NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

Documentary Review: “We the People 2.0” examines the decay of American democracy

In order to pro­tect our envi­ron­ment from messy oil and gas projects, haz­ardous waste, tox­ic pol­lu­tion, and indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture threat­en­ing local farm­ing, a new iter­a­tion of democ­ra­cy is nec­es­sary. At least, that is the argu­ment put forth in “We the Peo­ple 2.0,” a 2016 doc­u­men­tary pro­duced by Tree Media.

This com­pelling film starts off by high­light­ing mul­ti­ple Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties that had been strug­gling to fight back against projects that were caus­ing seri­ous dam­age to their local envi­ron­ment. In Lick­ing Town­ship, Penn­syl­va­nia, for exam­ple, strip min­ing has irrev­o­ca­bly altered the land­scape and caused dead streams.

Poster for We the People 2.0

We the Peo­ple 2.0
Release Year: 2016
Run­ning Time: 91 min
Direc­tor: Leila Con­ners
Watch the trailer

Mean­while, in Willm­ing­ton, Cal­i­for­nia, an oil refin­ery oper­ates imme­di­ate­ly adja­cent to a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood, where every­thing is coat­ed with a thin lay­er of ash and soot from the con­stant burning.

Some of the most strik­ing images from the film come from Broad­view Heights, Ohio, where there are nine­ty oil wells in thir­teen square miles, many of them in people’s back­yards, by church­es, and even next to schools.

In one inci­dent, oil spilled onto an ele­men­tary school playground.

This inabil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties to pre­vent envi­ron­men­tal dam­age or to hold cor­po­rate enti­ties account­able for the envi­ron­men­tal dam­age they cause is due to our cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem, accord­ing to orga­niz­ers from the Com­mu­ni­ty Envi­ron­men­tal Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).

Fea­tured promi­nent­ly through­out the doc­u­men­tary, they argue the reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem func­tions sim­ply to reg­u­late the rate of destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment, not to pre­vent destruc­tion, as most would hope.

For exam­ple, in the Unit­ed States reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem, the bur­den is on the indi­vid­ual or com­mu­ni­ty to show how a cor­po­ra­tion is vio­lat­ing reg­u­la­tions of an exist­ing per­mit; the bur­den is not on the cor­po­ra­tion to prove that they are in com­pli­ance with a per­mit. Com­mu­ni­ty activists are essen­tial­ly “boxed in” by four things:

  1. State and fed­er­al preemption;
  2. Dillon’s Rule, which is that local juris­dic­tions only have the pow­er to make laws that the state or fed­er­al gov­ern­ment explic­it­ly allow them to;
  3. the Com­merce Clause; and
  4. cor­po­rate personhood.

As stat­ed by one of the CELDF orga­niz­ers, what is hap­pen­ing is “not an oil and gas prob­lem, it’s a democ­ra­cy problem.”

The best way out of this box, pro­posed by CELDF and with a grow­ing record of suc­cess in com­mu­ni­ties through­out the coun­try, is “rights-based” leg­is­la­tion: cre­at­ing true, local democracy.

Some of the com­mu­ni­ties pro­filed have passed laws for either a Com­mu­ni­ty Bill of Rights, or ordi­nances assert­ing the Rights of Nature. Through these laws, deci­sion-mak­ing about local projects are brought back to the local level.

In Broad­view Heights, Ohio, when res­i­dents start­ed com­plain­ing to the City Coun­cil, the Coun­cil claimed there was noth­ing they could do.

Ohio House Bill 278 pro­hibits local­i­ties with­in the state from lim­it­ing oil and gas pro­duc­tion; all deci­sions are made by the state reg­u­la­to­ry body often stacked with mem­bers con­nect­ed to the very indus­try they are tasked with regulating.

How­ev­er, since Broad­view Heights passed a Rights of Nature ordi­nance in 2012, the instal­la­tion of new oil wells has been prevented.

While the film ends with a hope­ful tone about the progress being made through rights-based orga­niz­ing at the local lev­el, it does not address ques­tions about poten­tial­ly unde­sir­able and inevitable side effects.

For instance, if the goal is “true, local self-gov­ern­ment,” what effects would achiev­ing that have on the effi­ca­cy of state and nation­al gov­ern­ment? How could equal pro­tec­tion, guar­an­teed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, be safe­guard­ed if each city can make their own laws out­side of the cur­rent state and fed­er­al legal systems?

If we can’t answer these ques­tions, we’ll be deal­ing with a poten­tial­ly big­ger gov­er­nance prob­lem than we start­ed with.

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