An Evolving New Vision for Change
I have been going to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene for the past twenty years. This year I sensed a real change in mood, and it has got me wondering how widespread this mood swing might be. Last year we had a keynote speaker named Thomas Linzey who talked about how he almost gave up his environmental law practice, he was so discouraged by the end results of his work: a lot of effort for no more than a short delay of one particular insult to the planet. By pointing out the flaws in permit applications or proposals for one sort of desecration or another, he and his team were perfecting the paperwork of corporations, and little else. He and his fellow environmental lawyers were taught to work within the system of the present body of environmental laws and regulations; that was how the game was played and it was the only game in town. Trouble was, it wasn’t working. Well, it was working fine for the despoilers, just as it was intended to. And he had had enough; he was calling it quits. In fact, he had decided to quit answering his phone as he packed up the last boxes in the office he had worked out of for more than a decade. But the phone rang and rang, and in exasperation he picked it up. It was the mayor of a small city in a nearby state who wanted to stop an industrial hog farm that intended to locate just outside of town. Almost no one in town or in the surrounding countryside wanted this stinking, polluting industry anywhere near them, and this included every one of the county commissioners and the city council. What could Linzey do to help them out?
Probably nothing, he reckoned; probably this big corporate enterprise would have its way, as such powerful entities generally did, and another nice community would be transformed into an industrial sacrifice zone. Long story short, he went about crafting a county ordinance to keep this industrial hog wallow out of this particular Pennsylvania county. The corporation fought this impediment to their business plan, but, for once, the corporation didn’t get its way, and Linzey decided to keep his office doors open after all. And his phone kept ringing, as he did the same kind of work for other municipalities and communities. In this process he found himself becoming radicalized. He saw that all the laws he had learned to use in defense of Nature were rigged in favor of extractive and exploitative industry. As was the constitution itself. Neither it nor the laws of the land were meant to serve the interests of the people, nor were they designed with ecology in mind. And this is where it started to get interesting in that ballroom packed with fifteen hundred or so environmentalists, because he said we should defy these laws– this whole body of laws–that were bringing the world down around us. Standing ovations are supposed to come at the end, but nobody wanted to wait. These were radical words, but they rang with authority and truth. Every environmentalist who has tried to save some part of the natural world from further degradation knew damn well he was speaking truth. The game was rigged, and every one of us had the bruises to prove it.
And then he made an even more radical suggestion. He said our approach has been wrong all along. We let the polluters and despoilers frame us into a box, and as long as we remain within the box the bad guys will always win, and the Earth will lose. We need to re-conceptualize the whole process, frame our struggle as a struggle for rights. Community rights, human rights, the right of the people to choose what they want in their lives, and what they do not want. And then he said something that brought us to our feet again. He said we have to rewrite the laws to establish the rights of Nature, to give those rights standing in a court of law. The Rights of Nature: what a bold and seditious idea–and again, absolutely right in principle. But, I thought to myself as I exited this ballroom full of energized eco-activists, how likely is it that these great and true concepts will translate into anything real outside this gathering of the choir? How likely that community rights will ever trump corporate rights in this age of corporate dominance?
Yesterday, a year after this keynote speech, I got a partial, preliminary answer to my question, when I attended a panel discussion titled “From Theory to Practice: Oregon community Rights Groups take on Corporations.” Seems these panelists were as stirred as I had been by Linzey’s keynote address, but they had spent the intervening year attempting to implement, and make real, the elegant concept of community rights. Three adjoining Willamette Valley counties were represented: Josephine, Lane, and Benton, and each panelist addressed the process they have been pursuing, the obstacles in their way, and a likely timeline for getting their initiatives on a ballot for public vote. The details and technicalities of the process got kind of a once-over-lightly treatment, and this suited me just fine, because I was here for the big picture, a Gestalt or feeling sense of what this community rights movement might mean for a recklessly abused and endangered planet. And what I came away with was a sense that the battle for a livable Earth hasn’t been lost yet, and that the warriors in this fight are re-energized, their fighting spirits renewed by this shift in strategy, which, if fully realized, would amount to a paradigm shift within society itself.
Fighting fragmented, piecemeal battles, one small issue at a time, as environmentalists have been doing since at least the original Earth Day, was a losing proposition for Life and the Earth. You only have to look around you to see that this approach to environmental protection has failed, and will continue to fail until the earth itself fails. As the reality of this failure becomes ever more obvious and manifest in the world around us, a sense of futility and despair begins to settle over the human spirit, replacing vibrant vitality with a soul-deadening sense of imminent doom. None of the speakers used these exact words, but this gives a sense of how discouraged some of them had become. One speaker in particular, the President of Community Rights Lane County, expressed how her own sense of despair, accrued over years of environmental activism, had been replaced by a new sense of meaning to her activism and her life. She mentioned going to Democracy School and to a workshop by Paul Cienfuegos and how these provided a much needed re-education as to the ways of the world. But more than anything, what has re-energized her fighting spirit is the re-framing the battle as an issue of rights: the rights of Nature; human rights; community rights.
Corporations–a legal fiction–now have more rights than human beings, human communities, or the natural world. And that is as wrong as can be. Framing the issue in this way gives us a conceptually powerful new tool to work with—a tool that could ultimately lead to a culture-wide paradigm shift. Or, as one of the attendees put it in the Q and A at the end—not a paradigm shift, but a paradigm somersault. The somersault, he went on to explain, is how salmon swimming upstream make it from a lower level to a higher level. They use the power of the stream flowing against them, in a kind of salmon jujitsu, to further their upriver journey. People applauded this suggestion and the image it invoked of not being overwhelmed by great power, but using it to catapult the cause of Life to a higher level.
An underlying theme of this panel discussion was the power inherent in the people—people power, power in numbers, but not under the old top-down paradigm of hierarchy and patriarchy. The new movement, a rights and justice movement, would be self-organizing: not top-down but bottom-up.
All of this feels to me like more than a change in mood or tactic, and my sampling is not restricted to a single day at one particular conference. Two weeks before, in mid-February, I attended a symposium in Corvallis titled “Transformation without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet.” This was another gathering of activists, and the first keynote of the day featured Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist who bid on gas leases in Utah, never intending to pay for them, in order to disrupt this selling off of public lands to corporate frackers. The sale itself was later found to be illegal, but Tim DeChristopher was the only involved party to go to jail, serving out a sentence of two years. The jail time evidently didn’t teach him the lesson it was meant to, because he rejoined society more radicalized than ever, as was evident in what he had to say at this event.
Like Thomas Linzey, Tim DeChristopher sees the mainstream environmental movement as a failure. The large non-governmental organization (NGO) model of environmental action has been co-opted and/or sold out to the DC consensus, and in any case these capitalist-friendly organizations are not saving the planet from the corporate looting and pillaging they ostensibly exist to oppose. But the focus of Tim’s talk was specifically on the NGOs fighting climate disruption—like 350.0rg—and his advice was to walk away from groups like this, and put whatever environment muscle we might have elsewhere. And where exactly did he have in mind as an alternative? Grassroots groups who put their bodies on the line; indigenous groups like Idle No More and Lakota Blockade; groups without the beltway connection or a major orientation toward fundraising; groups who know damn well they are fighting for their lives and the lives of their grandchildren. Grassroots. Bottom-up. Committed in deed as well as in word. And forget the kinds of compromises it takes to stay friends with the corporate elite. No more sitting across tables in suits. The stakes are too high to keep playing that losing game. Align with the people whose sweat-stained sleeves are rolled up, the ones with dirt under their nails.
It has to be a rights and justice movement, broad in scope, inclusive, and bottom-up. DeChristopher doesn’t tell us how; that would be top-down. What he and Linzey offer instead is a larger vision of how we might change course. The rest is up to us.