Sunday, May 17, 2015

Some Philosophical Observations About "Community Rights," Pipeline Fights, and "Rights of Nature"

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 5.15.15

***Additional update: In some further correspondence with my friend about issues internal to the ideology of CELDF, I was finally compelled to say this:

You can tell yourself--indeed, folks at NCRN, CELDF, PA CRN can tell themselves that the community rights model is without parallel, that it represents precisely how things ought to be. It has many many virtues--but it is not without serious deficits in an age where the consequences of the actions of some--corporations--reach well beyond communities, indeed, to the planet itself. A loose confederation of communities--of NIMBY fiefdoms--will not mitigate climate change, will not prevent an outbreak of infectious disease, will not thwart terrorism, will not prevent war, will not put a stop to human trafficking. These vital issues demand communication across communities--across the globe. And if we fail to address them globally, communities will eventually cease even to be fiefdoms--they'll simply be annihilated in wars fought over water, land, and fuel. There are communities in Mad Max--but no one wants to live in them.
And that's about as clear as it gets, I think. The rights of communities to self-determination are surely values worth fighting for--but they are not intrinsically valuable such that community self-determination overrides the rights of others--wherever they are--not to be harmed or disenfranchised by that self-determination. 

**UPDATE: I recently received a very thoughtful email missive from a friend concerned with my criticism of CELDF. The tone of the missive suggested that anyone who generally supports the concept of community rights and charters ought to treat CELDF and its recently formed outreach arm--the Community Rights Network--as a sort of sacred cow beyond the pale of critique. That I certainly cannot do--and none of us ought to trek that route. Indeed, any organization that's unable to address the reasoned questions and criticisms of the very citizens it would claim to represent is doomed to atrophy from within, and in CELDF's case risks the appearance of a sophisticated NIMBY-ism dressed up as community rights codified in charters and ordinances. To be very clear: I think CELDF does some very fine work, and I also think it has some real work to do on at least two fronts relevant to the essay below: 

(1) When does the appropriate response to a global issue trump the rights of communities to self-determination? CELDF's answer here seems to be "never." But this opens itself up to a cornucopia of objection not the least of which is that climate change demands an orchestrated global response. A community of climate change deniers does not have the right to contribute to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gasses. A community of vaccination-avoiders does not have the right to make other people's children vulnerable to measles.  A community of animal-body eaters does not have the right to expose other communities to the massive pollutants of their factory farm cultivation, execution, and waste disposal processes. Minimally, where the issues are a matter of public health, communities do not have the right to expose other communities or individuals to activities that threaten the public health--especially when that public is global.

(2) "Rights of nature" is very very vague. Does it include the rights of nonhuman animals not to suffer unnecessarily? does it refer to nature external to my body or internal to it? Does it  refer only to nature--like the Ecuadorian Amazon--that's relatively pristine? Does it include urban parks? CELDF must get clearer about this if this idea is going to have any legitimacy within a community ordinance. The evidence that it is not clear is CELDF's support of a chicken bar-b-que fundraiser to generate funds to defend against the incursion of a pipeline. This is self-defeating, and it risk hypocrisy.

While I am not going to reveal the writer's name, sex, or affiliation, I am gong to post my answers to the questions of the missive I mentioned above. I have altered the questions so as to avoid quotation:

1. The writer suggests that my essay below is an effort to damage CELDF. I respond thusly:

There is a world of difference between "seeking to damage a thing" and raising important questions. I am clearly engaged in the latter. There are truly serious tensions between the rights of communities and our responsibilities, individually and collectively, to issues that exceed any community's geographical, political or cultural boundaries. Both pipelines and climate change exemplify these issues. As I said several times in the piece, I respect the CR approach greatly--and I do. But if waging community struggles for self-determination is going to mean more than the assertion of NIMBY interests, CELDF/CRN MUST confront the sorts of questions I raise in the piece. It is otherwise going to gradually but inexorably be reduced to the defense of competing fiefdoms--and that's not what any of us meant by community rights.

2. The writer asks the following question--rephrased to doubly respect the writer's anonymity: "If CELDF's aim is to teach communities how to defend themselves from the corporations and stand up for their constitutional liberties so that they can define their communities for themselves, wouldn't it be hypocrisy for CELDF or the National Community Rights network to try to make a community follow a rigid notion of "sustainable"?" 

My response: 

The answer here is a resounding NO. Here's why: anthropogenic climate change is well-established in the scientific literature. Moreover, it's consequences present and future are clearly global. No community has the right to enact charters, statutes, laws that clearly conflict with the well-established science when their laws--say a community of climate change deniers--then allow them to engage in activity--say factory farming--that will produce negative consequences for other communities and persons--in this case the global community. Here's an analogy: Does a community have the right as a community to structure its public school science curricula to teach that the earth is flat? No. Why? Because the earth is not flat, and in teaching so false a doctrine people--especially children--will be harmed. Ditto for evolution. Ditto for vaccines. The principle is this: However much a value is the right to self-determination for a community, that does not imply that the rights of communities exceeds the rights of individual human beings, nonhuman animals, or ecosystems. No community has the right to realize its desire for self-determination where the established potential for harm to others within and without that community is significant.

3. The writer refers to a rigid definition of "sustainable.""

My response:

I am not sure what you mean by  "rigid definition of sustainable," but what I do know is two things: (A) we don't need "iron clad" to demonstrate to us that if we continue to emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere we and futures generations of "we" will suffer greatly. We know that any industrial scale extraction or animal agricultural operation does emit greenhouse gasses. Therefore, the minimal definition of "sustainable" must include curtailing the emission of greenhouse gasses--that is the sine qua non of "sustainable," and that in no way guarantees a future that's desirable. (B) "Rigid" is fallacious appeal to straw argument--it sets up a distorted, easy to dismiss--version of an argument, and this is frequently used by the climate change deniers who insist that "the science is not settled." Their reasoning is absurd. No science is ever settled. But that does not prevent us from, for example, administering antibiotics,  sending probes to the moon, or tracking the processes of photosynthesis. Climate change is no different. Hence communities have a clear moral duty to act to mitigate it.

4. The writer asks: "how could it be acceptable to only agree to help a community to keep out something like a pipeline if their members are all vegan?"

My response:

Let me turn this around: Given their explicit and heavily promoted commitment to rights of nature, how can CELDF represent any community who is not vegan/vegetarian? This is manifest hypocrisy. Unless CELDF can give a convincing principled argument that rights of nature precludes the rights of nonhuman animals not to suffer unnecessarily, this is a serious problem. Moreover, it's not only about this commitment--it's also about the effects of factory farming. A community that tacitly condones factory farming by have a bar-b-que fundraiser in fact is caught in a plain contradiction--and their actions are NIMBY: they want to stop a harm for their community, but are unconcerned with the consequences of animal agriculture for other communities. This is a cake neither the community nor CELDF can have and eat too. It undermines their credibility, and puts the lie to their commitment to rights of nature. Indeed, it makes the appeal to rights of nature look more like an advertising strategy than a principled moral value.

I would welcome a response from members of CELDF. Indeed, their mission is certainly advanced through this variety of respectful public discourse. Addressing observations, questions, and criticism is how worthwhile organizations demonstrate their commitment and their capacity for thoughtful exchange to their members and future members. I hope CELDF/CRN will take this opportunity and rise to the occasion. We would all be benefitted--especially the communities CELDF purports to defend--if they did.

*The following is a set of observations posted on a Lancaster On-Line article, written by Ad Crable

What is track record of community-rights ordinances sought by some in Conestoga and Martic townships? - LancasterOnline: Local News

There are certainly many very important issues here--the pipeline being one, but not the only one.

First, and most importantly, what is at stake is the fundamental idea that communities have a right to self-determination. At one level, this seems obvious, and clearly consistent with the democratic ideal that a community--as a body of voting members--ought to be able to determine the character and ordinance structure of that body. There is much to recommend this. But it also must be said that if a community is going to uphold equality and justice as essential governing principles, it must--must--act not only in its own interest, but that of communities affected by its decisions. Although the CELDF/Community Rights Network aims certainly do not oppose these principles, there's also little particularly explicit in their current presentation that emphasizes their significance. And this does matter--greatly. 

For example, what prevents Community X along the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline ROW from enacting a CR ordinance, and then determining that what's in their best interest is hosting the pipeline? Perhaps they decide that since their township is, say, an unlikely site for a Compressor and their not really in drilling country, that their monetary gains outweigh the risk from potential pipeline explosions or leaks? What if this is a relatively poor and small township--and Williams has offered them some substantial bribe? It is a bribe--and we all know it. But that's not really the point. The point is that what in the current CELDF promotion of a charter--something Community X has adopted--prevents Community X from deciding something that is manifestly damaging to Community Y? 

And to be clear--I have enormous respect for the community rights approach--but I also can see plainly that it is not a panacea for solving the tremendously serious issues we face with respect to the environmental costs of the gas company buildout--cost that outweigh in important respects the capacities of any community--some which simply do demand an approach BIGGER than any community.

Second, CELDF's perfectly reasonable response to my critique here might be this: Community charters ought to be drafted consistent with these principles--equality and justice, and the "rights of nature." Any charter not so drafted is not adequately democratic and does not expand rights. 

Well and good. 

But this does not and cannot go nearly far enough.

Here's why:

A community--and we have copious examples--can absolutely agree to these principles, AND determine that they apply to some who then count as members while others do not. A community can decide, for example, that the criteria for membership depends on sex, ethnicity, gender, or species status. CELDF can rightly decry this as discrimination--but without clear criteria for determining what/who counts as a member, "expansion" remains elusive. Let me give a specific example: If my understanding is correct, one township on the pipeline corridor recently held a chicken Bar-b-que to raise money for its community rights efforts. 


But this effectively makes a determination that nonhuman animals are not to be accounted as members with any right to equality in any respect in their particular vision of "Community." This stands in direct conflict with CELDF's specific referencing to "rights of nature." Or: If chickens are not to be counted as community members in any sense--minimally that they have a right not to be killed unnecessarily, then this township has a duty to explain as a part of their understanding of their own charter whyThe upshot is clear: It's one thing to talk about justice and equality. It's another to enact it as a chartered part of a community's forward-moving structure. 

And WHO is to count is as essential to that charter as it could possibly be. Moreover, if the meaning of "expansion" does not include very explicit and clear language concerning one community's relationship to others affected by its chartered decisions, it's hard to see how conflicts will be resolved. 

Let me offer one more example here: let's say that the township that held the chicken Bar-b-que sold chicken raised at a factory farm. What that means in effect is that while they oppose a pipeline, they do not oppose factory farming--at least chickens. In addition to this seeming very inconsistent with their concern for the health and welfare of their own community members--since animal agriculture is a far more serious immediate and long-term health hazard for people in and out of that community--it is clearly not in keeping with any concern for the health and welfare of people in other communities who may very well be affected by, say, Tyson's proposal to build a factory farm in that county. 

How does CELDF litigate between the community who--at least judging by their behavior-- is comfortable with the prospect of factory farms and the community who opposes them? Perhaps this seems apples and oranges with pipelines--but it manifestly is not. VOCs wafting from compressor stations and toxic pollutants wafting from factory farms across relatively wide distance on a breezy day affect folks outside the community where the specific facility is located. How does a community rights charter deal with this? To be clear again--I favor the community rights approach. But it has begun to worry me greatly that some really deep-going and fundamental issues have not seen the light of day.

Third, there is much to be said about the meaning of "rights of nature." But if CELDF is really committed to that principled idea, how does it sanction a community that has a Chicken Bar-b-que to raise money to wage its community rights campaign? This strikes me as a tad bit mercenary. That is, is CELDF so committed to a win in this community that it is willing to sacrifice a central tenet of its platform in order to advance that community's charter? I don't know the answer here--but what I do know is that CELDF is caught in a Queen's fork:

1. If what CELDF means by "community rights" necessarily includes nonhuman nature and animals, then it cannot attach its name to an event that violates the rights of nonhuman animals (especially factory farm animals whose lives have been nothing but misery). That includes chickens. 

2. If what CELDF means by "community rights" is negotiable around nonhuman animals, it's negotiable around human animals. Hence nothing prevents a community from writing a charter that converts women to sex slaves or any other group of people into subservients. 

3. If CELDF's response here is that ALL charters must recognize at least people equally, fine--but then it must remove its references to rights of nature. 
4. If CELDF removed the references to rights of nature, any and all cases against factory farms, and gas company activity including pipelines is seriously weakened since a crucial part of the fight against the latter industry was premised on environmental considerations.

Fourth, I appreciate greatly CELDF's Chad Nicholson's point that people are tired of having no options. But the fundamental fact here is that while a community charter is at least potentially better than the township structure that clearly privileged corporations--CELDF is right on the money here--it will still mean very little unless the community members empowered by the charter are willing to actively defend it. And with respect to the pipeline, that could mean a siege--very much like the defense at Crestwood at Lake Seneca. In other words, there is NO charter, ordinance, law, policy--anything--that's going to keep out that pipeline without the willingness of citizens across the Pipeline ROW to join with others from neighboring communities with their bodies to defend it.

I make this obvious point as another way of expressing the crucial observation about cross-community communication and organization. This could not be more essential than with a pipeline. Moreover, while it is certainly in the interest of CELDF as an organization looking to advance a highly laudable campaign to re-empower citizens over corporations in the U.S.--a campaign for which I applaud them--it is another thing for particular communities to be the effective test cases in the service of that larger objective. 

It is no doubt true that there's no other way to get to that larger objective than through communities adopting charters. But that does not mean and cannot mean that particular communities can be sacrificed along the way. CELDF MUST take on the responsibility of standing with the communities they offer to assist--and if these mean great sums of free legal service, pepper spray in the face, arrests, then so be it. There's no revolution without revolutionaries.

And I put it this way not to by incendiary, but to make it clear that CELDF's premises about the powers of corporations trumping those of private citizens is absolutely on the money--but what taking back what is rightfully ours means IS nothing short of a revolutionary objective. We need to be and have a right to be clear about what this morally defensible objective is.

Fifth, and lastly, it bears repeating a thousand times that there is no reason whatever to believe that FERC has any other interest but permitting this pipeline. Register objections. Absolutely

But only because we have the right to an historical record where we have clearly said no to this incursion on our rights and our lands. FERC WILL approve this pipeline. Make no mistake about it. Township supervisors WILL be bribed into silence about it. County Commissioners--ditto. 

A charter may be the beginning of your assertion of your right to clean air and water--but it cannot be more than that. 

Pittsburgh's charter is commonly referred to as a successful example of where a community rights approach has been successful. I would caution us all to be thinking about this. No gas company was going to risk drilling in Pittsburgh. The hazards were far too great, the outcry too loud. 

Rural communities are a very different animal. Fewer people, more bribable old boy township boards and county structure--lots of sparsely populated land. Our lives just don't rate as highly--and so it is doubly important for communities to band together.

But that is precisely what raises the first set of questions I have posed here.

Put differently: many issues lend themselves to a community rights approach. But some--and especially where the issues have global consequences--are not as obvious a fit. 

Any industry as intimately connected to the emission of greenhouse gasses is one. The reason why is because what one community does in choosing for any bit of gas infrastructure contributes to climate change. 

In other words, it's a fairly easy thing to stand up for the rights of one's own community. It's a far harder thing to see the implications of one's community for the global community. 

A collection of independent communities, each with their own charters no matter how humane and thoughtful, does not necessarily make a sustainable--much less desirable--future for the planet.