Communities across Pennsylvania trying to block environmental permits to keep out gas pipelines, industrial pig operations, sewage sludge spreading or fracking are doomed to failure, says Thomas Linzey.
He knows because he has been trying to help communities do just that.
They are doomed to fail because the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions give corporations more rights and privileges than people or communities, Linzey says. It’s rooted in 19th-century thinking that business growth was imperative for the economy and should not be hindered.
“Pennsylvania’s constitution is a weapon for corporations,” Linzey, founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said flatly.
The rules of the game are not very democratic, and they allow all kinds of unwanted and unsustainable land uses to steamroll over the wishes of communities, Linzey told about 50 people at Millersville University last week.
Corporations and Pennsylvania laws, he said, “conspire together to exploit local communities and devastate the environment. We now live in a corporate state that must be challenged, head-on, for the sake of democracy and the survival of our planet,” he said, referring also to climate change.
His solution, which he admitted has evolved dramatically since he founded the organization in Pennsylvania in 1995, is to persuade communities — mostly rural at first — across the nation to rise up and perform “municipal disobedience.”
‘Time for a revolt’
Linzey, who Forbes Magazine has named among the country’s top 10 revolutionaries, wants communities facing threats they don’t want, to pass ordinances giving local officials the power to ban them — consequences be damned.
Lancaster was one of six counties Linzey visited as part of a “Time for a Pennsylvania Revolt” tour.
Pennsylvania is leading the way with about 100 communities so far adopting rights-based ordinances, said Linzey, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, overseeing a grass-roots effort that has spread to 11 other states.
Last year, two southern Lancaster County townships, Martic and Conestoga, flirted with such rights-based ordinances in an effort to block the proposed Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline. Public referendums to study a home-rule type of government that would allow such ordinances were defeated in both townships.
Yes, Linzey acknowledged, corporations have sued in many cases where communities unilaterally banned them. Many of the ordinances have been overturned in court.
Chad Nicholson, the group’s Pennsylvania community organizer, told the audience that some have criticized the effort for being too local. But, he argued, it needs to begin with such small communities.
“From our perspective,” Nicholson said, “the only way for anything real to happen on the national and international level is in building on radical and bold work that first begins at the local level. That is the thing to inspire change. They need to see other people doing it.”
“It’s not going to come from the federal level down,” echoed Linzey. “We have to finally start doing what we want, not what we can get.”
The need for change resonated with some in the audience.
John Lahr, a Martic Township resident, talked about growing up in the 1960s, an era that saw multiple marches on Washington for change. Out of that time came the clean water and air acts and legislation protecting women’s rights.
“I think it might be time for our government to see hundreds of thousands of people on the mall again, telling officials that this is wrong. It’s time for our country to be brought back to a balance,” he said, referring to rights given corporations.
Malinda Clatterbuck, also of Martic Township and a board member of the Pennsylvania Community Rights Network, said her faith in basic governmental tenets has been shaken in local grass-roots efforts to work within the system to try to stop the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.
“Those of us with the pipeline who have had the prospect of a pipeline to come through our backyard or our neighbor’s backyards have learned firsthand about the injustice and the lack of democracy and the lack of power that individuals have. And I am appalled by it, and I want to do something to change it.
“I think it is un-American, and I don’t think the system functions as most Americans think it does.
“I know it’s controversial,” she said of communities passing their own laws. “But I can’t see any other way.”