The following post was written by Megan Devlin about her experience interning with the Community Rights Program at Global Exchange this summer.
From dropping a “Bust Up the Bank” banner off the office rooftop and making F.I.R.E. flame graphics highlighting the cozy relationship between money and politics in campaign financing, to doing media outreach for the United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit and conducting video interviews with staff and interns about what Rights of Nature means to them, my summer has been full of rewarding work that has opened my mind to new ideas and worldviews.
Learning the ins and outs of Global Exchange and the movement for Community & Nature’s Rights
During my first week, I dove straight into the theory and history of rights-based organizing. While I had a basic understanding of community organizing and social change, I didn’t come to grips with these concepts until college — not surprising since our public education system doesn’t teach us much about the impact corporate power has on our democracy.
But that’s not the case at Global Exchange. Together, interns collaborated on a summer project that directly confronted corporate influence in U.S. politics. Based on findings from Elect Democracy’s ‘Meet the F.I.R.E. Sector’ report, we researched the amount of money that certain interest groups contributed to political campaigns, and how these donations could’ve alternatively benefited public services. For example, Health Lobbyists spent $635.3 million from 2011-2012. This money could’ve provided 542,991 children’s vaccinations. Our finished products were flame visuals made for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that “illuminate” the facts and water droplets that call on citizens to put the F.I.R.E. out and reclaim democracy!
I began unpacking the concepts of “democracy,” “law” and “rights” while learning about the movement for community and nature’s rights. As of today, 140 communities in the U.S. have organized not only to collectively elevate their rights above corporate interests, but also to recognize the inherent rights of nature to exist and thrive. By passing local laws that assert their right to self-governance and ban unwanted corporate activity, these communities are changing the rules of the system. Working alongside my supervisors this summer, this emerging movement quickly expanded my surface understanding of our current structure of law and the limits of regulatory environmental protections. No sooner did I also recognize that our society’s definitions of words like ‘democracy’ are skewed.
I now understand these terms as a product of our culture, political and legal systems. We have allowed our government to craft a system of law that grants rights — as if they weren’t inherent — to corporations whose financial influence weakens the democratic power of citizens, who really should be the only ones making decisions about the activities that affect their communities — like hydraulic fracturing (fracking), water withdrawal or factory farming.
So how do we begin to create the cultural and legal shift that is necessary to restore democratic power to the people, enabling them to assert their rights above corporations?
It begins with a reframing of how we view the issues that threaten our communities and ecosystems — which must be about rights. Unwanted corporate activities (be they fracking, weather manipulation, mountain top removal or groundwater pollution) are merely symptoms of a larger problem: currently, communities don’t have the right in the eyes of the law to say ‘No’ to any of these corporate (and state) decisions.
If we look back upon history, slaves and women were once considered property. They weren’t rights-holders under the eyes of the law. But overtime, people’s movements like the suffragists and civil rights, helped to change this. The question we often forget to ask ourselves is weren’t they always rights-holders from the get-go despite unjust law? Today we are watching the same story unfold for our communities and the environment.
Rights of Nature: A new tool for protecting the environment
For centuries, western society has viewed nature as property: as something we own and can commoditize to drive the transnational capitalist market. As a result, we’ve normalized the greedy “nature” of our human relationship with the earth. It has become legal justification for the war we’re waging on the planet: resource extraction, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change and deforestation. And as long as we operate within our current system of law, which treats ecosystems as property and puts a price tag on it, we will fail to truly protect nature.
Fortunately, I’ve learned over the course of my internship that we — citizens, activists and communities — have the collective power to restore earth justice by organizing to change our current laws, which fail to recognize the Rights of Nature.
Rights of Nature (RON) defines legal rights for ecosystems “to exist, flourish and regenerate their natural capacities.” It’s part of a growing global movement and has become a new organizing tool that communities across the U.S. are using to pass local ordinances that protect their surrounding environment. Ecuador was the first country to incorporate Rights of Nature into its constitution in 2006 and Indigenous groups there have used the law to file suit against oil companies like Chevron, demanding full restoration for the damages that have been done to the Amazon rainforest as a result of drilling activities.
To ensure a sustainable future for both people and the planet, we must change our independent relationship with nature to one that is interdependent. While Rights of Nature might be new language in the western hemisphere, this idea isn’t new to many Indigenous groups. To them, the Earth is an entity whose very existence allows for human survival; its health and wellbeing are paramount to destructive human interests like profit and the desire to live more instead of simply living well. Unfortunately, our western frame of reference has all too easily dismissed this Indigenous perspective.
As Global Exchange’s Co-Founder Kevin Danaher pointed out to me, we live in a society where the money cycle is placed higher than our life values. Not surprisingly, this encourages exploitative behavior that is depleting the earth’s resources at a rate outpacing human survival. What else is climate change other than an indicator that we’ve exceeded nature’s capacity? It’s a clear signal that we as a species must change our behaviors and begin to live in harmony — not at odds — with nature.
An important takeaway from my internship with the Community Rights Program is that the environmental crises of our day are not just ecological issues, they’re also issues of rights.
We must view them through a rights-based lens in order to transform our organizing and provide effective tools for protecting our communities and the environment. It’s the key to driving the cultural and legal paradigm shift that allows for citizens around the world to assert the rights of communities and ecosystems in order to say ‘No’ to unwanted corporate harm and environmental destruction.
When we achieve this, we begin to create the kind of world WE want to live in and pass onto future generations — without corporate influence and wealth weakening our democratic power.
Megan Devlin is the summer intern for the Community Rights Program at Global Exchange. She is a Communications Management and Design major at Ithaca College where she actively contributes to her campus media publications and is involved with the human rights, Colleges Against Cancer and student-worker solidarity groups. She is excited to continue fighting for environmental justice by collaborating with students, faculty and community members around the issues of fracking and food sovereignty in Ithaca.