We the People Standing Together to Protect Our Climate: Lessons From the Community Rights Movement

An original speech by Paul Cienfuegos - presented in Minneapolis on February 23, 2015


Broadcast nationally in an edited version on David Barsamian’s show ‘Alternative Radio’



It is an extraordinary honor to have been invited to give an original talk here in Minneapolis tonight, sponsored by such incredible groups as the Minnesota chapter of 350.org, Idle No More, Honor the Earth, the Minnesota Green Party and many other groups. Thank you so much!


I also want to personally thank a few people who put in perhaps hundreds of hours of quite invisible work that were essential to draw the crowd which is here tonight - Malia Burkhart, Liane Gale, Katheryn Schneider, and Tom McSteen. And all of the additional volunteers who helped over the past month, and are doing lots of critical support tasks this evening. This event would literally not have been possible without all of your efforts. Thank you!


We are here tonight to think about climate change. I’ve never liked the term “climate change”, because it makes it sound like just another environmental problem to add to the already existing pile of problems. And hey, it can’t be that bad, right?! We’ll end up with a longer growing season for our crops and less ice on the roads.


So I prefer to call it catastrophic climate destabilization. Somehow, that term wakes me up rather than lulls me back into passivity.


Here are my goals for the evening:


* To convince you that there actually are some very powerful things that all of you can do about the climate crisis, that you may never have even thought of doing. ……


* To get you to you think about yourself more as an active citizen and less as a single-issue activist. ……


* To ask you to question some of the assumptions you may be making about what the proper relationship is between yourself and your government. ……


* And oh yeah, one more not insignificant thing: I am going to be proposing tonight perhaps the most ambitious expansion of community self-governance since the American Revolution. So hold on to your hats!


So that we’re all on the same page, let’s review what scientists are telling us is likely to happen on our planet with increasing frequency if we don’t respond boldly and quickly to catastrophic climate destabilization. And before I read you the list, I want to ask you to try to listen not just with your head but with your whole body. Allow whatever feelings may arise. And remember to breathe.


Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, collapse of entire ecosystems, sea level rise that has the potential to permanently displace hundreds of millions of people, huge hurricanes, raging wildfires, collapse of ocean fisheries and coral reefs, widespread disruptions to water supplies, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, wide-ranging droughts, globe-trotting diseases, super typhoons, collapsing ice shelves and retreating glaciers, significant changes in precipitation, rapid ocean acidification, thawing of permafrost, collapse of animal reproduction.


In preparation for tonight’s talk, I just finished reading Naomi Klein’s breathtaking new book, This Changes Everything. In a nutshell, it’s about how the climate crisis can only be solved if we change everything about the way we are living on planet Earth, and that nothing short of the largest pro-democracy mobilization in the history of the world is going to be required to resolve this crisis. I couldn’t agree more. I only wish that Naomi Klein was aware of the Community Rights movement when she wrote the book, because the proposals she makes could best be instituted by a rights-based movement working first at the local level. I plan to send her a copy of this speech, and see if we might be able to recruit her! And in the meantime, I urge you to find a copy of her book, and read it cover to cover. It’s a terrific read.


Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to her book, This Changes Everything.


“I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my ‘elite’ frequent flyer status.


A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke (‘more signs of the apocalypse!’). Which is another way of looking away.


Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which…is yet another way of looking away.


Or we look but try to be hyper-rational about it (‘dollar for dollar it’s more efficient to focus on economic development than climate change, since wealth is the best protection from weather extremes’) – as if having a few more dollars will make much difference when your city is underwater. Which is a way of looking away if you happen to be a policy wonk.


Or we look but tell ourselves we are too busy to care about something so distant and abstract – even though we saw the water in the subways in New York City, and the people on their rooftops in New Orleans, and know that no one is safe, the most vulnerable least of all. And though perfectly understandable, this too is a way of looking away.


Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much ‘bad energy’ and it will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.


Or maybe we do look – really look – but then, inevitably – we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right.


We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. … And we don’t have to do anything to bring about this future. All we have to do is nothing. Just continue to do what we are doing now, whether it’s counting on a techno-fix or tending to our gardens or telling ourselves we’re unfortunately too busy to deal with it.


All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.


There are ways of preventing this grim future, or at least making it a lot less dire. But the catch is that these also involve changing everything.”


So, I ask myself, what exactly would it look like for us to change everything here in the United States, at a time when our nation more and more resembles a corporate oligarchy with each passing month? Clearly, transforming our society so that it becomes truly sustainable isn’t going to happen overnight, and yet we really don’t have much of a grace period either. As you have probably already heard, the scientific consensus is that we absolutely have to keep the planet’s warming trend to below the target of 2 degrees Celsius, which will require the world’s wealthy countries to cut their emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10% a year – so that means we need to start this year! … In the past, this level of emission reduction has happened only in the context of economic collapse or deep depressions. …


In my opinion, the very first and most important task on our grand to-do list is to stop lying to ourselves about what’s really going on with our government, and why it’s doing such a lousy job of responding to our needs and protecting our rights. Let me tell you what I see when I look at the activism that is taking place day after day across this country. And it’s not pretty.


Every day, I am bombarded by emails and articles and news stories that all make the same assumption. Most of my politically active friends make this same assumption. Virtually all of the environmental and labor and social justice organizations in the country make the same assumption. It’s an assumption that I don’t think is true.


What is the assumption? It’s that we live in a society that was designed to function democratically, but that it has been overtaken by greedy corporate leaders and corrupt politicians. And that we simply have to push back on corporate power and elect better people to public office, and things will start to function well again. How can I tell that all of these people and groups are making this assumption? It’s actually surprisingly easy. I simply watch their activism.


For example, if you were to live in a society where the government and its structures of law were truly designed to serve We The People, then your activism would closely match the activism we see all around us. You would vote. You would work within the regulatory process to show your concerns about what corporations were doing regarding agriculture, forestry, labor, energy, commerce, and media. When the political class was making decisions that you were convinced were the wrong ones, you would sign online petitions, you would march and rally in front of government or corporate offices, you would write submissions for or testify at public hearings organized by state and federal regulatory agencies, you would take corporations or government to court when the people’s will was not being served. That’s basically the sort of activism that I notice is happening all around me, where people generally appear to believe that the system is there to serve them, or they wouldn’t keep doing what they’re doing. Right?


On the other hand, if you were to live in a society where the government and its structures of law were DESIGNED to serve the ruling elite, you would already understand that working within the existing system of government would not get you the desired results. You would already understand that your elected officials – at least those at the state and federal level – are there to serve the ruling elite, not you, so it’s unlikely that you would plead with them to do the right thing. You would already understand that the courts are generally rigged in favor of the 1%, so you would have very low expectations about the courts ruling in your favor.


In this situation, it’s quite likely that you’d feel so frustrated and angry and powerless that you would probably be completely turned off to the official processes available to you, which I believe explains the behavior of the vast majority of us in this country.


Or, it’s also possible that you would see through the mirage of allowable activism, and would still choose to participate, but your activism would follow very different contours, which I believe describes the behavior of a significant minority of us in this country.


In either of these last two scenarios, you would already understand that the regulatory agencies are also not what they appear to be. That to the untrained eye, it may look like the government has appointed officials who take the public’s concerns very seriously before making their decisions. But in fact the entire structure of regulatory law was designed behind closed doors with leaders of the railroad industry in the 1880’s as a new and clever way to keep the public as far as possible from where the actual decisions were being made. In fact, when the system was first implemented, it worked so well for the railroad industry that one industry after another demanded its own regulatory agency. If you already understood all of this, you would choose to NOT play the game, because you would realize that the system was rigged, by design. Not broken. Rigged!


But here’s the kicker: Virtually every activist group in this country today is playing this rigged game. They’re packing regulatory hearings. They’re marching and rallying on single issue after single issue. They’re suing government agencies and corporations. They’re signing endless online petitions to government and corporate leaders.


The various movements that are active in this country to protect our climate are doing exactly the same kinds of activism. No wonder our climate crisis is getting worse and worse and worse.


What the heck is going on? The conclusion that I have come to is that most of us really do believe that if we keep doing the same thing we are currently doing, somehow the results are going to be different in the future than they have been in the past. That somehow, if we just pack one more public hearing about oil trains, or if we can collect 50,000 signatures to beg the governor to stop the latest mine, then finally our leaders will see the light. This is the behavior of a person whose mind has been colonized. We the People of the United States of America have been fed a big lie, and we’ve bought it – hook line and sinker. I know we have – because our activism proves it.


Our government is doing a lousy job of serving our needs. Everyone knows that. But it’s not because greedy corporate leaders and corrupt politicians stole our democracy. It’s because our system of government was actually designed, right from the start, to serve the elite, and it has been working quite well ever since. James Madison was the primary drafter of the current US Constitution. He believed that the new constitutional system had to be designed so as to ensure that the government will, and I quote, “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Those are James Madison’s words.


The Founding Fathers were determined that the nation would not operate as a functioning democracy. That’s why the U.S. Constitution says nothing about the rights of people. It’s all about property and commerce. The Bill of Rights and the other amendments were added later, because the rabble – that’s us – were outraged about what was left out.


In modern law, if you want to look at one of the places where elite rule is functioning exceptionally well, you need look no further than our regulatory agencies. There are a breathtaking number of them!


Their function hasn’t changed much since the 1880’s. Regulatory agencies regulate corporate behavior. The only problem is – the agencies are run by the industries that regulate them. … The agency directors tend to be in revolving doors with their industries. … Regulatory law is written by those who are regulated. … You couldn’t make this stuff up!


You may be shocked to realize how many departments of our government - that most people believe are serving us - are actually run by the captains of industry. Here’s a sampling.


At the federal level, there’s the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Labor Relations Board, and the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture, and the Federal Communications Commission, and the Department of Energy, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Trade Commission, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among others.


And here in Minnesota you’ve got the Pollution Control Agency, and the Department of Agriculture, and the Board of Animal Health, and the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the Department of Labor and Industry, and the Department of Natural Resources, among others.


So let’s say you’re a Minnesota resident concerned about catastrophic climate destabilization. Well, you would probably contact your state or federal Department of Agriculture to let them know that you want fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides to be banned. …… Or you may think it’s a good idea to contact the Federal Communications Commission to ask them to stop oil and gas corporations from drowning our airwaves in lies about renewable energy. …… Or you might be told to contact the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to urge them to stop allowing dangerous oil trains on the rail lines that pass through your community.


Do you see the problem with this scenario? You will have just spent a lot of your time and energy interacting with a structure of law that is entirely run by the corporations, and for the benefit of the corporations. You’re on their playing field. You’re playing by their rules. You’ve already lost the game. No wonder the climate crisis just keeps getting worse.


I have been teaching and organizing about community vs corporate “rights” for almost twenty years now, and when I talk about this in my workshops, I’m always impressed by how many folks experience a huge wave of relief. Many folks say to me  – No wonder it always seems like such an uphill battle to get our leaders to listen to us. Now I finally get it why a public hearing on mining or fracking or oil trains or big box stores could be filled to capacity by local residents opposed to the corporate plan, but the plan would get approved anyway. Workshoppers would tell me that this new information was like a breath of fresh air for them, that finally they can stop blaming themselves for the endless failures to stop one corporate atrocity after another.


As we start to realize that our assumptions are not true about how our government really operates, the waking up begins. The process of letting go of our assumptions can take some serious twists and turns, as we acknowledge to ourselves and to those around us that our leaders are not actually our leaders after all. This painful realization can come as quite a blow to our psyches, and we may need to allow ourselves some time to grieve, … to feel angry, … or depressed.


My colleague and friend Betsy Barnum says that the current structure of law keeps “We the People docile, passive, and even hopeless.” She says, “When we can see through the current system and how it has deliberately disempowered us, something wakes up inside, at least potentially. The lid comes off the box, limitations on our own capacities such as creativity and imagination – limitations that we assumed were natural and permanent – get released, and all kinds of things are possible that were never possible before, simply because we couldn’t see them due to being inside that box.” That as we learn to contradict the story “that we are selfish, greedy and violent by nature – [it] opens up another whole, vast field of possibility for creating together - trying what we can do and make when we join our capacities together for the sake of the greater good of our communities.” That this shift in perspective has the potential to truly be “both revolutionary and evolutionary.”


This perspective is exciting to me on many levels, because once we can come to terms with the fact that we’re living in a “Democracy Theme Park”, where there are lots of levers and foot pedals, but none of them are connected to anything real, we can begin to imagine a different kind of citizen participation where we no longer give our power away as We The People. Where we instead devise systems and structures of law where the levers and foot pedals ARE attached to something real. I tend to refer to that real something as self-governing authority. Very few of us even know what those words mean. For some, those words may be just as scary as the current hall of mirrors. But for me, it’s more hopeful than anything else that I can imagine!


I want to live in a society where the decisions are being made by the people who are most directly impacted by those decisions. To me, that’s self-governing authority. And that’s what the Community Rights movement is all about.


I have been doing this work since 1997, helping communities to learn how to reign in corporate constitutional so-called “rights”, and enshrine the community’s right to govern itself, through a new and very bold kind of lawmaking. And what I continue to witness is that there is more ripeness in this country today than I have ever seen before. By ripeness, I mean a willingness to let go of some very large assumptions about how we are supposed to live - both as citizens of this country and of Mother Earth, as well as a real readiness to directly participate in those dramatic changes. People are more ready today to abandon conventional activism than I have ever witnessed in my many decades of social movement work.


I want to urge those of you who are active to not give up on the huge majority of Americans who aren’t. These people aren’t apathetic – they’re waiting for something that actually addresses the reality of the current state of our institutions. And boy oh boy do we need to see big changes in that department! Our so-called leaders clearly aren’t leading, so we need a new plan.


Here’s another excerpt from the introduction to Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything:


“Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings. The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions that can be put off pretty much indefinitely. Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts. But we need not be spectators in all this: politicians aren’t the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.


Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionists turned it into one. … Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. … Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. …. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.


In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one.


Naomi Klein goes on to say that through conversations with others in the growing climate justice movement, she began to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalyzing force for positive change – how it could be the best argument we citizens have ever had to insist on fundamental changes to how our society functions, and who’s in charge.


This point is further developed by Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Oakland, California based Asian Pacific Environmental Network, when she says,


“The climate justice fight here in the U.S. and around the world is not just a fight against the [biggest] ecological crisis of all time. It is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world that we want. We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to gain. … We are bound together in this battle, not just for a reduction in the parts per million of CO2, but to transform our economies and rebuild a world that we want today.”


When I look at the Community Rights movement’s growth over the past fifteen years – and when I look at the cultural changes that are so urgently required to tackle the climate crisis – what I see is a match made in heaven. Because I am absolutely convinced that the climate crisis can best be addressed not at the federal level, not at the state level, but at the local level, at least initially. What we need to build is a massive democracy movement - of towns, cities, and counties declaring their right to govern themselves, and to pass local laws that transform them into ecologically sustainable and socially just places, with the bold goal of becoming entirely fossil-fuel free within the next few decades. This is the stuff that gets me so darn excited.


Let me give you a brief snapshot of the Community Rights movement….


It started in the very small rural conservative farm community of Wells Township, Pennsylvania, which had grown weary of trying to stop a factory farm corporation from placing 15,000 hogs in its township, using the only political process that the farmers had been told was an option – pleading with a regulatory agency – the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Once they realized that regulatory agencies allow and regulate corporate activities, rather than prohibit them, regardless of what the community wants, they took the incredibly courageous step of passing a local law that banned factory farms, which was illegal and unconstitutional under our existing structures of law.


It was illegal because it violated state preemption and Dillon’s Rule, which both limit the power and authority of local self-government. … And it was unconstitutional because it violated the factory farm corporation’s so-called constitutional “rights”. … This is the playing field that U.S. communities find themselves in because of a number of outrageous structures of law that prohibit local elected leaders from protecting the health and welfare of the communities they have pledged to serve.


The Wells Township supervisors decided that they cared more about defending the health and welfare of their small community, than they worried about the consequences of breaking an unjust law. And in fact, the corporation pulled its application and went elsewhere.


Within a few years, twenty rural conservative farm communities in Pennsylvania had passed identical laws, banning non-family owned corporations from engaging in farming or owning farmland. That’s how the Community Rights movement began, in 1999, in a small township of about 500 people. Fast-forward fifteen years, and there are now about 200 communities and counties in nine states that have passed Community Rights laws. Each local rights-based law accomplishes three extraordinary things:


1) It prohibits a specific corporate activity that is currently legal and is therefore regulated under state or federal law, but which the local community considers too harmful to allow – such as fracking, factory farms, large-scale water withdrawals, sludge dumping, oil trains, GMO agriculture, etc.


2) It strips that particular sector of corporations of all of their so-called constitutional “rights”.


And 3) It enshrines the right of a local town, city, or county, to pass whatever laws it believes are required, to protect the health and welfare of the human and non-human residents of that local place.


These laws have been passed in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. They are locally enforceable. They have all stopped significant corporate harm dead in its tracks.


In New Hampshire, in response to a proposed high-voltage transmission line from Quebec, a handful of small towns have passed locally enforceable Right to Sustainable Energy Future ordinances that would prohibit any corporate activity that meets their local definition of “unsustainable energy systems”. Intriguingly, even industrial wind power would be banned in these communities, unless it was “locally or municipally owned and operated”.


Across a number of states - many small towns, as well as the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have passed Right to Water ordinances that ban fracking. Mendocino County, California passed their fracking ban this past November, becoming the first Community Rights ordinance ever to become law in the state of California.


In Benton County, Oregon, on May 19 of this year, 2015, voters will have the opportunity to pass a law that would ban all GMO agriculture in the county. Their local ordinance would establish a locally enforceable Right to a Local Food System, a Right to Seed Heritage, a Right to Self-Government, as well as Rights of Natural Communities.


And in Columbia County, Oregon, the local Community Rights group plans to ask voters later this year to pass an ordinance that would ban all oil and gas trains through their county. It would also ban any fossil fuel exports to China from their local port on the Columbia River. It would enshrine into law, among other things, a Right to Climate, …  and a Right to Local Community Self-Government.


These are just a few of the 200 communities in those nine states that have passed these ordinances in the past fifteen years. 95% of these communities have never been challenged in court. The organization that pioneered this legally groundbreaking work is the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Until recently, I worked in partnership with this very impressive group, and am now in the process of setting up a brand new national Community Rights support organization that will soon be offering a second option for local communities that wish to launch Community Rights ordinance campaigns. This organization will provide trainings in organizing, campaign support, and how to sustain a group over many years, as well as legal support in the writing and defending of a Community Rights ordinance.




We could stop pleading with our government and corporate leaders to protect us, and instead start passing local laws that set enforceable standards that could take us to a post-fossil-fuel economy. We could stop begging our senators and congress people to vote No on fast track authority for the latest global corporate trade treaty outrage – the Trans-Pacific (so-called) Partnership, and instead pass local laws that nullify the enforceability of this treaty within the boundaries of our communities. Over the next few years, as the so-called leaders from all over the world meet yet again to discuss how to respond to the climate crisis, there could already be hundreds and then thousands of American communities that are leaping past the deadlocked climate negotiations, and are already drastically cutting their own local carbon emissions, towards creating carbon-neutral communities within the next few decades.


You think I’m being unrealistic? Frankfurt and Munich, Germany have pledged to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and 2025, respectively. And Germany gets way less sun than does much of the US, and yet its government is aiming for 55-60% renewables by 2035 – that’s just twenty years from now. If Germany can do it, so can we!


In fact, many communities and entire countries are moving forward now with very ambitious cuts in carbon emissions – some through policy, others through effective nonviolent direct action. Some of them include Greenburg Kansas, Austin Texas, Sacramento California, the state of New York, and the countries of Greece, Denmark, Nigeria, Costa Rica, and France.


Many credible studies exist showing that wealthy countries can shift all, or almost all, of their energy infrastructure to renewables within a 20 to 40 year time frame. One of the studies offered a groundbreaking detailed roadmap for how 100% of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water, and solar resources, by as early as 2030 – that’s just fifteen years from now. The plan includes not only power generation but also transportation as well as heating and cooling.


Mark Jacobson, who co-authored the study that was published in 2013 in the journal Energy Policy, says “This really involves a large scale transformation. It would require an effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system. But it is possible, without even having to go to new technologies. We really need to just decide collectively that this is the direction we want to head as a society.”


There have been two main stumbling blocks here in the U.S. The first stumbling block is that, decade after decade, our so-called leaders have had other priorities.


The second stumbling block I have already discussed – that We the People have continued to wait, decade after decade, for our federal government to act decisively, while we’ve continued to march and rally and demand and plead and beg. Clearly, it’s time to try something else. Clearly, our leaders are not our leaders after all. … Perhaps we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for!


And Naomi Klein reminds us that, “During extraordinary historical moments – both world wars, the aftermath of the Great Depression, or the peak of the civil rights era – the usual categories dividing ‘activists’ and ‘regular people’ became meaningless because the project of changing society was so deeply woven in the project of life. Activists were, quite simply, everyone.”


We are certainly not there yet, nor are we even close. But I do believe that a Community Rights approach to this crisis could dramatically change this equation in our favor.


I’m guessing that, by now, some of you must be thinking that it would be pretty darn likely that large corporations would sue the communities that passed such bold ordinances, or that the state would never allow it in the first place


In response, let me ask you a question:

* Which of these scenarios is more frightening to you: your community getting sued for protecting itself? Or the consequences of catastrophic climate destabilization making our planet uninhabitable for our species in the future?


I’ll repeat that question:

* Which of these scenarios is more frightening to you: your community getting sued for protecting itself? Or the consequences of catastrophic climate destabilization making our planet uninhabitable for our species in the future?


It should be obvious by now how those 200 communities in nine states answered that question – the ones that have already passed legally-groundbreaking Community Rights ordinances that enshrine local self-governing authority and ban harmful corporate activities. All of these communities knew they were breaking the law, but they proceeded anyway, because they valued the rights of their own communities over the so-called constitutional “rights” of corporations. We call this form of local law-making an act of municipal civil disobedience.


Let’s not forget what the purpose of a REAL government is. It’s right there at the very beginning of every state constitution. The language is a remnant from the American Revolution. Here’s how the Minnesota state constitution begins:


Article One: Bill of Rights

Section One: Object of Government

Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, … in whom all political power is inherent, … together with the right to alter, modify or reform government … whenever required by the public good.


In other words, government exists to serve us! It’s instituted to protect us! All political power is inherent in We the People. That’s us! And if government isn’t serving us, we have the authority to make whatever changes are necessary in government to serve the public good. The language could not be clearer! And really, if you think about it, that’s all these 200 communities are doing!


Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln, saying pretty much the same thing. He spoke these words in 1861 on his very first day in office as President:


“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”


What an extraordinarily brave thing for a president to say! Now THIS guy was a real leader!


What would it look like, what would it feel like, if we Americans really started to believe these words again? How might that impact our capacity individually and collectively, to shift our behavior from activist to citizen?


All great social movements started somewhere local. For example, the abolitionist movement that set out to end slavery across this country started in 1688 when German and Dutch Quakers of Mennonite descent made a public protest against slavery in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and published the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, which was the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal human rights for everyone. …


The American Revolution started in rural Massachusetts in 1774, when one town and then another decided that they’d had their fill of unresponsive and unaccountable rule from the British monarchy across a vast ocean, and they began to force the King’s appointed local judges and council members to resign en masse or face banishing from the places where they lived.


For example, on September 6, 1774, in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts, thousands of militiamen closed the county courts without firing a single shot, making it impossible for the appointed British judges to do their jobs. And a month later, on October 4, 1774, the town meeting of Worcester declared that British rule was over and it was time to form a new government, not answerable to the Crown and Parliament. These are the actual moments that launched the American Revolution. The people had finally reached a place in their lived experience of British rule that they understood that if government does not serve The People, it is not legitimate and needs to be replaced.


I believe that we are again in a very similar situation to what the people of Massachusetts experienced in 1774. Our government serves the corporations. Our Supreme Court serves the 1%. Therefore, when we find ourselves in a quickening crisis such as catastrophic climate destabilization, and when we come to understand that our national and state governments are either unwilling or unable to act boldly in the ways that are necessary to respond to this urgency, we have to consider the possibility that it is once again time for We the People to exercise our inherent right of self-government and get on with the task at hand.


We in the Community Rights movement have already reached that moment of ripeness. …We invite you to join us. Our growing collection of towns, cities and counties has declared, under law, that we have the authority to protect our health and welfare, and the rights of our residents (human and otherwise) regardless of whether our state and federal governments are comfortable with our actions. … I am proud to be a leading teacher and organizer in this historic movement.


Here’s another quote from a previous president of the United States:


“God forbid we should be twenty years without a rebellion. What country can preserve its liberties if the rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”


Thomas Jefferson said that in 1787, while he was President! Another very gutsy leader!


As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, what I am proposing tonight is perhaps the most ambitious expansion of community self-government since the American Revolution. I am proposing a massive program of collaboration between the various climate change protection groups and the Community Rights movement – with the goal of transforming local community governance across the nation so that every community is offered the support it would need to participate in this absolutely massive mobilization of communities passing visionary laws that are themselves municipal acts of civil disobedience. For this to become a reality, existing climate change movements would first have to learn a lot more about our rights-based approach, to determine for themselves if this is a direction worth exploring. I am available to participate in those conversations.


As a first step, I will have succeeded in my very ambitious goals this evening only if at least ten of you who are active in climate protection groups are ready by the end of my talk to raise your hands and pledge to all of us in this room that you will take the lead in bringing these ideas to your groups, and ideally also becoming a leading voice in moving this work forward where you live in the months and years to come. I will ask for a show of hands near the end of my talk tonight, and I will request that you leave your full contact info with me, at the book table in the back. So start asking yourselves if you might perhaps be one of those ten folks!


And to those of you who are hearing my speech via the nationally syndicated show, Alternative Radio, I am hoping that many of you will also be contacting me soon to find out how YOU can become a leading voice in the effort to link the climate protection movement and the Community Rights movement, in order to start passing first dozens and then hundreds and then thousands of local rights-based laws that shift decision-making authority from corporate directors and corporatized politicians to We the People in the local places where we live, so that finally we can all become the leaders we were always meant to be.


We may not yet have built sufficient political power to stop entire oil pipelines from being built, or to ban “oil bomb” trains from our nation’s tracks, or to stop fracking everywhere, but we DO already have the capacity to stop these toxic activities where we live in the very immediate future, as I have already described in some of the existing Community Rights law-making. And that’s a heckuva good place to start!


And we also have some extraordinary revolutionary law and history on our side, to help the public understand that what we are proposing has – in a sense – been done before. Did you know, for example, that the American Revolution was, to a large degree, an anti-corporate rule revolution? The original thirteen colonies were Crown corporations, ruled by the British monarchy. So immediately after the revolution, the founders subordinated the newly redesigned business corporation, and defined what it was allowed to do and to be.


Continuing for almost a century, business corporations were prohibited from donating money to candidates or elected officials in government. (In fact, this was still considered a felony in Wisconsin until 1953.) … Corporations were also prohibited from donating money to civic and charitable organizations. … Corporations did not yet have a recognized voice, a right to speak – which translated as no political or commercial speech. … Corporate directors and stockholders were held fully liable for all harms and debts – no limited liability. … Corporations existed at the whim of the state via a limited corporate charter, which could be revoked at any time and for any reason by a state legislature. … So let’s remember what has already been accomplished in our nation’s history and not think that we have to reinvent the wheel, every time we are trying to protect our communities and our world from corporate harm.


Let’s think really big, and imagine how we could be using rights-based local law-making to put business corporations back in their historically subordinate role, which would also give us the boost we need to start phasing out carbon-intensive activities, and phasing in renewable energy for all of our needs – such as transportation, food, manufacturing, and more.


Naomi Klein says, “There is no doubt that moving to renewables represents more than just a shift in power sources but also a fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend.” That’s an important detail to keep in mind as we learn to ask ourselves – What sort of community – what sort of society – do we most deeply long for?


I have taken the liberty of writing up a pretty substantial list of ideas for local ordinance topics. When you go home tonight, you can find a copy of this full list on my website at PaulCienfuegos.com. I’m going to share with you a shorter version of it now.


As I share these suggestions, notice the feelings that arise in your body – are they feelings of excitement? Of trepidation? … Do these ideas make you feel more hopeful about the future, or do they scare or overwhelm you? … I am asking you to notice your body reaction because what is required for us to tackle the climate crisis is a very … big … deal, as we stop waiting for our leaders to lead, and instead imagine ourselves as the leaders we’ve been waiting for. And everyone who is confronted by what is required is going to experience strong feelings and reactions. So part of our work is to give ourselves and each other the emotional space we need to grieve … or get angry … or feel some fear … or whatever each of us needs, to prepare ourselves for the work ahead.


Here’s my abbreviated list of local ordinance ideas…….


* Requiring local lending institutions to provide low-interest loans to individuals and companies proposing carbon-neutral developments, and also prohibiting those institutions from lending money to any new fossil-fuel development projects


* Establishing new local gas taxes at the pump, with all money being used to fund rapid expansion of community-based renewable energy projects and public transit


* Nullifying the local enforceability of global trade treaties that violate the community’s right of self-governance or its health and welfare


* Prohibiting corporations doing business locally from donating to any candidates or elected officials, or participating in any way in ballot initiative or referendum campaigns


* Prohibiting corporations doing business locally from donating to, or partnering with, non-profit and advocacy organizations


* Prohibiting any further local fossil fuel extraction, pipelines, coal or oil trains and barges through the community


* Recognizing, honoring, and enforcing Native treaty-protected rights to the local land and waters


* Implementing “polluter pays” principles by passing steep carbon taxes for local industry


* Requiring local grocery stores to reserve a growing percentage of their shelf space for products grown or produced within 500 miles, phased in over five to ten years


* Raising the level of local taxation for the affluent, and for large corporations doing business locally, and using that money to upgrade and repair crumbling local infrastructure, and to improve local and regional public transit options


* Establishing the community’s locally enforceable right to clean air, water, and soil, the right to a stable climate, and the right to a sustainable energy future


* Ending all local government subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry


* Recognizing local natural areas as having enforceable rights to exist, flourish and evolve


* Using Eminent Domain laws to seize corporate property and place it under local public control whenever the corporate directors refuse to cooperate with the community’s objectives


* In ‘Transition Town’ communities that have already written an Energy Descent Action Plan, embedding the existing plan into a local ordinance, with annual enforceable deadlines, that brings the community close to 100% renewables within ten to twenty years


* Prohibiting any increase in the number of flights passing through the local airport, and establishing a new tax on all local flights, with all money being used to fund new high-speed rail or other low-carbon transportation options


* Requiring that all containerized products sold in local stores be fully returnable, truly recyclable or compostable, phased in over five to ten years


* Prohibiting the privatization of local utilities, and if necessary, reversing previous privatizations, to bring decision-making authority back under local public control


* Establishing local feed-in tariff programs that encourage small non-corporate players to become renewable energy providers – such as farms, local governments, and cooperatives


* Implementing democratic planning and decision-making authority at the neighborhood level


And last but definitely not least….


* Prohibiting local media from accepting advertising from fossil fuel companies …..


Again, the expanded list can be found on my website at PaulCienfuegos.com. Now I’m going to pause for a moment, to give everyone a chance to catch your breath!


I’ll bet some of you are feeling pretty skeptical about how realistic it is for us to achieve many of the things on my list. So I’ll take this moment to remind you that 200 communities and counties in nine states have already taken this very courageous plunge into new legal territory, and have already begun to take back their authority to define what their communities are going to look like in the future. Yes, it has taken every one of those places a heck of a lot of work to get those laws passed. But each and every community concluded that they would rather pass laws to protect their health and welfare – laws that are not yet recognized as legal by other branches of government - rather than risk allowing endless new corporate assaults on their communities.


I have been searching for a more powerful solution to the climate crisis, but I haven’t found one yet. So this is the strategy I am committed to. How about you?


Yes, this is bold work. And it starts with a tremendous amount of public education – first done internally among those who are committing to do the teaching and the organizing; and then externally – initially and most effectively as one-on-one conversations with people we already know, … and then in house party settings, where people can trust each other enough to really open up and listen to one another.


And yes, this is ultimately also paradigm shifting work as we ask some of the toughest questions that can be asked, such as:

* What would it look like for us to start living as if we really understood that economic growth can no longer continue on this finite planet floating in deep space?


* How do we put the brakes on, and then rapidly and drastically turn the ship around, to create something that looks a lot less like The Great Depression and a lot more like what Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning”?


* What would it look like for We the People to actually govern ourselves?


The truth is - when We decide that we are ready to implement sweeping changes in our society, it can happen with astonishing speed. In recent years, we’ve witnessed this many times. Examples include the astonishingly rapid legalizing of gay and lesbian marriage in almost two-thirds of the states, and the astonishingly rapid legalizing of medical and recreational marijuana across the country. So we know that rapid change is possible, when the culture is ripe for the change to occur. And I believe the culture is ripe.


So what would it take to build a rights-based movement like this across the country? Well, each state has its own rules about what kinds of law-making are allowed at the local level. Here’s a very brief introduction.


In about half of the states, the public has the right to propose and directly pass laws at the local and state level through what’s called initiative and referendum, and our movement has won many Community Rights initiatives through the ballot box in a number of states. Minnesota is one of the states that does not allow its citizens to make law directly through the ballot box, but this could be changed by amending your state constitution, which would require a lot of work over a number of years, but would be well worth the effort.


In addition, about two-thirds of the states are Home Rule states, which means that your local governments are allowed to write their own mini-constitutions, which, in principle should give you more self-governing authority. But if you try to pass any local rights-based laws through your Home Rule Charter, you will quickly run up against state preemption and Dillon’s Rule. Minnesota is a Home Rule state, but only allows cities to participate, not towns or counties. Go figure!


This legal mumbo jumbo is actually part of the problem, as it forms a seemingly impenetrable barrier to local self-government, which is, again, by design, not by accident. Again, the 1% who wrote all of these laws would much prefer that the rest of us are kept as far away from the levers of power as possible. And therefore, the most effective way to claim our authority as the sovereign people, as community majorities, is to refuse to abide by these unjust and illegitimate structures of law that violate our inherent right to govern ourselves.


In some communities where the ballot box is not an option, it may require finding allies who are prepared to run for local office pledging to pass these laws. That’s what the Community Rights Alliance of Winneshiek County, Iowa is currently doing, having recently succeeded at electing one of their two candidates for county government, but still needing one or two more to make it over the hurdle to pass their ban on frac sand mining as a violation of their right to clean air, water, and soil, and their right to a sustainable energy future.


You won’t hear me claiming that this work is going to be easy. But the wins, when they come, are huge, because our goal is nothing less than to knock down these unjust and illegitimate structures of law. And frankly, nothing less will suffice, given the ecological and social crises that need to be addressed - and soon!


Earlier this evening, I announced that I was looking for ten people who are active in climate protection groups to raise their hands and pledge to take the lead in bringing these ideas to their groups, and becoming a leading voice in the effort to bring the climate change movement and the Community Rights movement together in your community, and to launch a campaign that begins to model local rights-based law-making solutions to the climate crisis. This is your moment. If you raise your hand, you are letting me know that you are potentially willing to make a multi-year commitment to this work where you live. And of course, I would also be making an ongoing commitment to work with you to give you the support you will need. Are you out there in the audience?


I’ve put a sheet of paper in the back of the hall on my book table for you to leave your name and contact information. Thank you!!!!! I will be in touch with all of you very soon, and will be back in Minnesota in April, and again this Summer.


In addition, a number of clipboards are passing through the hall right now. Please leave me your contact info if you would like to be contacted when I lead my next workshop in your area. Thank you!


I would like to close my talk by sharing a vision I had when I was writing my speech this past week – a vision of what the next fifty years (and beyond) might look like if we did our work well in the places that we live.


First, I imagined small towns and big city neighborhoods becoming the places where bold and creative ideas had originated, and were then tossed around and shaped and reshaped, ultimately floating in wider and wider spirals until they became common knowledge, and were then passed into law in dozens of communities, then hundreds of communities, and then finally, thousands of communities. …


I imagined how these laws had transformed all of these places – with folks who normally would never have met - finding themselves in close working relationships - and agreeing about a surprising number of things, especially when they stayed focused on their deepest longings for the kind of community they wanted to create for their children to thrive in.


Then I imagined what might be going on in those communities fifty years from now - when at least some of us here today will still be alive. I imagined young people hearing the stories from their elders about how The People stopped waiting for others to lead and started becoming leaders themselves, and what a huge difference that made in the speed at which we were able to change how we lived and how we produced energy and food and how we moved ourselves from place to place.


And that the biggest and most significant change of all, we had come to realize, was learning how to trust ourselves enough to take back our authority to govern ourselves. That once enough of us had awakened to our own power as The People, the rest was almost a piece of cake.


The kids grew up thinking that this was normal – for the adults to directly tackle whatever really big community issues arose. It hadn’t felt easy or normal at all for the grown-ups, at least not at first. But they mostly pulled it off with great humility and kindness and patience.


And last but definitely not least, I imagined that people had started to notice that the giant floods and droughts and hurricanes and wildfires had stopped growing in scale, and people were beginning to celebrate as they started to believe that they were finally experiencing the roughest edge of their badly destabilized climate, which might still continue at this pace for another few generations, but was unlikely to get much worse. And people were starting to tell stories to each other about what the world might be like in another 200 years, as the climate finally began once again to stabilize. And what an extraordinary period that next 200 years was going to be for everyone who was alive to watch it unfold, as the extreme weather events came less and less frequently. …


As we engage in this work, it is critical that we give ourselves a story of that work being successful. We need to believe deep in our hearts that we can indeed turn this crisis around, even if it takes a few hundred years. For it is our deep and abiding love for this beautiful sphere of living earth, and our equally deep and abiding love for the local places where we live, that will ground us and feed us during these very intense next years and decades. …


As Naomi Klein so eloquently states in her book, “If each of us loved our home place enough to defend it, there would be no ecological crisis, … no place could ever be written off as a sacrifice zone.” …


It’s time to stand up and say NO to the pipelines. NO to the coal and oil trains. NO to deep water drilling and Arctic drilling. NO to fossil fuel export terminals. NO to fracking and frac sand mining. NO to the Alberta Tar Sands and the Bakken oil fields. NO to the Keystone XL pipeline and the Enbridge pipeline. Not in my backyard. Not in anyone’s backyard. NO! …


It’s also time to stand up and say YES to a steady state zero-growth economy. YES to living in balance with the rest of nature. YES to Indigenous land rights. YES to 100% renewable energy. YES to living in a world that is safe, just, and at peace.


We can do this. We must do this. It is time.


Thank you so much!!!

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