Vision: How to Change Our Laws So That Corporations Don't Trump Communities
Continued from previous page
These are the questions that people and communities find themselves asking when they face the threat of water extraction, mining, drilling, or a range of other activities. Based on the assumption that environmental legislation was in earnest set up to protect Nature, much of our environmental activism has logically been spent trying to "fix" what appears broken; seeking to improve the types of laws and regulations that Nottingham ran into.
But what if the system was never designed to put Nature first?
Under New Hampshire's Groundwater Protection Act -- initially lauded as an important legislative tool, corporations are awarded permits by the state to siphon off water from local aquifers. Thus, despite the Act's title, the law in fact authorizes the exploitation of water within the State of New Hampshire. It is much like the federal Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which govern how much pollution of our air and water can occur.
This is not a mistake or somehow unique, and it is not about corruption within a generally functioning system. Rather, the major environmental laws in the United States, which have now been exported and adopted around the world, are laws not borne of protection, but of exploitation.
Although it's rarely said out loud, it is often the industry to be regulated that creates the laws we ask our legislators to enforce. And when it becomes too expensive to comply with the regulations, corporations are often exempted from them, or the regulations are simply rewritten. By design our environmental laws place commerce above nature, and in so doing they legalize certain amounts of harm to ecosystems. And by design regulatory agencies administering these laws are in place to operationalize that exploitation.
This isn't to say we haven't protected anything while toiling within this system of law. Whatever limits to damage have been achieved have come from dedicated vigilance by the hands of caring and concerned people. But taking a step back to look at the big picture, we must also recognize what has been lost.
By almost every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major U.S. environmental laws were adopted nearly 40 years ago and replicated worldwide. Global species decline is increasing exponentially, global warming is far more accelerated than previously believed, deforestation continues unabated around the world, and overfishing in the world's oceans are pushing many fisheries to collapse. With so much at stake, the question is -- why haven't we been successful at ending this destruction?
It certainly is not from lack of effort by communities or activists. Rather, the system of law within which their efforts are taking place is based on entirely the wrong premise -- that Nature is property.
The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws legalize environmental harms by regulating how much pollution or destruction of Nature can occur. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, these laws instead codify it. How else could we justify the damming of rivers, the blowing off of mountaintops for coal or fishing to extinction?
We codify our values in law, and thus for time immemorial we have treated nature in law, as well as in culture, as a "thing" -- as amoral, without emotion or intelligence, without any connection to or having anything in common with us. In this way we justify and rationalize our exploitation, our destruction, our decimation. It is the long history of humankind's relationship with Nature as a possession, rather than as a system governing our own well-being.