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio
Paul Cienfuegos lectures and leads workshops on dismantling corporate rule. He co-founded Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County in Northern California. He’s based in Portland, Oregon, where he is a regional leader in the Community Rights movement, which works to dismantle corporate constitutional so-called “rights” and enshrine We The People‘s right to self-governance. He leads workshops on this topic.
You can listen to Paul Cienfuegos speak for himself here.
I’d like to begin by asking you some questions. When was the last time that you remember being asked by the people who run your local chain supermarket how you felt about them filling most of their shelves with highly processed foods that were shipped an average of thousands of miles to get to you? When was the last time that you remember being asked how you felt about your supermarket selling thousands of items containing genetically modified ingredients that had never been properly tested for their health effects? Or being asked how you felt about them paying the farm workers who harvested the fruits and vegetables that were sold there, a wage that very few U.S. citizens would ever be willing to work for?
And what if it wasn’t just you who felt that way? What if it turned out that the vast majority of shoppers at that store didn’t want it selling GMO foods or mostly highly processed foods from far away either, and would much rather have products filling the shelves that were grown or produced locally or regionally, and really did want the farm workers to be paid a living wage? Would that matter? Would the majority’s desires have any impact?
When was the last time you remember being asked by the people who run your local electric power utility how you would like them to spend the money you pay every month for your electricity bill? Year after year, their directors make one decision after another on how to spend your money. They get to choose between year-end bonuses for their CEO and directors, or offering discounted solar panels to their customers, or deciding to build a new coal-fired or nuclear power plant, or lowering everyone’s rates. The decision is left totally up to them, and rarely does a single customer ask themselves why the directors get to make these decisions, rather than it being democratically decided by those who pay their bills.
When was the last time you remember being asked by the people who run your local corporate chain daily newspaper how you feel about them printing very few of the letters to the editor that they receive? Or how you feel about the owners of your local newspaper prioritizing shareholder returns rather than hiring enough reporters to ensure that local residents get the news and analysis they need every day to fully participate in their role as citizens?
And what if the vast majority of the people who read that daily newspaper wanted to see major changes in the direction of more accountability to the community, the hiring of more reporters, opening up the editorial board so that it began to include not just Republicans and Democrats, but also Greens, Libertarians, and independent voters of all stripes? Would it matter what the majority of readers wanted?
When was the last time that the folks who own and manage the company you work for asked you whether you were satisfied with your job? Whether your work was sufficiently meaningful, or whether you were getting bored, and wanted to switch to another job within the company? Or asked you if you wanted to participate in the decision-making process about how the company profits were going to be spent next year?
What if the vast majority of the employees at your company wanted the same things you wanted? Would that matter?
When was the last time the folks who own your health insurance company asked you what services you wanted to have covered under your health insurance policy? Or asked you whether you preferred to continue being part of a for-profit health care system, or whether you would prefer to be part of a not-for-profit health care system that provides affordable health care for all who need it, similar to what already exists in Europe, Cuba, and Canada? What if the vast majority of the people insured by that same company wanted the same thing that you wanted? Would that make any difference? Does it matter what the vast majority of us want?
My guess is that pretty much every last one of us is so used to not being consulted in the endless and critical decisions that corporate boards of directors make day in and day out decisions that affect all of us in big ways. That it doesn’t even occur to most of us to even think these questions, let alone to actually complain about it.
Most of us have internalized the assumption that having no say is normal, even when it affects the vast majority of us in a nation that is based on majority rule.
Now I’ve only given examples, so far, of corporate decision-making. Let’s take a look also at government decision-making. Surely, the way in which our government responds to the majority’s desires must be different. Right?
During the entire period that candidate Barack Obama was campaigning to become president, and after he had been elected, the polls showed overwhelming support for some kind of universal and affordable public health care system that left no one out, what some refer to as Medicare For All. Those same polling numbers continue to this day. How did that public opinion translate in Washington D.C.? It’s quite striking, really. Doctors, nurses, and others who supported it were not invited to testify at the Congressional hearings that were held after he launched his health care proposals. Obama’s list of possible options never included a serious health care for all option. It was never debated. It was never on the table, even though it had overwhelming public support.
This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.
Let’s look at another example. In Vermont, the state legislature voted in 2010 to close the state’s only nuclear power plant when its 40-year license expired on March 12, 2012. The vote was 26 to 4. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant had originally been built to be safe for just 40 years, if you can even call nuclear power “safe.” And during that 40 years had experienced very serious safety problems, so it was a no-brainer for the state legislature to make this decision. Vermont’s voters were very much in agreement with how their legislature voted. Vermont is the only state in the nation with authority over its nuclear facilities, so its legislature thought it was totally within
their proper jurisdiction to refuse the 20-year extension that the nuclear operator, Entergy Corporation, was requesting. Over the course of the next year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission went ahead anyway, and approved the 20-year extension. And Entergy Corporation sued the state of Vermont, claiming that the legislature really did not have jurisdiction to make this decision because it violated the corporations constitutional socalled “rights” under the Commerce Clause because it interfered with the interstate electricity market, and further claiming that since the state legislature wanted to close it based on safety issues, that violated the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction on nuclear safety questions. The federal court sided with Entergy Corporation, stating,
The safety of nuclear power is a
federal issue, not a state issue
and is requiring the state to relicense the plant for another 20 years.
So much for the right of a state legislature to try to protect its citizens from the very real threat of a nuclear power accident. On February 18, 2012, Vermont’s Attorney General appealed the federal judge’s ruling, escalating a two-year battle over state’s rights and atomic energy. And by the way, the Vermont Yankee plant is the same vintage and design of the Number 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
You can’t make this stuff up. This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.
Let’s look at one final example. The people of thirty New Hampshire communities have been adamantly opposed for some time to the building of a massive new transmission line for electricity to be sent from Quebec, Canada into New England. It’s called the Northern Pass Project. In March 2011, in their annual town meetings, voters passed resolutions in all thirty towns demanding that the transmission lines not pass through their local pristine forestlands and farmlands. How big was the majority that voted against the project? Was it a barebones majority or a significant majority? Actually, neither. In almost every one of those thirty towns, regardless of whether there were 300 voters or thousands of voters, the vote was unanimous. The people of rural New Hampshire said, No. Almost every single one of them said, No.
Did the governor of New Hampshire stop the project? Of course not. Once again, majority rule turned out to be irrelevant.
I could offer one example after another after another. You already know these stories. You hear them every day in your own communities. We participate in the ways we’ve been taught to participate. We vote, we sign petitions, we write letters to our elected representatives, we march. The list of what we do is long. But no matter how hard most of us work, it doesn’t seem to add up. We mostly lose.
What the majority of people wants usually doesn’t seem to matter to those who ultimately make the decisions that affect all of us.
It’s no wonder so few of us engage in the political process. We’re run down, we’re exhausted. We feel hopeless and helpless. Many of us get angry, many feel despair. Many of us just go numb and stop paying attention to the news altogether, because we no longer believe that anything we could do would make any difference at all. I would argue that that’s not apathy. Instead, I would argue that it’s a perfectly rational response to a system that clearly isn’t interested in what we want, in what the majority wants.
Did you, the good people of Missoula, want your local water utility to be owned by a California corporation? And this California corporation just sold your local water to the Carlyle Group, the world’s largest private investment firm, which has never owned a water utility until now. Imagine that, the Carlyle Group now owns Missoula, Montana’s local water utility. They can toss your local water, your local aquifer, from corporation to corporation, and there’s very little you can do about it.
No one asked the people of Missoula what you want. They didn’t have to ask. The law is on their side. This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.
It reminds me of what it feels like when bullies stole my cap when I was a kid, and tossed it back and forth between them. I couldn’t get it back. They had all the power. And it made me really angry because that was my cap. But it had become their plaything. I couldn’t do anything to get it back, other than to beg them for it. Now the law allows giant corporations to do that with your water, like it’s just a corporate toy, while the people of Missoula run back and forth begging the corporation to sell it back.
That’s how the system works. The law is on their side. It doesn’t really matter what the good people of Missoula want.
And yet there’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But I can feel it, and I’ll bet you can too. People who have never been politically active before are rising up in hundreds of communities across this country.
Regardless of what you think about the Occupy Movement, it has had dramatic impact on what is being discussed in the cafes and on the front pages of daily newspapers. “We are the 99%” has become a slogan, a soundbite, crisscrossing the entire country, in just a matter of a few months. For the first time in decades, our politicians are being forced to discuss the obscene disparity between the richest and the poorest Americans.
There is a great political awakening taking place. Huge numbers of us are standing up for the first time and telling others,
What’s going on here is unacceptable. We cannot continue down this path. We have to do something.
But it’s not just income disparity that has people so angry. Massive numbers of us are also standing up and asking,
Who’s in charge here? Giant corporations or We The People?
What a teachable moment this is. I have been doing grassroots community organizing my entire adult life, and, wow, I have never witnessed anything like this before. So much energy. So many people mobilizing who have never been politically active before. It’s tremendously exciting.
When we were children, we all learned in school that we live in a society that is democratic, where the majority rules, where we vote for our representatives in government and they do our bidding. What I think is going on right now across this enormous country is really profound. I think that the average citizen is starting to finally wake up in large enough numbers to the reality on the ground that tells them that this story from our childhood was a great myth, a great illusion.
We The People are starting to stir again. And the big question is this: Will enough of us understand the importance, or perhaps more accurately the urgency, of reaching outside of our comfort zones, across the boundaries we rarely cross, and doing what is perhaps the scariest thing that most of us will ever do, starting conversations with starting to build mutually respectful relationships with those who are not like us?
What I’m talking about here is the essential first step in organizing our communities. Most of us these days think that all we have to do is activate our social networks, and we’ll succeed at reaching everyone who needs to be reached. Sadly, that is not how it works. Our society is incredibly fractured. And networking is not at all the same thing as organizing. Once you’ve stretched yourself a bit, and built relationships with new groups of people who you wouldn’t normally have gotten to know, then social networking is an ideal way to stay connected and get mobilized. But first you have to build that trust.
Years ago, author Carolyn Chute, who lives in Maine, was working hard to build what she called “The Second Maine Militia.” She imagined it would be some sort of pro-people, pro-democracy local army that would try to reach out to everyone. They would carry guns, just like the Maine Militia already does. But their work would be about defending grassroots democracy. She referred to them as “Your Wicked Good Militia.”
Here’s something she said at the time:
We The People must unite if we are to be a power strong enough to get our sovereign rights back. we must not squabble amongst ourselves over stuff like abortions, drugs, guns, welfare, unemployment benefits, men who whistle at women, cultural differences, race, and all that. a united people must include all of us: the homos, the heters, the yuppy, the hippie, the red necks, hairy, shaved, kinky, spiffy, the work boots, the sneakers, the black shiny pumps, the nose rings, the knit shirts, flannel shirts, pink shirts, the fat, the thin, the tall and the short and the beauteous, and the ugly. We need millions. We can’t fight the corporate scheme if we are all hissing and fluffing and puffing and snorting in little isolated groups which blame other little groups for the country’s ills.
She’s talking about the 99%. And believe it or not, on the issue of corporate power vs We The People, we’re mostly all on the same side already. We just don’t believe it yet.
When the Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 that corporations should be allowed to steal our elections even more easily than they could already, how did citizens react? 85% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans opposed the court’s decision.
I’ll repeat those statistics because they’re so startling to most of us. 85% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans opposed the court’s decision giving even more power to corporations to steal our elections.
The only reason that I can figure out how to explain why Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens are not already working actively together to challenge corporate rule, is that our minds have been so completely colonized that we don’t realize we already are the majority.
Divide and conquer works. That’s why a lot of you in this room really need to be leaving this hall tonight and asking yourselves what you can do to reach outside of your comfort zone and start building sustained relationships with people who may not think the way you do on many topics, but on the topic of citizens vs corporate rule, you see eye to eye. You just don’t know it yet.
We The People of these United States of America have a lot of work to do. And we’re going to have to figure out how to mobilize ourselves at a rate that most of us can scarcely imagine if we are to effectively tackle the social crises and the economic crises and the ecological crises that are staring us in the face.
Step one is for us to get real and stop lying to ourselves about what’s going on in Washington D.C. and in our state capitols. Our so-called “representatives” are doing exactly what they have always done, since the founding of our nation representing the captains of industry. It has always been this way. James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, was quite honest about this at the time:
The primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.
I’ll say that again. James Madison said,
The primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.
And if you actually read the Constitution–not the Amendments to it, but the original Constitution–you’ll see how true this is. Our nation’s history isn’t pretty to look at. Most of us prefer to avert our eyes, but that doesn’t make it go away.
The Founding Fathers were mostly very wealthy men who owned slaves. When the founders finished writing the Constitution, and sent copies of it to each state to be reviewed, the general response was outrage. In state after state, it was rejected. The general public had expected that it would be filled with specific rights and protections for people. But instead, it mostly protected commerce and property; it was an economic document.
So the men who had written the Constitution were forced to draft a number of amendments to it, which took many years to get finalized, and which became known as the Bill of Rights. Finally, there were rights for people in the Constitution, but it took citizen outrage to get us there.
For the next 100 years, only 10 or 15% of those human beings who lived in the U.S. had any Constitutional rights at all. You had to be a white male and own property to be considered a person under law. The other 85 to 90% of us had no rights. It wasn’t until the final years of the 1800’s that enough non-persons had mobilized through massive social movement, and had become legal persons with rights. Ultimately, as abolitionists organized to end slavery and turn property into people with rights; as suffragists organized for a woman’s right to vote; and as white men without property organized to win the rights of persons; it became necessary for the small minority who ruled the country to find another way to maintain their control.
What did they do? They worked diligently for decades, primarily via the Supreme Court, to transform the corporation from something that had been merely a tool, controlled and defined by state legislatures, to something that was to ultimately become the dominant institution of our entire society. Mostly through a supportive Supreme Court, the corporation was granted one new Constitutional so-called “right” after another.
And from that point forward to this very day, the original 10% of the people who ruled the rest of us found a new resting spot, inside of, and firmly in control of, the corporation. So we have always lived in a minority rule society. And the sooner we come to terms with this fact, the sooner we will succeed in effectively changing this situation.
You can argue that we still get to choose our elected officials, but did you know that the candidate who has the most money to spend almost always wins? And did you know that the vast majority of campaign contributions comes from corporations, not from people?
So until we figure out how to build a movement from the bottom up, starting locally, to drive change upward to the state and federal level, we can’t honestly claim that we live in a functioning democratic republic. If we’re prepared to acknowledge this very painful truth, enormous energy can be released in some very exciting ways. Because once you stop trying to convince your so-called “representatives” to do the right thing, and once you stop putting your energy into trying to fight one corporate outrage at a time, it frees you up to see everything from a fresh angle.
That’s exactly what has been happening for the past ten years, in a growing number of communities across six East Coast states–with very little attention paid to it by the corporate media, which is not surprising–but also with very little attention paid to it by the independent media, which is surprising. With one exception, YES magazine.
In 140 communities, some very conservative, some very progressive, local residents are pulling the wool out of their eyes and concluding that if they want to protect the local places where they live and that they love, they have to step outside of conventional law to do so–because municipal governments are not allowed to pass laws that respond directly to the grandest aspirations of their residents. It’s against the law. Local city councils are not allowed to ban harmful corporate activities if those activities are already considered normal and legal by state governments. It’s called “state pre-emption.” And you’ll come up against it quite quickly if you try to stop a factory farm from moving into your area, or a clearcut in your local woods.
Local governments also run into another barrier called “Dillon’s Rule,” which is the flip side of state pre-emption. Dillon’s Rule states that local governments may only make laws in the areas that state governments explicitly allow them to.
And then there’s corporate constitutional so-called “rights.” You can’t stop a Wal-Mart from being built over there, because that violates the corporation’s constitutionally protected property “rights.” You can’t stop that local factory that’s been providing living wage jobs to a thousand residents for decades from closing its doors and moving production to China, because that violates the corporation’s decision-making authority, which is constitutionally protected as an intangible property “right.” You can’t ask your City Council to hold a public hearing on the human health impact of cell phone towers, because just holding the hearing would violate the corporation’s constitutionally-protected “rights” under 1950’s-era civil rights law. And the Vermont state legislature learned the hard way that if you try to shut down a nuclear power plant, even after its operating license has expired, and even though state law explicitly allows them to do this, you’ll quickly discover that doing so would violate the corporation’s protected “rights” under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
You can’t stop corporations from throwing millions of dollars at manipulating one of our elections because that would violate the corporations’ constitutionally protected First Amendment “rights” of free speech.
What I’m talking about here isn’t just what’s taken place in the distant past. No, this is current. Corporations just keep winning Supreme Court decision after Supreme Court decision. This is living history that is still unfolding.
And until We The People decide that corporate constitutional “rights” are a real problem in this country, nothing much is going to change for the better.
Just a few years ago, Nike Corporation’s lawyers tried to get the courts to agree that corporations should have the legally protected right to lie, as a subset of their First Amendment “right” to speak. The Supreme Court chose not to make a ruling on that request, so this one is still up for grabs.
Let me be very clear here. I am not challenging or criticizing rights for people. What I am doing is drawing the line between people and corporations.
What is a corporation? It’s property. We’re supposed to not fall over laughing when we’re told that it’s essential that we not interfere when the courts grant property rights to property, free speech rights to property, civil rights to property? That’s like giving constitutional “rights” to my toaster. It’s absolutely nuts. And it amazes me that We The People aren’t already up in arms about this.
But that’s what happens when we put our attentions elsewhere, fighting one single issue after another, decade after decade, not ever connecting the dots to discover that at the root of most of our single-issue battles is corporate constitutional “rights.”
Once again, there’s state pre-emption, there’s Dillon’s Rule, and there’s corporate so-called “rights.” These three rules are what makes it literally impossible for local governments to pass laws that protect your community.
And that’s why local governments in 150 towns and climbing have said, “Enough is Enough.” And they are choosing to step outside of conventional law to do what elected officials have given an oath to do, to represent their communities the best way they know how.
What do you do when you’re elected to serve on a city or town council, and what the majority of the town wants is not legal for you to pass into law? You do what the good people of dozens of rural Pennsylvania communities did over the past ten years. They passed the “Anti-Corporate Farming Ordinance” which banned nonfamily owned corporations from engaging in farming or owning farmland. The law they passed violated corporate “rights.” It violated state pre-emption, and it violated Dillon’s Rule. These township supervisors had to step outside of the legal structures they were told they had to operate within. There was no other way to protect their towns.
They had tried pleading with agricultural regulatory agencies, but as you may already know, regulatory agencies aren’t about saying no to harmful corporate activities. They’re about regulating harmful activities, which by definition means that they’re about permitting harmful activities. The farm communities didn’t want the hog farms regulated, they wanted them stopped. But there was no one else to ask. There was no there there. So they stepped outside of the law. They had to in order to protect their rural way of life. The laws they passed succeeded in keeping the corporate factory farms out of their towns. These conservative farmers were the spark that started this grassroots movement that is now spreading so quickly.
This really is nothing new. What did the abolitionists do in the late 1800’s when they were trying to end slavery? They couldn’t turn to the law. The law enshrined slavery. The Constitution defended slavery as a normal activity. So in their rallies they burned copies of the Constitution, because there was no way to get justice for slaves within existing structures of law. The law was the problem.
What did the suffragists do when they were trying to win the right for women to vote? They couldn’t turn to the law. The law only talked about “persons”, and women weren’t persons. There was no way to get justice for women within existing structures of law. The law was the problem. So women entered polling places year after year by the thousands, and tried to vote, and they were arrested and imprisoned and treated in surprisingly brutal ways.
The people of this country have understood from the very beginning, starting with the American Revolution, that sometimes you have to break the law in order to win new rights. Quite frankly, it’s as American as apple pie.
Since the Pennsylvania farmers banned corporate agriculture in dozens of communities, this Community Rights movement has really taken off. Towns in Maine have banned corporations from pumping water out of the ground to sell in little plastic bottles. Other towns have banned corporate mining, the corporate dumping of urban sewage sludge on farmland, the corporate use of the right of eminent domain to take private property away from private land and home owners against their will and many other examples.
In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s city council, by a unanimous vote of nine to zero, banned corporate fracking for natural gas–a practice that commonly results in turning your tap water into something that you can light with a match. Imagine that. It’s not a pretty picture.
The latest community to be added to this map is Bellingham, Washington, which in January 2012, launched a ballot initiative campaign that would ban coal trains from passing through Bellingham. As was reported in the Bellingham Herald newspaper on December 30, 2011, and I quote,
In conventional legal terms, that doesn’t seem to make much sense. The federal government regulates the interstate rail system, and BNSF Railway Company has a legal right of way through the city.
But the Bellingham organizers don’t seem too concerned about that. They say that they are setting out to establish some new legal groundwork that would put the rights of communities and ecosystems above the “rights” of railroad corporations.
Every last one of these local ordinances is doing something as revolutionary as what the Abolitionists and the Suffragists did. They are refusing to abide by an unjust law. They’re saying in town after town, if we can’t get our state and federal governments to protect us from these harmful corporate activities, we’ll do it ourselves. No matter what it takes. Because we live here. Because we won’t let our homes get destroyed. Because we’re drawing a line in the sand. any town can do this. It just takes backbone.
I travel extensively leading workshops and giving talks about these issues. I’ve been doing this since 1996. And I have to tell you, people are fed up with the status quo in this country. They’re fed up with feeling powerless. They’re fed up with being ignored by their so-called leaders. I’ve never witnessed so much readiness to stand up collectively and say,
We will not let this harmful corporate activity happen here.
And what’s even more exciting to me is that people are taking it one step further and also starting to think about what they want for their towns. Not just what they don’t want. Not just what they’re trying to stop. But what they want.
A few communities, like the rural New Hampshire towns I mentioned earlier, are getting ready to pass ordinances that would enshrine, under law, the “right to a sustainable energy future.” Imagine that. Six communities are voting on this. These residents are no longer begging state and federal politicians to pay more attention to the fossil fuel energy crisis we’re in. They’re not waiting anymore for someone higher up to save them. There is no legal force more powerful than We The People. And they know it.
Let me read you Section One of this ordinance being discussed in the town of Lancaster, and as you listen to this, think to yourself how exciting it might be to do this sort of thing in your town:
The residents of the Town of Lancaster recognize that the current energy policies of the state of New Hampshire and the United States have long been directed by a small handful of energy corporations and the directors of those corporations, and that centralized control over energy policies forces reliance upon unsustainable industrial-scale energy production, and denies the rights of residents to a sustainable energy future.
The residents of the Town of Lancaster recognize that environmental and economic sustainability cannot be achieved if the rights of community majorities are routinely overridden by corporate minorities claiming certain legal powers that bar meaningful regulatory limitations and prohibitions concerning the generation, distribution, and transmission of unsustainable energy.
The residents of the Town also recognize that sustainability cannot be achieved within a system of preemption which enables those corporations to use state governments to override local self-government, and which restricts municipalities to that lawmaking specifically authorized by state government.
The residents of the Town of Lancaster believe that the protection of their health, safety, and welfare is mandated by the doctrine of the consent of the governed and their inherent right to local self-government.
Thus, the Town of Lancaster hereby adopts this rights-based Ordinance, which establishes a Bill of Rights for the residents and communities of the Town. This Bill of Rights includes the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, prohibits corporations from acquiring land necessary for the construction of unsustainable energy systems, or engaging in the construction or siting of any structure to be used in the operation of unsustainable energy systems, removes certain legal powers from energy corporations operating within the Town of Lancaster that would violate the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, and nullifies state laws, permits and other authorizations which interfere with the rights secured by this Ordinance.
What do you think of that?
What we are witnessing, I believe, are the opening shots of the Second American Revolution. The central question that each one of these towns is asking themselves is this: Who’s in charge here? We The People or large absentee corporations?
They know who should be in charge here. So they’re standing up for their communities and exercising their inherent right to govern themselves. And they’re not going to allow higher levels of
government to stop them from passing stronger protection of their farm and ranch lands, stronger protection of their creeks and rivers, stronger protection for working people, stronger protection for neighborhoods. Because that’s what a majority of them wants.
Let me read to you the first few sentences of the Montana State Constitution, which by the way is the highest law of the land in Montana.
DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
Section 1. POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY.
All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.
Section 2. SELF-GOVERNMENT.
The people have the exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent state. They may alter or abolish the Constitution and form of government whenever they deem it necessary.
Section 3. INALIENABLE RIGHTS.
All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.
These are your constitutional rights in the state of Montana. Are you already familiar with this document? Every state constitution contains reasonably similar language.
Earlier, I mentioned that Bellingham, Washington is organizing to ban coal trains from passing through their town. If you don’t already know about this, there’s a corporate plan to run up to 20 coal trains per day, each train up to a mile and a half long, and containing 100 to 150 coal cars each. That’s 3000 coal cars per day, stretching up to 30 miles long per day. They’ll run from Wyoming and Montana to a number of deepwater ports in Oregon and Washington. Many of these trains are destined to go through Missoula, as well as through Spokane, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, Longview, Vancouver, Hood River, Portland, Salem, Eugene, and many other towns and cities on numerous routes. Ports are already being dredged to handle these massively heavy ships in Cherry Point north of Bellingham, in Grays Harbor west of Olympia, in Longview and Saint Helens on the Columbia River, and in Coos Bay, on the Oregon coast.
I am helping to establish a network of communities that are considering passing the same ordinance that Bellingham has written, with the goal of stopping this entire operation before it ever starts. So please contact folks you know along these routes, and let them know that there’s something very powerful that they can do, beyond just pleading with elected officials. The time for pleading is over. It’s time for us to stand up collectively and exercise our right to say “No” to what we find unacceptable and to say “Yes” to what we actually want.
Coal is the worst of the fossil fuels for releasing carbon into the atmosphere that creates catastrophic climate destabilization. So if we care about our climate, this project has to be stopped. Each coal car is expected to release upwards of 500 pounds of coal dust as it rumbles along. Up to 500 pounds of coal dust release per train car.Imagine the health impacts of that much coal dust in the air, in the creeks, in our lungs. More than 170 Bellingham doctors have already mobilized to warn their community about this new health menace. In their own words,
There are irrefutable links between these pollutants and cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reproductive health issues and malignancy, with no threshold value for impacts on human health. Much like cigarettes, a little exposure is bad and more is worse.
Let me be clear. It’s not enough to simply stop the coal trains, although stopping them is essential, and these rights-based local ordinances can help. It’s not enough to simply stop the tar sands project in Canada, and the related pipeline to the Texas coast, although stopping them is essential, and these rights-based local ordinances can help. It’s not enough to simply stop the drilling for oil in deeper and deeper waters, although stopping this is essential. What we really need is a fundamentally new energy policy in this country, and there is no way we can get there if our entire strategy is begging and pleading with our elected politicians in Washington D.C. and in our state capitals.
Fossil fuel analysts say that Peak Oil happened just a few years ago, and it’ll be a slow decline from here on out. Peak Coal is right around the corner, at least domestically. Peak natural gas is closer than you might think. We are simply running out of most of the raw materials that are required for economic growth to continue. The reason I’m focusing for a moment on peak fossil fuels is that a vast number of us already know that we need to change direction in our energy policies, and fast.
What Lancaster and other New Hampshire communities are doing is an example of how we can get there. Or at least how we can begin the long journey from heading off the cliff, towards acknowledging that this beautiful planet that we live on has limits. And that we’ve reached those limits. And that we have to drive major political change upwards, from local communities to state and then federal government, if we are to have any chance of fundamentally shifting our energy policies in this country.
The same goes for transportation policy, agricultural policy, forestry policy, health policy, environmental policy, etc. I am absolutely convinced that we have to begin by envisioning what we want here at home first, and turning that vision into local rights-based lawmaking. In New Hampshire, it’s people exercising their right to a sustainable energy future. In Maine, it’s people exercising their right to a sustainable food system. And in Montana, what will it be? That’s where it starts. What does a majority of Montana voters want? What does a majority of Missoula voters want? That’s where it starts.
When you hear a news story on the radio tomorrow, talking about the policymakers who decided this, and the policymakers who decided that, ask yourself who these policy makers are. Ask yourself why is it that you hear that phrase day after day, but it doesn’t ever occur to most of us that We The People hold the ultimate responsibility and authority to be those policymakers.
Montana is one of the more than 30 states in this country that allows the voters to pass laws directly through the ballot box. You won that right because an enormous number of people calling themselves Populists organized here in the 1880’s and 1890’s and won that right for all of you.
The GMO issue is yet another emergency that needs immediate attention. We The People can’t keep battling these totally legal but awful corporate activities, one at a time, endlessly, into the future. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the resources. And frankly, it’s a waste of our energies, when instead we could be exercising our right of local self-governance. Instead, we could be standing up together and saying,
No, you can’t harm us here anymore. We have the right to say No. We’re drawing a line in the sand. And we’re organizing for our right to sustainable agriculture.
None of what I’ve been describing to you is easy to accomplish. Of course it isn’t. But neither is all of our endless single-issue crisis-based activism, which rarely accomplishes its goals.
For me, the central question that I keep asking in each community that I visit is this,
What do you want? What do you need?
You are the real experts in this place. No one knows this place better than you do. You have unique issues here that need to be resolved. You’re trying to figure out how to get your water utility back in public hands. You’re trying to figure out how to stop coal trains from passing through. You’re trying to stop prime agricultural lands from being turned into subdivisions. In each one of these cases, a small minority of people, organized as a corporation claiming constitutional “rights” is making all of the critical decisions. In most of these cases, they’re not even the people who live here who are making these decisions.
That’s the central issue that needs to be addressed. Who’s in charge in this place? The people who live here and vote here, or large corporations?
Every town needs to identify the primary issues that are so contentious here. Every town needs to create authentically democratic public space so that We The People can meet and talk and listen and think creatively together. So that we can find our power again as The People. So that we can learn again how to govern ourselves. So that we can think about what we want to leave for our children and grandchildren and great
grandchildren here in this place.
We can do this. We are The People. Right?
Thank you very much.
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