Poster for We the People 2.0
We the People 2.0 Release Year: 2016 Running Time: 91 min Director: Leila Conners

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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