Municipal Civil Disobedience: Helping Communities Fight for Ecosystem Rights



Individuals and community groups who are being assaulted by invasive corporations often make the mistake of contacting their state environmental agency or one of the nation’s major environmental groups for help, according to Thomas Linzey, executive director and co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

A state Department of Environmental Protection would seem like a logical place to call if the ecosystems in your community are under attack. According to Linzey, though, that’s not true and never has been.

Speaking at the Earth At Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet conference in Berkeley, Calif., in November, Linzey said people often “think that because a state agency is titled ‘the state Department of Environmental Protection’ that it actually does something to protect the environment.”

Despite containing the word “environment” in their names, the primary purpose of federal and state environmental agencies is to ensure economic growth and corporate profits remain unharmed by regulations. These agencies will give perfunctory attention to issues related to clean water and clean air as long as their actions do not disrupt business as usual.

Along with contacting their state environmental regulators, people confronted by an out-of-control corporation will often try to get in touch with one of the big environmental groups. But Linzey said that lawyers with groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council will set the bar extremely low and often surrender to the will of corporations even before they get to work on a legal challenge. The attorneys may suggest taking certain legal action to delay harm to the environment. Or the attorneys may tell concerned residents that they could try to make the regulatory system “work a little better so it causes a little less harm,” Linzey said. But victory is not in their vocabulary.

The state DEPs and the lawyers for the big environmental groups “send folks right down the regulatory chute and they all end up in the same place … shot through the head,” he said, metaphorically speaking. “Our activism is not effective because we’re channeled like cattle down into that place. How stupid are we to think that we can make the regulatory system work when it’s written by the very corporations that ostensibly it’s supposed to be regulating.”

Linzey was one of several speakers at the Earth At Risk conference, held Nov. 13 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The event was hosted by environmental author and activist Derrick Jensen.

Linzey’s Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm, has provided free legal services to more than 500 local governments and nonprofit organizations since 1995. He is also a co-founder of the Daniel Pennock Democracy School, which assists groups to create new community campaigns which seek to elevate the rights of those communities over rights claimed by corporations.

During his talk, Linzey emphasized that the people who are engaging in “real environmental activism” are the ones “having imminent harm happening to them.” And more and more imminent harm is happening in places where it hasn’t happened before. “That’s starting to radicalize populations that we wouldn’t have thought would become radicalized prior to this,” he said.

“The groups that we thought would be allies, that they would be interested in helping—they have not,” Linzey said in a previous speech. “It’s not long-time activists [who are moving this work]. It’s not progressives. It’s not liberals. It’s first-time activists who are coming into this stuff. We found them [long-time activists] to be a problem, to be an obstacle. And in some places they’re more of an obstacle than the actual corporations that the community’s attempting to fight.”

Municipalities in Pennsylvania and New York, for example, are providing a model and inspiration for the environmental movement by fighting back against the corporations that are seeking to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

The most prominent municipal action occurred in Pittsburgh, Pa., when its city council in November 2010 unanimously voted to pass an ordinance, drafted by Linzey’s Legal Defense Fund, “banning the commercial extraction of natural gas within the city.” The ordinance, proposed by Councilman Doug Shields, also established a bill of rights for city residents, and removed the legal powers of gas companies within the city as a means to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Pittsburgh.

The ordinance also states: “The City Council recognizes that environmental and economic sustainability cannot be achieved if the rights of municipal majorities are routinely overridden by corporate minorities claiming certain legal powers.”

In 2006, the Legal Defense Fund also helped to draft a law passed by the Tamaqua Borough Council in Schuylkill County, Pa.—an extremely conservative region of Pennsylvania—declaring that sludge and dredge corporations possess no constitutional “rights” within the borough.

The Tamaqua law also banned corporations from engaging in the land application of sludge within the borough; recognized that ecosystems in Tamaqua possess enforceable rights against corporations; and established that Tamaqua residents can bring lawsuits to vindicate not only their own civil rights, but also the newly mandated rights of nature.

Though these victories have been impressive, Linzey recognizes corporations still generally hold a firm grip on all levels of government across the country. “Nature is property under our system of law. Your deed to that 10-acre piece of property carries with it the legal right to destroy the ecosystems on that piece of property,” he said.

Perhaps the Legal Defense Fund’s crowning achievement so far is its work with Ecuador, helping the country develop and draft provisions for a new legal provisions that put ecosystem rights directly into the its constitution. By an overwhelming margin, the people of Ecuador in September 2008 voted for a new constitution that was the first in the world to recognize legally enforceable rights of nature, or ecosystem rights.

“Ecuador was the first country to transform from a property-based system of environmental law to a rights-based system of environmental law,” Linzey said.

Back in the U.S., Linzey hopes more communities unite against the hegemony of the corporate state. When small numbers of individuals engage in civil disobedience, the corporate powers can easily ignore them. But when greater numbers of people come together at the local level—in what Linzey calls “collective civil disobedience through municipal lawmaking”—it can have more dramatic effects.

“Eventually, maybe, there’s a critical mass” at the municipal level across the country that will push upward, changing the entire system, he said.

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