~ by Paul Cienfuegos, February 2010
We humans on this stunningly beautiful planet have never experienced anything remotely like what we are experiencing today. There is a sense of unreality. Outside our windows everything seems pretty normal. Life appears to be flowing by just as it did a year ago, 10 years ago, 50 years ago. But we know there are enormous changes taking place all around us. Twenty-five years ago, when I was still a young man, I was aware that there was a lot of ecological destruction going on around me, but I hadn’t yet realized how close to the abyss we already were on this beautiful planet.
|Woods Hole, Massachusetts
The groups I worked with at the time, fighting clear-cut logging, trying to stop the construction of a nuclear submarine base, just to name two of them, we didn’t really understand that we were nearing the end of life as we knew it. I was a very politically well-read young man. I knew we had big problems everywhere. My eyes were wide open. But I was not aware of anyone who was sounding the alarm about the end of oil, about an impending climate catastrophe, about larger and larger areas of our ocean no longer able to support marine life.
In a very short amount of time, in just a few decades, a large percentage of the planet’s inhabitants have woken up to the reality that that we have very little time remaining to literally recreate our lives and our communities, to start living as if we really get it — that our Mother Earth, Gaia, is a finite, floating sphere and offering us her amazing services if only we would live in a way that is truly sustainable for the next thousands of years. The problem is, we have to act quickly and boldly.
For example, most climate scientists now agree that we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 90% within 20 years or less if we want to avert global catastrophic climate destabilization. To succeed at making such drastic cuts, according to George Monbiot, one of Europe’s leading writers on climate change, the only way to reach such goals is to end almost all private driving of cars, to end almost all commercial flights, to end all long-distance transport of food and manufactured goods, to shut down all of our coal-fired power plants, to insulate and retrofit all of our existing homes and offices. That’s a tall order in 20 years.
But that’s not the only immediate crisis we face. Energy analysts tell us that it’s likely that we reached peak oil in the last year or so, and we will reach peak coal, it’s estimated, in 15 to 20 years. And our global oil consumption is still increasing so rapidly that we may not even have enough oil left, according to World Watch Institute, even to use as a bridge to get us to a renewable energy-based society. In other words, to build all of the necessary photovoltaic panels and solar water systems and wind turbines and micro-hydro systems and all of the other parts of a sustainable energy future, that absolutely massive new infrastructure may require more oil and coal and raw materials simply to get it built than we can spare or that would be allowed as we work feverishly to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. These projections make it clear that the days of so-called normal are over.
But that’s not all. Just at the moment that people are waking up and demanding bold action from our local, state, and federal governments, our economy is in crisis, too. There are fewer and fewer government dollars available to spend on the bold and rapid policy changes that
are urgently needed. The last thing I said isn’t completely true, because our federal government spends 51% of the tax money it collects on the military budget. Fifty-one percent. This next year that estimate is $1,450,000,000 will be spent on paying for past and
present wars and planning for future wars. So there actually is an enormous amount of capital that could be spent on these urgent matters, but our elected officials refuse to do so thus far. It’s the year 2010. We have until 2030 at the latest to have completed a fundamental restructuring of our entire society.
Is it the greatest opportunity we have ever been handed to create a truly sustainable society? Yes. Is it also the largest emergency we have ever faced as modern beings? Yes. So let’s take an honest look at what people are doing to respond to this growing emergency in the
U.S. so that we can determine whether our efforts are sufficient for the task.
I mainly see two kinds of activities taking place. Americans are taking a fresh look at how our own personal behaviors affect the planet. We are rethinking our daily personal decisions about what we choose to eat, how we choose to transport ourselves, how we choose to
heat and cool our homes, what we choose to buy in the stores, how we choose to make a living, etc. In other words, every day we’re making hundreds of very private decisions that influence our personal consumption patterns.
In addition, many of us are involved in activist groups, almost entirely focusing on single issues. Literally thousands of specific campaigns, like making it safer to bike on city streets or keeping GMO crops from being planted or stopping the construction of more big-box
stores, or demanding universal health care or changing our agricultural practices so we don’t keep losing our topsoil or trying to stop salmon from going extinct or trying to get people to stop buying plastic water bottles. It’s an endless list.
There’s very little overlap between the groups. We tend to not work with each other because it’s hard to see how our issues are connected. We frequently don’t have much awareness about what other groups are doing. Our single-issue groups tend to be underfunded and
understaffed. Most of us still need to work for a living, so we scratch out some extra hours in our hectic schedules to do our activism.
Many of us also join regional and national advocacy organizations, but they tend to be so isolated from their members that they barely request more of us than writing a letter to an elected official or to the editor of a local paper or signing an online petition or sending a
These larger groups are also almost always focused on a single issue, and frequently much of their funding comes from large corporations. Sometimes their boards of directors are CEOs of large corporations. Two examples are the Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Cancer Society.
These are all fine things for us to be doing, to be reexamining our daily, private lifestyle decisions so we consume less and to be joining mostly single-issue organizations. But I have to ask you: Is this sufficient to get Portland, to get Oregon, to get the U.S. turned
180 degrees in the next 10 to 20 years? I think we need to be honest and say no. The harsh reality is that even given the gazillion hours that activists work year after year, almost every single ecological and social trend continues to get worse and worse and worse.
Lester Brown, the World Watch Institute founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, recently gave a speech in which he said — this is an excerpt — “I’ve realized that the trends that are undermining the world food economy — soil erosion, aquifer depletion, overgrazing,
and grassland deterioration, collapsing fisheries, deforestation and all the problems that leads to — we have not reversed a single one of those trends. We’ve been tracking them now for decades at the World Watch Institute, going back to the mid-1970s, and you don’t have to be
an ecologist to realize that if we don’t get these trends turned around, we’re going to be in trouble on the food front. You can’t over-pump aquifers forever. You can’t have soils eroding at the rate they’re eroding in the world today without eventually paying a price for it.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our personal consumption choices and our single-issue activism aren’t having much impact in reversing these trends. And let’s not make the same mistake that single-issue activists make so often, thinking that if we just work harder at what
we’re already doing, that we’ll start to win our battles. It isn’t that simple.
The problem is structural. What most of our activist groups continue to ignore, at their peril, is that our governmental institutions are mostly so corrupted and overwhelmed by corporate demands that they simply do not function as they were designed to. I think every one of
you in this room knows this in your gut. Yet we act as if we still believe that our government institutions are functioning to serve us. There is a huge disconnect here.
Can it really be this bad, we ask. Surely our elected officials will do the right thing if only we work a little harder to convince them. One more letter, one more phone call. I’m afraid that path is a dead end. We simply have to examine some current legislative efforts to be
understand how bad things have become. Here are just two examples.
What do a majority of Americans want regarding health-care reform? We want single-payer, universal health care, like every other industrialized nation. Am I right? That’s what we want. The polls have been showing it for decades. The Nurses’ Association wants it, the unions want it, even doctors’ associations are finally wanting it. People are better organized around this issue than perhaps any other issue in the country today. But what are we going to get? Nothing. Why? Because health insurance company executives like it just the way it already is. It’s that simple.
Another example. What do a majority of Americans want regarding government response to the financial crisis? Again the polls are clear. We want a massive new green jobs program. We want the tens of millions of Americans who are about to lose their homes —tens of
millions — to get some sort of legal protection so they have time to renegotiate their mortgages before they end up on the streets. We want an end to giant bonuses for corporate leaders who created this mess and for criminal charges to be filed against them. What are we going to get instead?
More nuclear power plants subsidized with our money, a tiny jobs program, no end to the huge bailouts of the companies which created the mess in the first place. Why? Because the financial industry likes it just the way it already is. It’s that simple.
How did it come to pass that large corporations wield so much political clout? People tend to think it’s because they have lots of money to throw around, but that’s actually not the main reason at all. Corporations have so much power because their leaders have been winning Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case going way back to the early 1800s. You’ve probably all heard of the Santa Clara corporate personhood decision in 1886. But that’s just one story among many. If you can picture all of those wins as picture-puzzle pieces, they’ve now pretty well succeeded in creating a mosaic of corporate constitutional so-called rights that effectively blot out our Constitutional rights. Here are some highlights from that history.
In 1819, in what is now referred to as the Dartmouth decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a corporate charter was a contract and could not be altered by government. This was the first time in our history that the courts claimed that corporations could use the Constitution for legal protection.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Supreme Court began using the commerce clause of the Constitution to overrule one local and state law after another that had been passed to protect the health and welfare of the people in all of those local places.
In 1886, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Court claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided equal protection under the law to freed male slaves also applied to corporations. For the first time it was claimed that the
word “person” also included the corporation. Corporate personhood was born. In 1893, corporations won Fifth Amendment protections against the taking of their property without due process. In 1906 corporations won the Fourth Amendment, protecting them against search and seizure. In 1908, corporations won the Sixth Amendment, guaranteeing them the
right to a jury trial in criminal cases. In 1919, the Court ruled that corporate boards of directors must prioritize the maximizing of profit as their central goal. Large companies that had until then balanced profit making with other goals were forced to comply. In 1936, corporations won the First Amendment, giving them protected free speech for the very first time.
In 1976, the Court ruled that money and free speech are equivalent. Unbelievable. From that day forward, limits on campaign expenditures by corporations were severely limited. Money equals speech. Also in 1976 the Court expanded a corporation’s First Amendment free-speech protections to include advertising. In 1977 the Court ruled that corporations have the same rights to the First Amendment as do real people and can spend unlimited money to “speak” in ads to overturn referenda.
In 1986, the Court ruled that corporate free speech includes the right not to speak, which dramatically impacted the government’s ability to pass new product labeling laws, because the words on their label, corporate lawyers claimed, was their property and their speech.
This is just a small sampling of hundreds of Supreme Court cases granting rights to corporations. Corporate directors have skillfully molded these rights into an impenetrable barrier that has successfully overwhelmed our government’s capacity to do its job.
And let’s not forget the icing on the cake, the latest Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, removing some of the very last legal limits on how much money corporations can give to influence elections. Much of our media, including our
activists and independent media, have misreported the story, claiming that this recent decision gave corporations personhood rights. As you can clearly see from this short history,
the latest win is just one more expansion of corporate personhood rights. Yes, it is a very significant expansion. For the first time ever the corporation may spend unlimited piles of cash directly from its general fund, which will have an immediate chilling effect on any
elected official who wants to go against the corporate agenda.
Most of the previous court decisions also took place with very little attention from the public. This latest decision has awakened a firestorm of public anger. ABC News published a poll showing that a staggering 80% of Americans are opposed to the Court’s decision and want it overturned. And it’s not just progressives who feel this way. It’s 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, 81% of independents...
How can we create a sustainable society in just 10 to 20 years? Is it possible? I believe it is, but only if we end our addiction to single-issue campaigns as quickly as we possibly can and start challenging corporate Constitutional rights head on. I’m not saying we should stop working on health-care reform or bank reform or climate change or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. I’m saying we need to change the framing of our campaigns away from just being about single issues.
Let me offer some examples. I would claim that the problem is not that corporations are clear-cutting our forests. That’s just the symptom of the problem. The real problem is that we, the people, are allowing corporations to clear-cut our forests, that we the people are
allowing corporations to decide whether to clear-cut, how to clearcut, where to clear-cut, when to clear-cut. Who gave corporations the authority to make those decisions? If they had not won corporate personhood in the courts, they wouldn’t have the power to make those
decisions. If we want to end clear-cutting, the fastest route is to end corporate Constitutional rights. The same is true regarding the climate-change crisis, the energy crisis, the poisoning of our air and waters, the home mortgage crisis. All of these are symptoms. In all of these cases we, the people, are allowing corporations to pour poisons into our air and water. We are allowing corporations to grow GMO crops.
We are allowing corporations to build nuclear power plants. We are allowing corporations to blow the tops off mountains to dig for coal. We are allowing corporations to write laws, to lobby our government, to fund our candidates. They wouldn’t be allowed to do any of these
activities if they had not won corporate Constitutional rights, corporate personhood.
So if we want to stop corporations from doing all of these things, the fastest route is to work to end their Constitutional rights. It’s very clear. I’m not claiming that this will be easy. But just look at how effective our single-issue existing campaigns have been so far in responding to these ecological and social crises. They have not been very effective. It’s time to turn the corner and try something else. It’s time to remember who we are. We are the people. We are the sovereign people. We are we, the people. And in many cases we are the majority of the people in a country where majority rule is the law of the land. The Constitution, for all of its flaws, is very clear about one thing, all legitimate power resides in the people.
That’s us. We have all the legal authority we need to govern ourselves.
Unfortunately, for a century now we Americans have been slowly forgetting where our power resides. There are many reasons for this cultural change. The primary reason is this: Large corporations have become such dominant players in all aspects of our lives that what I call corporate culture has become the dominant culture. We swim in corporate culture; it’s everywhere around us. We barely notice many of its manifestations. It’s like the air we breathe. For example, we tend to identify ourselves as consumers, as workers, as activists, as private individuals rather than as citizens acting in public. But we are not just private individuals leading private lives. We are not just consumers. That’s a term made up by corporate think tanks to try to convince us that all we have to do is vote with our dollars and
everything will be fine. That’s our choice in the marketplace, that’s our real power. That’s what they tell us. It’s a lie.
A sovereign people don’t just decide between Coke and Pepsi, between paper and plastic. A sovereign people exercise our political authority. A sovereign people don’t just decide between organic produce and cancer-causing produce in the supermarket. That’s not where our power resides. We exercise our legal authority and we decide that we will not allow toxic and cancer-causing foods to be produced, to be grown in the first place. That it’s not okay to have a two-tier food supply: one for those of us who can afford food safety and the other for everybody else. No. We say you can’t produce toxic food in the first place. That’s what a sovereign people does.
Consumer power is false power. It’s a dangerous diversion for us to be engaging in.
We’re not mere activists either. That’s exactly where the corporate elite wants us, isolated from each other in thousands of single-issue groups, and mostly pleading and begging with government and corporate authorities to do the right thing. Perhaps the most dangerous
manifestation of corporate culture is something I just mentioned — that we organize ourselves in isolated single-issue groupings whenever we’re trying to tackle a social or ecological problem. This began in the late 1800s.
Just as large corporations were starting to overpower a century of law and culture that had given governments the power to define what a corporation could and could not do. Once corporations began to win the right of personhood under law, defining law was no longer
possible. Now governments could only regulate corporate harms rather than prohibiting them in the first place.
Regulatory agencies were set up to regulate entire industries in the late 1800s. The first regulatory agency was the ICC, the Interstate Commerce Commission. These agencies were given the authority to decide what amount of harm would be permitted in the manufacturing process.
That’s why they’re called permits: they permit harm, they legalize harm. It has created the absolutely absurd situation where a regulatory agency can now give a permit to a pulp mill to dump 8 parts per million of mercury into a bay, having decided that that’s the safe allowable limit of mercury, rather than prohibiting the releasing of any poisons into our natural world.
Before the birth of regulatory agencies in the late 1800s, before corporations claimed Constitutional rights, we, the people, insisted that corporations cause no harm. It was written into their charters. After these monumental changes in law and culture, people were forced
into the single-issue arena. That’s the primary reason activists today fight one corporation at a time, one corporate harm at a time, using regulatory law. That’s the main reason we now have thousands and thousands of isolated organizations working so hard on thousands
of issues. It does not have to be that way.
Remember, all legitimate power resides in the people. We have all the legal authority we need to respond to this growing emergency in a very different way, if we dare. But to do so we’re going to have to learn again how to practice democracy. Democracy isn’t just about voting every year or two. It’s about the people governing themselves. Do you know what the word democracy means? It comes from the Greek words demos, the people, and kratia, power. It literally means people power, or the people rule. It’s about who is in charge, about who gets to decide the important things that make a society the way it is. Remember, all legitimate power resides in the people.
Those of us in this room tonight, if most of us already knew this history and therefore already understood there is no force more powerful than we, the people, and already understood that corporate political power is fundamentally illegitimate, then we would already be acting en masse, very differently than we are, which is why it is so critical that we take the time to learn this hidden history. It is only because we have mostly forgotten this history that we’re even
willing to contemplate consumer power or single-issue activism as our primary involvement in the world.
The first step in transforming our involvement in solving these critical problems is to rethink our relationship with these issues. Here are some examples.
Every month when you pay your gas and electric bill, who gets to decide where all of your money goes? Will it be invested in building a new nuclear power plant, a new solar array or wind farm? Will it be turned into deep discounts for homeowners wanting to solarize their
homes? Will it end up in million-dollar year-end bonus checks for utility company executives? Who gets to make those decisions? Those of you who pay your bills every month? Are we contesting who makes those decisions?
No. If we continue in the mode of single-issue activism, we see ourselves merely as ratepayers, battling rate increases. But if we act as a sovereign people, whole new pathways appear in front of us. We start organizing to replace private utility companies with public
utility companies, which is going to be starting in California this year. Or, alternately, we can allow large corporations to continue to provide our energy, but rein in their decision-making authority so that we decide the priorities. To do this, we must end corporate Constitutional rights.
So many of the crises we face could be transformed very quickly into much less daunting campaigns if we only understood how central corporate Constitutional rights are in determining who or what is pulling the strings. Thus it is urgent that we pay close attention to
how these corporate rights manifest themselves in almost every significant issue we’re grappling with. We’re used to doing symptom-based organizing. It’s time for a change.
Here are two key arenas where corporate rights make democratic society literally impossible. Corporations now claim the legally recognized right to decide — that’s the key word, decide — which products get produced, how the products are made, where they’re made, how the labor is organized to make them, whether poisons are created as a byproduct in the process of making them, and what happens to that poison. Yes, the decision making itself about production, investment, and work is now a protected property right of corporations. It’s one of the many intangible property rights that corporations now claim as persons.
And corporations now claim the legally recognized right to lobby our elected officials, to make huge donations to their re-election campaigns, to fund and create phony citizens organizations with names like Americans Against Food Taxes, which is sponsored by and run by soda-pop corporations, and the Coalition for Responsible Health Care Reform, which is funded by and run by —you guessed it — health insurance corporations. Groups like this are created explicitly to confuse we, the people, about where we should stand on the issues.
The only reason they can legally do all these things is because they have Constitutional First Amendment rights.
Corporations have been winning ever-expanding free-speech rights for decades. And the Citizens United case gives them even more overwhelming power to manipulate our elections, our airwaves, our public discussions.
We have a very critical choice to make, and we need to make it soon. As long as we continue to struggle one issue at a time, most of the critical decisions that impact our world will continue to be made by corporate boards of directors, behind closed doors. What if we say no more?
What if we decide that the future of life on this planet is too important to be left up to corporate executives in their boardroom suites? Let’s not forget what Abraham Lincoln said in his first
inaugural speech: “This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” Can you imagine a modern president saying those words in their inaugural address? Unbelievable. We’re not used to thinking this big. But these are extraordinary times...
Mother Earth is in danger. It is time to stand together as citizens, as the sovereign people, as human beings. Time is short. I thank you.