Shannon Biggs

Why the Constitution Needs a Rewrite

What do you love about the U.S. Constitution?

Keep reading...Show less

This Election’s 4 Biggest Populist Victories You Might Have Missed

No matter which side you butter your political bread, by now you’ve heard more that you ever wanted to about the election results and who won.

Keep reading...Show less

Is Reversing Citizens United or Corporate Personhood Enough?

Which president told Congress: “I recommend a law prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign expenses of any party…let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly?”

Keep reading...Show less

How a Community Is Saving Itself and the Environment

The following conversation with Omar Freilla is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Though only 33 years old, Omar Freilla has already distinguished himself as a leader in the movement to create a sustainable and just economy. As the founder of the Green Worker Co-op in the South Bronx district of New York City, Freilla has laid out an exciting vision of how to balance economic needs with ecological wisdom. That vision rests on the basic principles of environmental justice-ensuring that no one community has to bear a disproportionate burden for society's toxins and wastes. The way to do that, Freilla believes, is by creating worker-owned co-operatives that will have no incentives to pollute. He spoke to us from his office in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Green Worker Co-op? Was there any "aha" moment that you remember?

Omar Freilla: There have been a couple of "aha" moments. The most recent came when I worked for Sustainable South Bronx. I was involved in a collaborative effort to try to attract green businesses into New York, with the hope and the desire that they would be locating in low-income neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, it didn't go anywhere at the time. I realized that I wasn't really comfortable with the approach that we were taking as a group, which was to try to attract businesses -- traditional, corporate-structured businesses -- into an area from outside. I felt that an approach that produces even more results and maximizes benefits to an even greater extent would actually be building up business from within the community. And creating it as a worker-owned business. So that way the profits would actually stay within the community, and decisions would be made by people from the area.

Q: A key part of the vision is recycling and reusing all the waste produced in New York. How do you plan to turn trash into opportunity?

OF: Well, that's part of the vision. Our vision is to incubate and let fly a number of worker-owned businesses that are able to improve environmental conditions generally. It's not specific to waste. We just happened to latch on to this idea of creating a co-op that could reduce waste. This particular co-op would be salvaging building materials that would otherwise get thrown out and get sent to a landfill, or even worse, to an incinerator. We have latched on to that and really promoted that as an idea.

The next co-op or the third one or the fourth one could be anything. It could be energy efficiency, doing anything related to improving environmental conditions. For us, the big issues in the South Bronx are reducing air pollution, and reducing waste.

Q: Why is it important to you to have a worker-owned co-operative? How does that fit in with your broader philosophy?

OF: There are two reasons. One is economic. It's about being able to maximize the resources within the community. We have an incredible amount of money that just cycles out almost immediately, as soon as it's generated. People don't make a lot of money, and the money we do make winds up going into stores that aren't owned by people in the community. In many cases, especially if you are talking about big chains, the money immediately flows out to some corporate headquarters and distant stock owners in other parts of the country and other parts of the planet. There's really no financial benefit coming back to the person who actually shops there or who works there, other than maybe getting a particular product. We felt that the worker co-op model is a great way to go.

Q: What is the second reason?

OF: Democracy. We live in a country that is counted as a great democracy, but in day-to-day life few of us actually experience it. We go to school and we go to work under conditions where people don't have a say in their day-to-day life; they don't have a say in the things that happen around them. And then people are surprised that there is little participation at the voting booth, or that people don't really take seriously this idea of living in a democracy. So that is a really big part of it, creating an opportunity for people to have ownership of their lives.

Q: We have an industrial economy that's built on extraction. How do you envision a different kind of economy that's more sustainable?

OF: I think there are lots of different pieces that need to be there. One is requiring that everything is counted for, that you don't have natural resources that are being exploited without any kind of accountability. But there is an even larger question of accountability in general: Not being able to exploit anything without being accountable to other people that use it.

My point is that you have corporations that get away with really noxious, destructive practices because the people that are being impacted don't count. They don't count in the political structure or the economic structure. They don't have much clout, and that's why we see environmental racism and classism in poor neighborhoods.

Communities of color wind up bearing the greatest burden of all the environmental horrors that are out there, whether it's places like the South Bronx, with high asthma rates, or the Gulf Coast, known as Cancer Alley because of all the oil refineries. As long as those practices are allowed to happen, as long as those companies and governments feel that they have a dumping ground, then there is no incentive to do things better.

So I think, first, you really need to close that gap. And we can't have a green society or a green economy as long as you have social and economic injustices. Because that's always going to allow for someone to be exploited. We live in a capitalist society. We have businesses that are out to make a quick buck and they will do that, regardless of what the latest ideology is or however many groups are out there trying to promote green as a win-win strategy. There are plenty of people than can make an even quicker buck by exploiting and taking advantage of people's weaknesses. As long as you have that, then, I don't see it as possible to get to some pure sustainable economy. I think sustainability requires social justice.

Q: Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, California, warns that in rushing to a green economy, people of color are at risk of being left behind. How do you make sure that doesn't happen?

OF: I think we need to be in the driver's seat. We need to be the ones taking control of resources and shaping the kind of world that we want to live in. That is the nature of what our organization is about. Our approach is very different for lots of other groups that are out there. We really feel it's necessary to create the model ourselves. I don't have much faith in our governments-local, regional or federal-or the benevolence of outside corporations to implement the things that we want to see and the way that we want to see them.

Q: Is this about creating a new game, since the old game is not working?

OF: Yeah, that's essentially what it is. I draw a lot of inspiration from every effort that I have ever come across where people in their communities have decided that they were going to take on their own development and really create their own economic structures under their own circumstances --from the Mondragon Co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain, to workers that have just taken over their defunct factories in Argentina, to Native Americans in the U.S. that are building their own energy co-ops and are doing different things to sustain their own economies. There are different things that are happening all over the country where people are trying to do that.

Q: You have written that, "We don't have the luxury to wait for alternatives. That's why we are creating them." What drives that sense of urgency?

OF: Asthma, cancer, every health problem and threat that is associated with the environment; pollution in the environment. All of that. If you are living with power plants and oil refineries and sewage-processing plants, you are also living with the horrible health threats and problems that those things generate.

Q: Twenty-five years from now, what do you want to see your neighborhood looking like?

OF: Lush, green, clear skies, happy people smiling. I'd like in twenty-five years for "worker co-ops" to be a household phrase. For people to understand what co-operatives are, and to know at least somebody in their family who is working in a worker co-op in the South Bronx; for these businesses to be green, environmentally friendly; and for the South Bronx not to be known as a dumping ground anymore, but instead to be known as a place where visions become reality.

How the Environmental Movement Can Redefine Globalization

The following conversation with Michael Shuman is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Michael Shuman is an economist, attorney, and Vice President for Enterprise Development for the Training & Development Corporation (TDC) of Bucksport, Maine. He has written, co-written, or edited six books, including The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition (Berrett Koehler, 2006), and Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age (Free Press, 1998). He lectures widely across the United States and is one of the most important thinkers writing about the local green economy.

Q: What motivated you to write your recent book, The Small-Mart Revolution, and what are some of the main points of the book?

Michael Shuman: In 1998 I wrote a book called Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. It got a very positive and broad response and helped promote the emergence of two business networks-the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA). So what started as anti-globalization in the 1990s morphed into engagement by progressive-minded small-business people. So when I saw the innovations that these grassroots groups were coming up with, I wanted to expand on the theme and explore all the innovative organizing going on in the small-business sector.

The book has three big themes in it. The first is to lay out all the reasons why locally owned businesses are much more reliable actors in promoting economic development in an equitable way. The second point is that small businesses are a lot more competitive than most people think. In many places small businesses are competing successfully against bigger retailers or bigger manufacturers or bigger banks, and I document the strategies they're using. And the third theme describes a coherent agenda on what communities can be doing to advance this local business revolution even faster.

The book examines how we should think differently about economic development, how we can promote local entrepreneurship, how coalitions of local businesses can be more competitive acting together than they might be if they operate just as individual firms. Then I talk about new ways of promoting buy-local campaigns and local investing (this is where some ideas for local stock markets have come out). And then finally, in public policy, I try to show that right now the economic development system is rigged heavily against local businesses. We're trying to get rid of those biases so that small businesses have as much chance of succeeding as large businesses do.

Q: In your book, The Small-Mart Revolution, you say "The small-mart revolution is not about ducking globalization, it's about redefining it." Can you elaborate?

MS: Some people have said, "If you're telling communities to withdraw from the world and be internally focused and less interested in global affairs, then this will be a colossal failure. We're in an era of globalization and we can't isolate ourselves from that." So the last chapter of the book shows that there are many ways that we can support local economies on a worldwide basis without falling into the trap of just getting involved in more conventional trade. That's what I mean by redefining globalization: promoting the globalization of mass movements, globalization of the sharing of ideas of public policy, sharing of small business technology so that every community that's engaged in this small-mart activity thinks of itself as having a duty to help other communities around the world to achieve a similar level of self-reliance.

Q: You contrast two very different models: local ownership and import substitution (LOIS) and the status quo position, which says, "There is no alternative" (TINA). Can you elaborate on this distinction?

MS: One of the questions that has dominated public discourse in the last ten years is, what kind of capitalism should we embrace? For discussion purposes in the book, I simplify the debate with two types of capitalism that I gave the names TINA and LOIS. TINA embodies the most conventional ideas about economic development. People with this perspective are trying to attract as many global companies (whether it be manufacturers or big-box stores) to come into their backyards, and they are trying to export as much as possible to the global economy. They're trying to convince the small-business community that the first two activities are somehow in the best interest of the local community.

The alternative is LOIS (locally owned import substitution), which is really saying that the most dynamic development stories are coming from communities that are mostly made up of locally owned businesses. They are trying to diversify their economies through greater degrees of self-reliance. There's a confidence in those communities that if you have a strong homegrown economy, then you can selectively participate in the global economy from a position of strength ra ther than one of vulnerability and weakness.

Q: You say that small firms produce 60 to 80 percent of all new jobs in the United States and 13 to 14 times more patents than large firms. Can you contrast locally owned companies and big corporations in terms of their impact on jobs and tax revenues?

MS: Let's focus on the local ownership piece for a moment. There are probably three big differences between local and non-local businesses that help explain why local ownership is so important. Local businesses don't run away as easily; they spend more of their money locally and thereby generate higher economic multipliers; and they tend to be smaller in size and thereby have a kind of a character that's more consistent with locally controlled economic development. Let me elaborate. The impact of local businesses not moving is that the wealth that they produce stays in the community for many years, often for many generations. It also means that the kind of catastrophe that one sees around the country when the big TINA firm leaves town is much less likely to occur. That catastrophe-if you're dependent on one big plant-can be enormous.

My current affiliation with the Training and Development Corporation in Maine came about in late 2002 after a paper company decided they wanted to shut down this hundred-year-old plant and to set up a new plant in Canada. The unemployment rate over the next year in this part of Maine grew to 40 percent. It was the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in that section of the country. So having a strong local business sector for your economy is an insurance policy.

On the second issue of economic multipliers, there have been about a dozen studies comparing local vs. non-local businesses-one study is by Dan Houston of Civic Economics-these studies have all shown that in terms of the economic multiplier, which is the building block for community economic development, local businesses generate two to four times more benefits than non-local businesses. That is because the local businesses spend their money locally. One great study of this was done four years ago in Austin, Texas. It looked at a hundred dollars spent at a Borders bookstore, compared to a hundred dollars spent at a local bookstore. Of the hundred dollars spent at Borders, 13 dollars stayed in the local economy and of the hundred dollars spent at the local bookstore, 45 dollars remained in the local economy. So in multiplier terms, every expenditure that one made at the local business led to roughly three times the local income, three times the jobs, three times the tax benefits. So it's not an inconsequential distinction between the two.

The last issue is the size and character of the local businesses. Local businesses are small and they tend to have their own unique character. So if you want to create diverse communities where people live close to school, shopping and work, it really takes smaller businesses to create a walkable community. When it comes to tourism, what attracts tourists is the unique character-driven kinds of businesses-not big-box stores that can be found anywhere.

Then there is the phenomenon explained by Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. He presents empirical evidence showing that the strongest communities are those that have a lot of diversity, tolerance, fun, and jobs that are creative: scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and the like. Diverse small businesses controlled by local people give lots of different opportunities for people to enter into the economy and take full advantage of their skills-that's a creative economy. A local economy is the one that is going to be more creative and generate jobs that can attract and hold the best and the brightest.

Q: Would you say there is a movement happening? What is the evidence that leads you to believe that there is a movement?

MS: Time had a cover story in early 2007 that said "Forget Organic, Eat Local." It is the zeitgeist of the moment. It's just one of the many pieces of evidence that this movement is gathering steam. Everywhere you go in this country you see signs that say "we are a local bank" or "we serve local food" or "we manufacture local jewelry." It is so universal now, cutting across every single political divide. I think this is an important trend in American culture.

It is equally significant that a lot of non-local companies are trying to pretend they are local to take advantage of this trend. McDonald's has put out some posters and newspaper ads that say "Locally Owned" to give you the feeling that maybe they are a local food outlet. Borders now has sections of its bookstore that say "Local Interest." The local economy networks have expanded from zero to fifty networks in six years. Formally, there are fifteen thousand businesses that are members of these networks. But if you counted all of the local businesses in these fifty areas, it's more like a couple hundred thousand. I just saw another list that had networks that are in various stages of formation in another hundred places around the U.S. where there is some form of activity.

We are almost to the point where a majority of the country is now being influenced by these business alliances. It's not quite there yet but given the growth rate of these movements, I think it's not that far off that we'll see that. In my adult lifetime, I have never seen a movement that has grown so fast and appealed to such a broad range of people in this country.

How to Hold Corporations Accountable

The following conversation with Thomas Linzey is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Thomas Linzey thinks of himself as more than just a lawyer. A co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), Linzey is a practicing attorney, committed to the idea that change happens at the grassroots. Much of his activism occurs through CELDF's "Democracy Schools," an innovative curriculum that encourages people to go beyond the single issue they are working on to think of their struggle as part of a larger fight against corporate power. The schools prompt citizens to question basic assumptions behind our legal system. Linzey and his colleagues encourage communities to create local constitutions, or "home-rule charters," enumerating the rights of local citizens and backing up those rights with enforceable laws.

Q: Can you tell us about "democracy"? It's a word used by everyone and can mean so many things.

Thomas Linzey: Well, I don't think we have ever had a democracy in this country. I think it's a myth that majorities have ever been able to decide what happens to their communities and their lives.

It goes back to the American Revolution when we jettisoned the king, but we didn't jettison the English structure of law. That structure of law developed at the same time England was developing into a global cultural empire. And the folks that wrote the U.S. Constitution, which serves as the DNA or hardwiring for this country, in essence worshiped English common law. We got rid of the King but we didn't get rid of an English structure of law that placed property and commerce over the rights of communities and nature.

Amazing as it might sound, a community that may want to stop toxic waste, or stop toxic sludge from coming in, or stop a big corporate hog factory farm from coming into the community, not only runs up against the corporations and the state regulatory agencies, it runs up against the Constitution.

Q: Some people might say you are anti-business. Is that the case?

TL: This work is not anti-business. In fact, it's not even anti-corporate, in many ways. We all need toilet paper and toothbrushes, stuff that needs to be made. But the question is: Who makes decisions about how those things are made? And, in addition, the question is whether those corporations should be governing entities, or should they merely be business entities? And over time, corporations and the few people that run them have become governing entities; they make governing decisions over us.

When we try to make our own governing decisions, they slash us by using our own governmental institutions, legislation, and the courts. The work is not anti-business at all. It's simply a recognition that if you are a business entity, you should do the work of business, but you should not have constitutional rights. You should not have privately enforceable rights in the U.S. Constitution, and you should certainly not have the authority to nullify community authorities.

Q: Many people in this country don't understand that corporations have personhood rights. Why does this come as such a surprise to some people?

TL: That's a very good question. People only begin to peel back the layers of the legal opinions under which they are governed when they have something threaten them personally. One or our most able organizers -- a woman named Jennifer England -- is from southwestern Virginia. She has seven children. And she's an evangelical Christian. There were plans to dump sludge right next to her house. And it was that imminent threat to her kids, to her land, to her family, to her home, that drove Jennifer to start questioning how this entire structure of law is set up.

She asked, "Why can't we just have a law that says 'no sludge can be spread in this community'?" So we had a conversation with her, and we told her that you can't do that, because it would be illegal. It's unconstitutional to ban something at the community level that the state has permitted, because it violates the corporation's constitutional rights. So the question is, as Jennifer asked, "Why?" When you explain to people like Jennifer that corporations are persons, it just doesn't make any sense to them.

The perplexed look on people's faces when they find out that corporations are deemed to be persons under the law generally leads to two things. Number one: asking questions about why corporations as persons do such damage to communities. The explanation is that when you pass a law at the local level and it somehow violates the corporation's constitutional rights, the corporation can use the federal or state courts to strike down the law.

Number two: going on the offense, meaning that if you are going to pass a sludge ordinance or a factory farm ordinance, or some ordinance at the local level, it is absolutely foolish not to anticipate the challenge that will eventually come down the road, and to build into the ordinance a frontal challenge to the assertion of those rights of the corporation.

And so the "Why?" being asked at the local level -- why can't we control the destiny of our own communities? -- is leading to an offense that's very sophisticated in terms of attempting to dismantle the structure of law.

Q: Speak about the regulatory system. It's supposed to keep corporations from doing harm, but everywhere you look -- the water, the land, the air -- everything is polluted.

TL: It's funny, because people come up to me and say that the regulatory system is broken. It's not protecting our health. It's not protecting our welfare. To which, increasingly, we look back at government and maybe we say the regulatory system is working perfectly because maybe its purpose was not to protect health and welfare.

Maybe its purpose was to legalize corporate harms that would otherwise be illegal without a permitting system in place. In other words, we think of regulatory agencies as folks that attempt to save us from being harmed, but in reality the history of regulatory agencies is much different.

In essence, it's about writing a script for our activism and channeling us down to a regulatory point where we can't win, and even if we do win, we don't win much of anything at all.

And of course when you regulate something, as opposed to when you ban or prohibit it, you are giving up your authority and, in this case, being stripped of your authority to decide what comes in and what doesn't. So I think if our activism is really going to evolve, we have to start seeing how the regulatory agencies really are enablers for the corporations to come in and do the damage that they do.

Q: Some believe that laws such as anti-corporate personhood ordinances are a waste of time because they will be challenged and shot down, so why bother? What is the logic behind civil disobedience to the law?

TL: Well, the law changes. The law changes when people stand up and say we can't take this any more, we are not going to do this any more. In fact, lawyers have never changed the law in this country. It's always been community organizers who are pressing up against existing structures of law that have changed anything in this country.

Rosa Parks, she knew she was subject to a criminal conviction, but she did what she did anyway. The civil rights movement, those brave kids that sat down at the Woolworth's lunch counter, of course the police where going to arrest them, of course they were going to jail. How does that change anything?

They change something when a spark happens. When people see other people doing democracy in a different way and it catches fire -- then it has nothing to do with the individual law. It has to do with a movement that builds, with people no longer willing to live under a structure of law that continually screws them. Because there's nothing left to lose, and when there's nothing left to lose, people whose backs are against the wall tend to come out kicking.

What this work is about is knitting together those communities who are finally learning that they are always on the losing end of the stick, that the regulatory agencies are not a remedy, that they can't turn to their state legislature or their courts for a remedy because those courts are carrying out laws that are written by the corporations in the first place.

And the legislatures are passing laws that were drafted and given to them by the corporations. And so the question is: Where do these folks turn for a remedy? They have to create their own remedy -- just like the suffragists did, just like the abolitionists did, just like the great people's movements of this country did.

Q: Do you believe it's possible to change the role of corporations in our society?

TL: I think it's the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. And I think the people that are willing to change the structure of law are the ones that are directly affected by how law operates, are going to be the ones that push it forward. Which means it's not going to come from environmental organizations.

It's not going to come from social justice organizations. It's not going to come from the top down, from existing organizations. It's going to be pushed upward by these groups of people who are courageous enough to come together around their kitchen table to say "we want this for our community" and are being told that they can't have it, and then they are pushing back and they are saying, "we are going to take it anyway."

The bulk of people who are going to be driving this stuff are the Jennifer Englands and other folks who are very different leaders than we perhaps expect to see. Leaders serve in that they are essentially facilitators and translators to explain to people how the system of law is operating, and why, when they try to stop sludge, they have to stop corporations as well.

So I think when I say we are at the beginning of the beginning of the beginning, it's as if we are the abolitionists back in the 1830s, thirty-seven years before the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were written into the Constitution, and I think that's where we are now.

It's an exciting time, because it allows us to lay the framework and the foundation in the right way so that the house doesn't fall over later. But it's also a fairly depressing time, because things are really bad and things are getting worse, and we want to see this thing accelerate.

Eventually, it means rewriting the state constitutions; eventually, it means rewriting the federal Constitution. And now in polite company, you can't even talk about those things yet. I think as the years roll on, more and more people will understand that we actually need to change the DNA of this country to have any chance. I think that as the ball starts rolling faster, more and more people will clearly see how the structure of law operates and the necessity of changing it.

How to Build a Local Energy Economy

The following conversation with David Morris is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

David Morris is a Co-Founder and Vice President of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis. He is the director of their New Rules Project, an excellent resource on the best practices for getting local control over energy, agriculture, retail development, finance, and other key areas. He is the author of many books and reports, which are available from the New Rules website. His regular articles are featured on

Q: Why does local control of energy make sense?

David Morris: Local control of everything makes sense. But local control of energy makes sense for two reasons: one is that ten cents on the local dollar of the community goes directly to pay for fuel, and all of it is imported. Only between ten and fifteen cents on the dollar spent on that fuel stays in the local community. So from an economic development standpoint, it is probably the worst expenditure that you can make in a community. The other reason is that you don't have to. Cities, unless they are high-density cities, can in fact generate much, if not all, of their own energy, either internal to themselves or within 50 to 100 miles.

Q: What has been the federal government's role on these issues? Is it getting better or worse?

DM: The federal government has not been wise on these things, ever. On the issue of decentralization and energy being produced from the bottom up, the federal government's policies undermine it at almost every level. And it doesn't matter whether it's been Democrats or Republicans; there has been no change in that whatsoever. The federal government wants more energy, but they are either indifferent to where the generation occurs, or they encourage large absentee-owned facilities in most of their incentives and regulatory policies.

Q: Could you give us some specifics on how federal government policies undermine local energy production?

DM: Sure, one is that the federal government has preempted a significant amount of state authority on the siting of high-voltage transmission lines. The federal government is doing everything in its power to build these transmission lines like a national highway. They argue that this is "efficient," and I disagree, but that is their argument.

What it does is encourage the generation of energy far away from where people tend to use it. The federal government has also encouraged absentee ownership of energy facilities. For example, in wind, if you have a wind turbine and you only meet your own internal needs, you actually don't qualify for federal incentives. The only time you qualify for them is if you sell the energy into the grid system-then you can qualify for a tax incentive. There are many examples like this, and the federal government would probably admit it. Their feeling is that large is better than small, absentee is better than locally owned, and it's much better to attract the capital of Wall Street and global investment firms than it is to attract local finance.

Q: How does the issue of net metering factor into this?

DM: Net metering was a revolution, a very quiet revolution. It said that the utility companies had to allow you to turn your meter backwards. Since 1979, by federal law, the utility companies had to agree to buy your electricity if you had solar panels, but they could put any conditions they wanted on it, and they put on conditions that made it uneconomical for you to do that. So what net metering says is that the utility can't charge you for a second meter; it has to allow the meter to run backwards, which means you get the retail price for your electricity. So that redefines the electric system as a two-way system, by law.

Q: Is there any state with full net metering, where if I put more into the grid than I take out, they have to pay me for the electricity I put back into the grid?

DM: Yes, there are many states that allow that, but every one is different. There are some that have a carry-over from month to month and at the end of the year you settle up. There are some that have a carry-over from month to month and at the end of the year you lose any surplus you might have. There are some that require them to pay you, but they would pay you for the voided costs, they're not going to pay you the retail price. You could turn your meter backwards, in effect getting the retail price, but when you get a surplus you're getting a voided cost (between a penny-and-a-half to two cents a kilowatt hour) instead of getting the displaced retail price of anywhere from 7 to 15 cents a kilowatt hour.

Q. Can you discuss the biofuels debate?

DM: The key issue is ownership. In 2002 almost 50 percent of all ethanol facilities in this country were majority farmer-owned, and about 80 percent of all the new ones coming on line were majority farmer-owned. By 2007, about 95 percent of all the new ones are absentee-owned. So we've had a big change in the ownership structure of ethanol.

Q: What caused such a big shift?

DM: Wall Street came in. We had oil going for 60 to 70 dollars a barrel, and we had a mandate for ethanol at a national level. Wall Street found out it could earn 30 to 40 percent turnaround on its investments, and they flooded in and began building 100 million gallon-a-year plants rather than 30 or 40 million gallon-a-year plants. If that becomes your basic size template, that's too large for any local equity to get control of. So that's a serious problem.

Q: What about the issue of taking land away from food production by growing corn for ethanol instead of for human consumption? Or the issue of horrible working conditions for sugarcane workers in Brazil?

DM: Previously, the majority of sugarcane in Brazil was family owned. Now, with the ethanol market taking off, they're getting Japanese capital, Chinese capital, American capital pouring in there, and they have to deal with the absentee ownership in terms of bad working conditions. In terms of the food vs. fuel issue, the point is that if you want to go to a renewable sustainable future, then the question is: "What materials do you rely on?" And when it comes to energy, you can say, "Well, let's rely on direct sunlight," and "Let's rely on wind." And that's fine, as long as you don't need storage.

But if you need storage, you need matter, you need molecules -- and where is the material for that going to come from? Furthermore, where are the molecules going to come from for everything else? For desks and for cars and so forth, where's that going to come from?

You have two alternatives: vegetables or minerals. So if you want minerals, with recycling you can do a lot, but in the longer term you want to shift to vegetables. I wrote a book in 1992 called The Carbohydrate Economy and I will stand by the fact that it has to be a piece of the renewable materials puzzle.

Then the question becomes, what do you use that biomatter for, aside from food and feed -- it's an interesting question. It's a challenge to design public policy correctly because obviously, nutrition should be the highest priority. But when you get below food and medicine, what should it be: should it be liquid fuels, electricity, heat, biochemicals, construction materials, what should it be? That's the real challenge in designing these policies.

Right now, corn farmers without government subsidies are earning more than the cost of production of corn for the first time since the drought year in 1996. Since the 1930s we've had a federal policy whereby the taxpayer pays 20 to 35 percent of the cost of production and in return the grain is artificially low-priced.

We find now that the corn is priced slightly higher than it probably should be, and people are screaming that everyone's going to starve to death should they have to pay the real costs of growing these things. It would be laughable if it weren't so sad. Farmers in other parts of the world have been complaining for many years about the U.S. dumping our cheap, subsidized grain on the world market and driving them out of business.

Q: You've written about energizing rural America through the farm bill and trade policy. Can you talk about the link between increased rural prosperity and energy security?

DM: Rural areas have a competitive advantage in only a few things. The primary one is that they're got a lot of land and relatively few people. It also turns out that the wind blows better and more consistently in rural areas. So that's their competitive advantage: plant matter and wind. Right now those are national priorities, and I'm saying, let's do it right this time. The federal government favors quantitative goals. They want more and I want better.

We did it wrong last time. We should have learned from that experience, and the best way to do it right this time is to let the farmers and local owners control the process so they're not 100 percent dependent on a commodity price they don't control.

Q: Can you talk about green-energy pricing programs?

DM: We're opposed to green pricing programs and I've always been opposed to them. There is a difference between green pricing and green citizenship. Green citizenship says that if the majority supports renewable energy, then the majority should pay for it through the utility bills that go to everyone. Standards are mandates that the majority imposes on themselves, and if there are any increased costs, they are spread out over all the ratepayers.

Green pricing, on the other hand, says that I, in return for taking a moral stand, I will pay a significantly higher price for my electricity because I want renewable sources. This punishes ratepayers who want renewable energy-making them pay 10-25 percent more for their electricity -- while those who don't choose renewable sources pay less. If we want green electricity then we should demand it and everyone should pay for it.

Environmental Justice in Action

The following conversation with Gopal Dayaneni is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Whether he's working with Indigenous communities in North America to oppose oil extraction, partnering with Nigerians to resist human rights abuses, or trying to uncover the modern-day slavery of prison labor, Gopal Dayaneni can be found on the front lines of environmental justice struggles. Friends and colleagues know Dayaneni as an especially thoughtful activist. While he is busy doing his own small part to promote progressive social change, he is also a big-picture thinker, always encouraging those around him to consider the long view of what it takes to create a more sane and humane world. That trait distinguishes Dayaneni as an important resource for communities looking for the strategic, tactical, and imaginative skills necessary to effect change. We caught up with the 37-year-old campaigner at his home in Berkeley, California, where he was busy tending to his young daughter.

Q: You use the term "environmental justice." Can you define that?

GD: Environmental Justice is a term that talks about a movement that developed over the last 20 years to really take on the disproportionate impact of environmental toxics and pollution on poor communities and communities of color. At the heart of that movement is a commitment to bottom-up organizing and grassroots community organizing. Environmental justice is not about a bunch of people trying to lobby for better laws or a bunch of high-level policy people trying to change environmental policy. It's about communities organizing themselves and resisting environmental abuse by industry or government. And because it is grassroots led, and because it is driven by communities directly attempting to make concrete improvements in the quality of their daily lives, it is ripe for an opening to see the intersections between environmental policy, economics, race, class, the war.

Q: You talk about the difference between defending your concrete interests and defending the environment in general. Is it because when the stakes are higher, the passion is greater?

GD: Yeah, I think there's something to be said for the expression, "There's nothing to lose but your chains." I think there's a greater sense of solidarity. I think people are much more willing to share their successes to work together. I think there's a much greater sense of empowerment because people are actually in control of the campaigns that they are organizing. People are not passive participants watching somebody else try and make things better. They are actively the voice of the issue. People are telling their own stories, they're speaking for themselves.

Changing policy may open up political space to stop the immediate bad things from continuing to happen. But if we're talking about fundamentally transforming our society to be more democratic and more equitable and more humane, the strategy is grassroots community organizing, in my opinion. A good friend of mine once said to me, "Campaigns don't change the world, organizations do." And my response to him was, "Organizations don't change the world, organizing does." That's really for me what's important. For me, that's central to my theory of change.

Q: There is a stereotypical view of U.S. environmentalists as white, middle class, and into bird watching. What do you think of this issue?

GD: Race is a scary thing in America. Race is scary to most white people in America. Race is scary to most people of color in America. Being people of color does not make us smarter, or more revolutionary, or more right, or better. It just makes us oppressed, and there's no great glory in that.

Race is a problem for Americans. It's easy to talk about saving the trees or saving the birds. When you start talking about the relationship between saving the trees and saving the birds and white supremacy in America, you start losing people. It takes a lot of work to help build that consciousness. Just in this conversation, we won't start talking about it by calling it white supremacy. We have to figure out ways of helping people to understand the dynamics of power in this country, and how those attitudes and structures and systems serve the interests of some classes and communities of people over the interests of other communities.

Q: As we try to move toward this whole green economy, what are some of the things you think that these bigger organizations can learn from community-based groups?

GD: The grassroots community-based organizing, I think, is the most important thing that people can learn. I think the other thing is, as people begin to fight for concrete improvements in their daily lives, they also have a taste for what they really want. People start building their own alternatives. People build their own organizations. People start building their own co-ops. People start running their own community farms. It's not enough to get rid of the polluting power plant. People are also building community gardens in those same neighborhoods. It's not enough for them to just say, 'We don't like that there are polluting diesel trucks in our neighborhood.' As you fight that and as you experience victory, your revolutionary imagination is liberated. I think that's where the great promise is.

It's not enough for us to make the oil industry start investing in photovoltaics. There's not a technical solution to our environmental problems. There may be technical things that we can use to help us transition, but the solution is deeply political, and deeply structural and societal. It's about really changing the way we organize our relationship to resources. It shouldn't be mediated by mega-corporations who make a huge amount of money off of it. It should be directly controlled and distributed by communities in their own interest.

Q: What's a vision of what an environmentally justice-informed green economy looks like?

GD: Well, one of the things that we have to open ourselves up to when we embrace the idea that we are going to build from the bottom up is that we don't know exactly what it's going to look like. We can't have this idea that there's this road map. We need the creativity of everybody diving into the mix.

But I think there are a few different pieces that are really important. In terms of the scale at which we currently operate, there's absolutely no question that we're not going to suddenly go from where we are today-where everybody drives a car and the box stores and all of that-to everybody getting their produce from a farmer's market. That's not going to happen overnight. And that may not even be the collective vision of everyone. But given the scale of where we are at right now, one of the places where we need to start is empowering workers and communities to have greater control and input over the resources in their community and in their workplace.

Another big part of it is people working hard to meet their own needs within their local environment. All of the models of urban gardening that have been driven by community needs-not just recreation-really demonstrate the power of that. I think one of the areas where we have been an exception is really looking at the relationship between organized labor and these community-based needs. What does it mean that most people in the United States get their groceries-heavily processed foods and all of the things we know that are terrifying about them-from big chain grocery stores? But let's also not forget that a significant portion of these big chain grocery stores are unionized. And they do have workers who have fought hard to get protections and to protect themselves. And we're not talking about suddenly saying, 'Oh, everyone's going to get their food from community-based gardens.' It's about also figuring out how we're going to integrate the needs of people who are existing in this economy into our meaningful alternatives and into our positive solutions.

Q: Speaking of solutions, we live in a one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet kind of culture. Could you talk about how we're going to have to juggle a number of different things?

GD: I don't know when and how it's going to happen, but I personally believe we have to break the expectation that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want. There's a desire to be able to have every kind of produce year-round. There is this idea that we should have access to everything at any time, like changing your cell phone every six months. And I think we're going to have to break that. Part of breaking that is going to be learning to appreciate the local and regional diversity. The more people have the opportunity to embrace the localism and the value of the localism, I think that will help us break that monoculture and allow us to appreciate diversity.

We have the ability to imagine a different future. It's not about going back in time. It's about going forward in a way in which we are living within our ecological boundaries.
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by