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Banning Corporate Personhood: How Communities Are Taking the Law Back from Big Companies

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund explains how communities can fight corporate power with a new legal weapon.

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We actually are self-governing people with rights that we retain and have not surrendered, and we're going to act on that premise, and if the state believes we do not have the right to protect our health, safety, welfare, quality of life, natural environment, they'll need to come and take away our rights 'cause we're not going to sit on our hands and act as though we do not have those rights. That's a pretty profound and provocative thing for them to do, I admit it. And they didn't do it lightly. And we don't engage ... The Legal Defense Fund does not engage in the kind of community organizing that we do lightly either.

But when the consent of the governed is denied, and when private interests are licensed to engage in activities against the consent of the governed, we're left with a question of what to do about it, and I think maybe there's about three choices that we can select from, and I mean it sincerely -- it's not up to me to decide for any given community. I have a voice in my own, but not in yours or anyone else's. Which choice your community takes is up to you and your community, and I'm not being sarcastic about it when I go through these three choices, the first one being, you can decide to do nothing.

And even with the strength of your land use laws in New York, the ability to use them to stop the drilling, there will be communities, I dare say, that will decide to do nothing -- they won't pursue that. They may not be convinced. And Helen, I hope you do convince them because I think it would behoove them all to do it, if at minimum to do that. Absolutely.

But some won't do it, and they'll have arguments to say -- and I don't mean ... again, this isn't meant in any judgmental way -- "Well, we're too busy; we're not really that concerned about it." Whatever the reasons are, that is a valid choice. But we're the adults in the room and we're responsible for the outcomes of our decisions, and if we decide to do nothing, and the outcome of our decision is that our communities are destroyed for future generations to live in them and enjoy their natural environment, their drinking water and the rest of it, we are responsible to that choice; we in our communities are responsible for those choices.

The second of three possible decisions we might make is to attempt to use existing structure of law to create the outcomes that we want. We don't want drilling; let's try to use the laws we have, and that means use your land use laws to try and stop the drilling. But you can't use other types of laws; you don't have regulatory authority over the industry in your municipality, so you don't have that option.

What we can try to do is regulate it. In general, that's what we're given. What does it mean to regulate? It doesn't mean to disallow. It means to allow under certain conditions. And so, a community might say, "Well, we're not really going to impose land use laws that have the effect of eliminating the drilling; we're going to allow it in certain places," which means we're going to decide which parts of our municipality to surrender to the industry -- that's a choice. I think doing nothing and using existing law, you have a very strong possibility of getting fracked -- a very strong possibility.