A Real Solution to Environmental Sustainability
Only a sweeping Constitutional amendment can save us from a global environmental disaster beyond our imagination.
A Real Solution to Environmental Sustainability
By Michael Lerner / tikkun.org
Jun 10, 2015

It’s time to sweep aside all the illusions:

* The illusion that the national environmental organizations have a secret plan to save the environment but just haven’t told us yet.

* The illusion that local acts of environmental sanity in a few dozen urban areas will make a dent on the global degradation of the life-support-system of the planet.

*  The illusion that “new technologies” will solve the problem.

*  The illusion that individual acts of recycling and “conscious consumerism” will change what is being produced.

*  The illusion that good guy corporate leaders will eventually turn around the massive impact that global corporations have been having in undermining nature’s balance.

*  The illusion that political sanity will prevail if only we get a new president. (Remember when you thought that about Obama? Are you now thinking it will happen with Hillary?)

Illusion after illusion after illusion.

We are up against a global economic and political system that has only gotten worse over the course of the forty-five years since the first Earth Day in 1970. Consciousness has grown, small battles have been won, and the people who worked so hard on both fronts deserve our commendation. But don’t deceive yourself: the situation of the planet has gotten worse and worse, and it will continue to do so until we have a movement capable of fundamentally changing our economic and political system.

The reason: most of the mega-corporations of the world must constantly expand in order to survive in a competitive global marketplace. As long as the corporate leadership has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the investments of their stockholders, they have no choice but to make profits their “bottom line.” True, they can sometimes use token environmental steps to assuage the consciences of some of their investors, customers, or clients, but only to the extent that those can be shown to contribute to their old bottom line of money and power. Individually, many people in these corporations are very decent human beings, and some go home from work and contribute to environmental causes. But they know they will lose their jobs if they don’t promote the old bottom line. And to do that, many of those corporations will have to extract resources from the earth in the cheapest possible way. This often involves using environmentally destructive processes to extract, refine, and produce new goods, as well as moving a corporation’s operations to other corners of the globe where environmental restrictions are less constraining, where workers’ pay is easier to restrict to low levels, or where safety conditions are less rigorously enforced. In the process, air, water, and land become increasingly polluted, and we and our children and grandchildren will pay the consequences. Sadly, many of the very people who care most about these issues will nevertheless provide the funding for candidates in 2016 who are too timid to address these issues, or too misguided, but instead will insist that “growth” is the golden calf which must be worshipped (as though the earth were a bottomless cookie jar and one could take without restraint or worry about future generations).

The Earth as seen from the Moon.

The photograph "Earthrise" was instrumental as a symbol of the beauty and fragility of the Earth, and helped spur the creation of the first Earth Day. 45 years later, the destructive political and economic system has only gotten worse. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ NASA.

But there is a solution to all this. Partly it involves a new consciousness that is already developing in which we come to see the earth not primarily as a “resource” to use for human benefit, but as a sacred source of life that deserves to be responded to with respect, love, awe, wonder, and radical amazement. In this new consciousness, we come to see ourselves as part of the earth. We become able to feel and mourn the assaults on the earth in ways similar (not exactly the same, but close) to the ways we would experience a fundamentalist from ISIL or Boku Haram hacking off one of our limbs. When we can feel that pain, we will stop eating cows and other forms of meat and allowing forests to be cut down so that cows or other animals can be grown for consumption. We will join efforts to get our governmental bodies, universities, religious and civic institutions, and anywhere we have investments or savings accounts to disinvest in corporations with dubious environmental practices, and we will refuse to buy their services or products.

But that can’t be enough. Even though you know oil companies are among the worst polluters, you still have to get to work. If there are no mass transportation options where you live, you may feel bad but you’ll continue to buy the oil from one polluter or another. If organic food is only available at higher prices than the more polluted foods, but your children are hungry, you’ll sacrifice a little on organic foods and eat ones that may or may not in the long run cause a variety of health problems.

Moreover, the 1 percent of the richest people in the advanced industrial countries have so much more disposable income than almost everyone else that the economic marketplace will respond far more to their interests than the interests of tens of millions of others. The consumer marketplace doesn’t respond on the basis of one consumer one vote, but rather one dollar one vote. And the top 1 percent owns more of those dollars than the 50 percent of Americans earning below the median income level.

A first step is to promote a New Bottom Line, so that our corporations, government policies, legal system, health care system, educational system, and other major systems are judged efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that they maximize love and caring, environmental sustainability and responsibility, and ethical behavior and generosity, while enhancing our capacities to treat other human beings not as instruments to fulfill our own personal needs but as sacred beings. A New Bottom Line would also value institutions that nurture our capacities to transcend a narrow utilitarian or instrumental approach to nature and instead respond to the earth and to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and preciousness of all that is (of which we each are an important part). This New Bottom Line is a way of making a “new story” or “new consciousness” into a reality in our daily lives. But to make that happen, we need to translate this New Bottom Line into specific programs.

That’s why we at Tikkun (and at the interfaith and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives) have developed two key programs that would make a major difference: The Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Global Marshall Plan.


The Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (tikkun.org/ESRA) has the following planks:

1. It bans all private money from state and federal elections and permits only public funding, thereby eliminating the huge advantage that the super-rich have to shape Congress, the presidency, and state legislatures. This is a far more powerful step than allowing Congress to set limits on money donations by overturning the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. The ESRA also makes clear that corporations are not “persons” deserving the rights granted to human beings in the Constitution and that money is not a form of speech protected by the Constitution.

Limitless growth is the golden calf worshipped by modern society. Credit: Flickr/ Herval Friere.

2. It requires the largest and wealthiest corporations (those with incomes of over $50 million per year) to get a new corporate charter once every five years. This charter will only be granted to corporations that can prove a satisfactory history of environmental behavior and social responsibility to a panel of ordinary citizens. Such panels will hear testimony of people from around the world who have had their lives impacted by the behavior of the corporation being reviewed. The current system of “regulatory agencies” doesn’t work: the regulated corporations have succeeded in getting their own leaders, lobbyists, or other loyalists appointed to these agencies by presidents of both major parties. That’s why the ESRA extends regulatory duties to ordinary citizens (with environmental experts as consultants), giving them the ability to decide the fate of corporations, just as our legal system now gives those citizens the right to decide the fate of fellow citizens accused of crimes. The ESRA specifies a set of areas that the panel must consider, but it can also bring in other environmentally relevant considerations. This part of the ESRA applies to all corporations selling goods or services in the United States (whether based here or not) as well as U.S. corporations operating only outside the United States, and it provides a massive incentive to corporations to change their corporate behavior (because with the ESRA, the environmentally sensitive people within corporations will be able to insist to their corporate leadership and to investors that they risk losing their license to function and hence the investments of their stock holders totally unless they dramatically change their practices to be dramatically and demonstrably less destructive to the environment).

3. It requires every school from kindergartens to graduate or professional schools to teach skills for protecting nature, empathic communication, and the importance of caring for everyone on the planet. The ESRA also requires schools to teach students how to organize collectively and use democratic and nonviolent methods to protect the earth and humanity’s future.

4. It overturns any treaty or trade agreement (including the currently secretly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama and the Republicans in Congress have sought to give “fast track” approval to) which can be shown to be destructive to the well-being of the environment or to working people or is judged by a court to stand in conflict with the intent or specifics of the ESRA. It also requires corporations that seek to move assets or operations out of the United States to provide reparations and compensation to the people of the area in which it previously had been operating. And all terms of the ESRA apply equally to any firms to which these larger firms subcontract.

The ESRA is written more like legislation than like previous constitutional amendments—a necessity given the propensity of the corporate-oriented Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional congressional legislation and past Supreme Court decisions that limit corporate political and economic power. This departure is acceptable because the Constitution does not specify what form an amendment can or cannot take. And while the Congress in the next few years (probably until post 2020 elections and the subsequent reapportionment and redrawing of electoral districts that might then be possible) is unlikely to pass this amendment, it may become easier for our movement to win the support of state legislatures, which could call a Constitutional Convention to consider this and related potential amendments.

The Domestic and Global Marshall Plan

A painting of two peasant men.

If we are to make real change, we must transcend a narrow instrumental approach towards other people and nature, and see the sacred in all that is. Credit: Samuel Bak/ Pucker Gallery.

I wish I could say that passing the ESRA would be enough, but it needs another piece. No matter how effective this will be in the United States, as long as people around the world are facing starvation or extremes of poverty, they will have a massive incentive to cut down forests, mine minerals, and destroy the environment to produce goods to sell in the international capitalist marketplace. So it becomes a major priority for environmentalists to also eliminate global poverty, homelessness, inadequate education, and inadequate health care. To save the environment, we need to build a world in which people do not have to choose between the short-term survival interests of their families and the long-term environmental safety of the world their grandchildren will inherit. Hence the need for a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan. You can download a booklet about this plan at tikkun.org/gmp).

The Domestic and Global Marshall Plan (GMP) calls upon the United States to take the leadership by example in convincing all the top twenty industrial powers to dedicate 1-2 percent of their GDP each year for the next twenty to eliminate poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, as well as repair the environmental damage caused by 150 years of irresponsible forms of industrialization pursued by self-described capitalist, socialist, and communist societies.

The plan is too detailed to lay out fully here, which is why I am urging you to read it at tikkun.org/gmp. But its key elements avoid the past failures of aid programs. It ensures that monies will go to working people and poor people in localities, not to politicians, economic elites, or U.S. corporations. The Domestic and Global Marshall Plan overturns all the trade arrangements that have led to impoverishment of local farmers around the world to the benefit of the advanced industrial countries, particularly the United States. It eliminates all predatory loans from U.S. banks and private agencies to poor developing countries. It creates local and international governing bodies composed of social change activists and cultural and spiritual leaders in the relevant recipient countries. It encourages and seeks to develop an understanding that homeland security is best served by a spirit of generosity (embodied in this Domestic and Global Marshall Plan) rather than by military, economic, political, or cultural domination. And much more. If implemented as described, it would end the immigration crisis faced by the United States and Europe, because people would no longer have to risk their lives to get to the advanced industrial countries as their only way to get income sufficient to provide for their families without having to sell their children into prostitution or to engage in the international drug trade.

Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis has introduced a House Resolution to support this proposed Domestic and Global Marshall Plan.

What you can do is to build support for the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment and the Domestic and Global Marshall Plan in every place where you interact with others. You can seek to get them endorsed by your civic or religious organization, the social change organization to which you are affiliated, your union or professional organization, your universities and local school districts, the local branch of the political party to which you belong, your city council, state legislature, and representatives to Congress. And you can join our organization, the Network of Spiritual Progressives and work with us on a concerted campaign to save the environment. Do so at spiritualprogressives.org/join (you do not have to believe in God or be part of a spiritual community to be a spiritual progressive—you just have to want the New Bottom Line I’ve discussed above and dream of winning these kinds of programs.


Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.
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