A Healthier Democracy Starts Right Where You Live

The documentary “We the People 2.0” looks at why the rights of neighborhoods and cities are essential to building a better world.

Photo by xavierarnau / iStock.

Earlier this summer, all the households in my town received a letter from our natural gas utility informing us that our gas meters would be upgraded to “Advanced Meters.” I knew that communities in Northern California had organized against the installation of similar devices, known as smart meters, due to health concerns regarding electromagnetic radiation. To opt out we would have to pay an initial fee of $75 plus a monthly charge of $10. Since our monthly bill is often less than $10, this seemed a steep premium to avoid whatever risks the new meter might entail. Too bad our community hadn’t organized to resist installation of the new meters, I thought.

Our concerns were small ones, relatively speaking, and with our local utility, at that. Meanwhile, from Wilmington, California, to Licking Township, Pennsylvania, to Broadview Heights, Ohio, corporations engaged in mining and fracking offer residents no chance to opt out. As the film We the People 2.0 shows, communities across the country are innovating ways to oppose environmental degradation and to redress health issues that result from these extractive industries. Seeing this documentary reinforced the sensibility I’ve developed as a sociologist that collective organizing is more likely than individual actions (such as “opting out”) to produce robust environmental protections.

Why are the rights of neighborhoods and cities essential to resisting corporate-driven environmental degradation? We the People depicts the middle-class city of Broadview Heights, where Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy have developed many of the nearly 90 wells within city limits. A majority of the city’s 19,000 residents sought to oppose the companies’ rights to drill, first by turning to local government and then by involving the appropriate state and federal regulatory agencies. This process provided the community with a quick and devastating lesson in how established legal doctrine—including pre-emption, the Constitution’s commerce clause, and corporate personhood—effectively protects the interests of the oil and gas industries at the expense of community rights, autonomy, and health. As one Broadview Heights activist explains, “We thought we had a fracking problem here. We realized that, no, what we have here is a democracy problem.”

Communities across the country are innovating ways to oppose environmental degradation.

We the People highlights the role of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in organizing people like the residents of Broadview Heights. To resist environmental degradation, CELDF advocates for community rights, which include environmental rights (clean air, pure water, healthy soil), worker rights, democratic rights (including, especially, the right to local self-government), and even the rights of nature—the idea that ecosystems such as rivers have the right to exist and thrive.

This approach has produced significant achievements. For example, in 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to establish an ordinance that banned natural gas drilling, putting community decision-making and the rights of nature ahead of corporate rights. Today, CELDF reports that more than 200 communities have passed community bills of rights.

As a documentary, We the People left me with two questions. First, how does a community bill of rights avoid pre-emption? This question is fundamental, and I wish the film had spent more time explaining the legal strategies involved. Second, given the deep roots of the environmental justice movement in communities of color, why does We the People focus almost exclusively on White communities?

Why does We the People focus almost exclusively on White communities?

Midway through the movie, I found myself recalling Slawomir Grünberg’s 2002 documentary, Fenceline: A Company Town Divided, about Norco, Louisiana, where the African American community organized in response to high cancer rates associated with gas flares from the local Shell oil refinery. The film vividly depicts how Norco’s White and Black communities are divided not only by de facto segregation but also by conflicting understandings of Shell, which are rooted in inequalities of color and class that trace back across multiple generations in this company town. By contrast, the exclusive (but inadvertent, I assume) focus on White activists in We the People seems unnecessarily limiting in a film that otherwise does so much, so well.

Nevertheless, the fundamental, timely message of We the People—that meaningful action to reassert control of our health, quality of life, and democracy must be rooted in our local communities—resonates. “Right where we live,” CELDF’s Ben Price says, “is where we need to have democracy the most.” In a year when corporate media have bombarded us with nonstop presidential campaign coverage, this message is welcome and crucial.