Given our seemingly imminent demise, it is time we dial up the type of radical change these prior movements delivered. (Photo: Flickr/ChrisA1995/cc)
In May, an international group of scientists warned that over a million of the Earth’s species are being driven to extinction; before that, researchers reported the climate was warming faster than even the most pessimistic projections. Worse yet, another report gave humanity just over thirty years before it could wipe itself out.
Unfortunately, human democracies aren’t the best at receiving this type of news. Like large container ships, they take time to turn, especially when those who profit from staying the course have disproportionate influence over government.
It’s why it took over a hundred years for women to get the right to vote, for African-Americans to free themselves from slavery, and to extract even the smallest concessions, like warning labels on cigarettes, after the first anti-smoking campaigns of the 1860’s.
Given our seemingly imminent demise, it is time we dial up the type of radical change these prior movements delivered. Now. Meekness be damned.
Abolitionists and suffragists innately understood that those serving as state and federal elected officials – mostly elite white males – would never be the lead advocates for the radical changes they sought. Instead, those movements built political power from the ground up – allowing them to shift from merely asking for change, to threatening a revolution without it.
The equivalent action on global warming means having our cities, towns, villages, and counties assume that power – not by passing meaningless resolutions reminding everyone of the dangers of climate change, but by directly banning new fossil fuel projects.
That means elevating and empowering real, meaningful, local law making that addresses the crisis head on. It’s already happening in dozens of places in the United States, like Mora County, New Mexico, which adopted a ban on all hydrocarbon extraction several years ago. However, in the United States, strong local bans are blocked by corporate lawsuits asserting municipalities lack the legal authority to interfere with the corporate “right” to extract.
This local law making quickly confronts core legal doctrines like corporate “personhood,” which were instrumental in the fossil fuel industry’s rise to global power. Therefore, uplifting and empowering these local efforts is far from a localized fight. Fighting for one, means fighting for all.
Overcoming the shortsighted legal arguments that protect fossil fuel companies’ corporate “rights” as “persons” means expanding the legal authority that real people wield, within their own communities, to stop that which threatens our collective survival. It means defending local bans as an assertion of a fundamental constitutional right to govern ourselves, and laying the groundwork for the birth of a truly federalist and democratic system of government – where local governments have an actual role in expanding protections for civil rights, human rights, and ecosystems.
It means getting the courts to find, as a federal court in Oregon proclaimed several years ago, that there is a “constitutional right to a healthy, liveable climate.” And when the courts strike down municipal laws as beyond the power of people to pass, we must pass them anyway, and then begin to change our state constitutions to widen our lawmaking authority at the local level.
This is, of course, about more than climate. Worker protections, economic redistribution and anti-discrimination laws are similarly hamstrung.
Finally, just as the threat of our demise due to global warming must be a catalyst for action, so, too, must our general destruction of the natural world. Just as women and African-Americans had to liberate themselves from being treated as “property,” nature must also be emancipated.
The people of over three dozen U.S. municipalities, as well as the countries of Ecuador, India, and Colombia, through their constitutions and courts, have now elevated ecosystems beyond the status of property – to having legally enforceable rights of their own. Such a system, when enforced, allows nature to push back against corporate folly – permitting only those projects to proceed that do not infringe on the right of nature to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve.
Two ideas that could save us and the planet: community democracy in the name of sustainability, and the rights of nature. The time is ripe for both. Meekness be damned.
Thomas Linzey is the Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm which provides legal assistance to communities struggling to protect community self-government and the natural environment from corporate decision-making.
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