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Mountaintop Coal Mining
Cumberland Plateau, TN

Environmental issues are barely registering in our collective political consciousness this election cycle. The environment, as a cause, is passe’. Relegated to the realm of aging hippies and out-of-touch tree huggers, environmental issues are for people who are disconnected from modern politics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The current environmental issues facing our society are a bellwether for the larger political trends that are the product of what amounts to a hostile corporate take-over of America. If you follow the state of the relationship between politics and the environment, it will prove to be an excellent indicator of where the majority of our national policies are headed.

Why do environmental issues provide a window for us to view the state of our national politics? The answer is fairly simple. A large sector of our economy is made up of corporations that profit from exploiting our nation’s resources. Primarily these companies come from the oil, gas and coal industries and related derivative businesses.  These same companies can increase their profitability greatly by limiting any restrictions on their profit-making activities. Environmental law is rooted in the concepts that our country’s natural resources are a shared public asset and that individual citizens have a right to be free from harm resulting from someone else’s actions. These concepts gave rise to laws designed to protect our air and waterways and to prevent pollution that was a threat to public health. Environmental regulations were created to promote these concepts and to provide societal protection through reasonable controls on industrial activities. However, to some powerful business interests they are seen as unwarranted restrictions on their operations. The struggle between the influence of powerful corporations and the rights of individual citizens is the political conflict of our generation.

Conservative organizations, and I use that term advisedly, like the Heritage Foundation, ALEC and the Federalist Society, were born in the early 1970’s as a corporate response to the progressive environmental regulations, like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the creation of the EPA, that were enacted at that time. These measures were created in response to severe degradation of environmental conditions, primarily as the result of unconstrained industrial activity. Choking smog and fouled waterways along with growing awareness of the threats of toxic chemicals in our environment led to a public outcry for action. These tremendous environmental victories were achieved during the administration of Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican.

I use the descriptive term “conservative” advisedly because the only real principles these organizations share with traditional conservative thought is a disdain for government regulation. The true purpose of these corporate-backed political organizations is rooted in their founders and primary sources of funding; that is to promote the interests of corporations, or more precisely, corporations profiting from polluting the environment and exploiting our nation’s resources. These are not conservatives in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or even Barry Goldwater and Ronald Regan.  Their agenda shares little else with traditional conservative principles than an aversion to big government, albeit for different reasons. Traditional conservatives had a respect for the environment. The condition of the environment is irrelevant to these corporatists. Their influence on our politics has been expanding. Therefore, following the status of environmental protection in our country is a good place to evaluate the level of influence these corporate interests are exerting on our government.

Hydraulic Fracturing Rig
Rural Pennsylvania

Corporations like Koch Industries and Coors Brewing that felt the pinch of modern efforts to protect the environment launched a political movement designed to establish corporate domination of American government. The battle for control of our nation has been underway since the early 1970’s. They have been engaged in a slow but steady march towards achieving their goals, mainly working at the state level. They have orchestrated a carefully planned strategy that has included placing like-minded people in positions of influence through electoral politics, judicial appointments and legislative action,   You just need to review ALEC’s agenda to see their concerted effort to influence state legislatures and their work to introduce and pass laws of their own design intended to benefit corporations.Environmental issues have been at the forefront of this struggle since it began.

Shale Oil Extraction

One element of the strategy has been to portray environmental protection as both  radical and bad for the American economy. In fact neither is true. The economic benefits from a healthy environment have long been recognized. Whether seen as a function of public health, the actual value of resources like clean drinking water or the recreational benefits of  protecting the environment, there is an economic value to protecting the natural world. Add in the harder to measure inherent values of  improved quality of life and refuge from the pressures of modern society that can only result from environmental protection and the anti-economic argument is exposed as a false premise.

Regarding the “radical” nature of environmental protection, first consider the legal underpinnings for governmental actions. There are two main principles that provide the foundation for government’s role in protecting our resources.  The first is the Public Trust Doctrine. It traces its origins back to the Roman emperor Justinian and was a recognized part of English Common Law and eventually became established as part of American jurisprudence. Certain natural resources belong to the public and it is the government’s obligation to manage them for public use. The Public Trust Doctrine is why we can go to the beach, why we can swim in lake, go for a hike, go fishing or hunting. It is also why the government has the authority to step in and enact regulations when these resources are being threatened, depleted or degraded.

The second is the common law concept of nuisance. We all have the right to the use and enjoyment of our property, but that right ends when our activities impact someone else. When a factory releases smoke into the atmosphere or effluent into a waterway and it impacts others, nuisance is the legal concept that underlies measures enacted to stop or remediate the effects of that activity. Nuisance concepts underlie land use law and zoning.  People and corporations have a right to use their property but that right does not extend to making the rest of us breathe their smoke, drink their industrial by-products or endure other collateral results of their profit-making activities. Far from being radical leaps of legal reasoning, environmental protections have a sound basis in long-established legal principles. The only thing extraordinary about environmental regulations are that they have somehow been enacted in spite of the undue influence of powerful business interests.

ALEC and other corporate interests have been pursuing a strategy that they know will work. During America’s rapid industrial expansion of the late 19th Century, big corporations virtually owned the government process, especially at the state level. Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, the Sugar Trust, railroads and the coal industry all became powerful economic and political interests virtually running the country through their influence and their surrogates in government. Exploiting the nation’s resources and degrading the environment were just natural offshoots of their quest for more wealth and more power.  Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft all made their reputations as “trust-busters” taking back the American government for the people. They were able to make headway in breaking corporate domination of politics because people had become dissatisfied with conditions that came as a consequence of the protracted abusive conduct of big business. Welcome back to the good old days. Will we be able to find politicians in our time willing to stand-up to the powerful interests? Only if we are able to provide the support, motivation and incentive necessary to get the right people into positions of authority and inspire them to act.

There is a battle for the control of our nation going on right now. A more or less silent revolution. The modern-day trusts that engage in mountaintop removal coal mining, hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas, oil shale extraction, deep-sea oil drilling and other very profitable, but environmentally destructive, endeavors are at the heart of the battle. Average people and the environment are in their way. The fight, with the rich and the powerful corporate interests on one side and the rest of us on the other, was never fair. However, there was always the odd chance that when people got aggravated enough, politicians would respond. In the post Citizens United world our political process has been opened up to an unfettered influx of corporate money. Combine this with a state-by state purchase of state legislatures by corporate interest groups and the pervasive presence of pro-corporate judges at every level of the judiciary and you will find that the playing field has been tilted even more.

The results can be seen in measures like the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act or the exemption of certain types of coal mining from the Clean Water Act. These exemptions were obtained through the intervention of powerful business interests into the political and policy process.  These exemptions have a very real impact on average people and on the environment. However getting regulation out of the way to facilitate bigger profits and satisfying large donors were more important policy goals than protecting public health and well-being and the integrity of the environment. The crossroads of this revolution, the place where the battle for the soul of our nation can be won or lost, will be the issues and the politics of environmental protection.

The rollback of environmental protections being pursued by ALEC and its membership should be a defining issue in politics. The environmental movement has been asleep at the switch while corporate interests have been busy executing their strategies over the past decade. Environmental issues matter to business, but they also matter to people. When maximizing corporate profits becomes the main driver for our politics and our policies, we are going to suffer as a country. The first place we will see the effects of the corporate take over of America will be in a reduction of environmental protections. It doesn’t need to be that way. Fouled waterways, polluted air, and the degradation of the natural world will be eventual consequences of this course. We shouldn’t have to see bad things happen before public opinion finally motivates political leaders to move. Environmental leaders need to recognize the trends and work to get our political system to respond before conditions deteriorate, or more importantly,  before the political road back becomes too difficult to negotiate.

Corporations should be able to make profits. A healthy economy is one of the key elements of a sustainable society. So is a healthy environment. While there are needs of modern society that need to be met, those goals can be achieved without degrading the environment, it just might stand in the way of optimum shareholder return. Maximizing profitability is not a guiding value of a healthy democracy.  Corporations exist to make money, period. If they can make money and protect the environment, they will do it. If they can make more money by degrading the environment, they will do that.

Understand, however, that there are powerful interests that believe that the path to the biggest profit involves controlling the government and clearing all obstacles to financial gain. That path runs straight through environmental protections. The next time you think environmental issues don’t matter, think again. Protecting the environment and the politics that go along with trying to enact appropriate environmental regulations are one in-the-same with the politics that will determine who owns  our country; the people or the corporations. Environmental issues matter because they can motivate people because a degraded environment strikes right at matters of public health and quality of life. Make the environment matter in politics. The future of our country just might depend on it.

-Ben Spinelli

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