Activists should move beyond specific issues and focus on the big picture if they hope to retain the ability to shape the nature of their own communities, a Spokane-based community organizer said on Saturday in Moscow.
“In a very real way, we don’t have a fracking problem, we don’t have a (genetically modified organism) problem, and we don’t have a local economy problem – we have a democracy problem,” Kai Huschke said.
Huschke, an organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), said communities can’t necessarily expect the existing regulatory system to work in their favor when it comes to corporate interests.
The Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition, Wild Idaho Rising Tide, and other community organizations sponsored his appearances on Friday and Saturday in Moscow.
His Saturday talk, “Moving Away from What We Can Get to What We Want for Moscow and Latah County,” was attended by about ten community members, some of whom said they were interested in learning more about how to break through the barriers of a largely corporation-friendly regulatory system.
“I am concerned that I see the regulatory system failing people consistently and feel like we need to do something more proactive and put something in place in terms of a law that actually demands how we want things to be and what rights we feel we have,” said Helen Yost, a member of Wild Idaho Rising Tide.
Huschke said the environment is treated as property in the structure of law in the United States and most other countries, but some communities are trying to establish their own regulatory systems that see ecosystems as worthy of having their own rights.
He said that the regulatory system in the U.S. is structured in a way that gives federal and state agencies the ability to pre-empt local initiatives to stop factory farming, coal mining, fracking, and other industries that communities might not want to host for a variety of reasons.
The current framework provides steps for communities to take to try to mitigate the negative effects of those industries, “but it’s never about saying no to the harm in the first place,” Huschke said.
Activists and concerned residents are then left to “play cop,” he said, by monitoring the industry operations to make sure they stay in compliance with the law.
He said that the public can pressure a corporation to change its behavior, and that may work in some cases, but it still doesn’t change the regulatory system.
Huschke said that, even though it may seem impossible, people don’t want to have to work within that existing framework, so they need to address the system as a whole rather than individual issues.
“In essence, we have to shove corporations back in the box, and we have to get outside the box,” he said.
Crafting a system that views the environment as deserving of its own rights can be a way to limit the bounds of human expansion, he said, adding such a system “forces human beings to live within the natural system, as opposed to living above the natural system.”
But, Huschke said, creating a new system will be a long-term battle, just like other movements that have advocated for the rights of different groups of people.
He said that some communities are turning toward local bills of rights as a solution to asserting their right to self-governance. Those community bills of rights outline what people want to protect and what types of practices they want to prohibit within their cities and towns.
“It is about telling the corporations, ‘We’re daring you to tell us that we don’t have decision-making power, something we find very critical to our community,’ and they’re using local lawmaking to do that,” Huschke said.
Activists in Spokane have spent the past several years trying to pass a community bill of rights for their city. Envison Spokane, of which Huschke is a member, used the citizen initiative process to place a proposed bill on the ballot in 2009 and 2011.
Voters shot down the bill both times, but by a much smaller margin in 2011, so organizers are continuing to push for the potential adoption of one in the future.
He said that initiatives like that typically start small, but the goal is to work up to changing the way the system works at the state and federal levels.
“Yes, this stuff may take a while, but it has to build somewhere to get there,” he said.
Huschke recommended that activists start by asking their fellow community members to envision what kind of place they would like to live in. They should also assess whether their local elected officials would be willing to support a community bill of rights – in some places, candidates for office have run on bill of rights-centered platforms.
He said that it’s ultimately up to community members to organize themselves, but the CELDF can assist those who are interested in developing a community bill of rights or otherwise asserting their right to self-governance.
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(By Holly Bowen, staff writer, The Moscow-Pullman Daily News)