Last week we wrote about the powerlessness of locally elected leaders when outside corporations decide to bring environmentally damaging projects into our communities. Since the very industries that are (supposedly) being regulated were part of the process of writing the regulations, the entire process is biased in favor of corporate property rights as opposed to a community's right to safety and well-being. The fox guarding the henhouse has more rights than the hens within.
For most of us, this is a scarey idea. We all were taught that our government exists to protect us, and that our elected officials have our best interests at heart. While that may be true at the local level, locally elected officials often find their hands tied by state laws that preempt local laws, and by the fact that the US Constitution gives the right to regulate interstate commerce only to the Congress.
How did we get here? Pennsylvania's first state constitution, written in 1776, is widely recognized by historians as the most democratic of any of the state constitutions written during the Revolutionary era. We Pennsylvanians have a proud history and we continue that history into the present day. But along the line, things began to change. Large wealthy corporations (both within the state and from outside) pushed for their own economic interests. Wealth has always carried political power with it, and its interests are not always the same as the interests of our communities.
But there are things that communities can do to protect our families, homes, farms, streams, forests, and way of life. There are ways that we can work with our locally elected officials for the benefit of our communities. Beginning here in Pennsylvania, many local communities have established ordinances that control the use of land in their area. Hundreds of communities have adopted laws asserting their right to community self-government and banning state-licensed corporate harms.
So what can we do? Each of us can begin talking with neighbors about the kinds of changes that we want for our communities and (especially) the kinds of changes we DON”T want. We can urge our local leaders to begin looking at a “Community Bill of Rights” There is even a “Pennsylvania Community Rights Network” that can help you with ideas about how to begin. If corporations have rights, why don't communities? Such a “Bill of Rights” can lay out the list of what is needed to protect our communities, our families, our property and our environment.
Pennsylvanians have been an important part in beginning this move toward recognizing the rights of local communities. The important thing is that people join with their neighbors to stand together and work with local officials, to do what we need to do to make sure our families, our homes, our communities are safe.
Sometimes people think that communities have lost their rights; they may say “The system is broken, it doesn't work.” The reality is that the system is working very well for those who wrote it and run it – the corporations, not the people. The environmental damage being done in Pennsylvania is mostly from corporations that are run by people who don't live in the effected areas and whose children don't go to the effected schools. These corporations make a lot of money out of our area, and return very little of it. No one will change this but us.