There is no escape from the impact of our extractive economy because our political economy is managed for the narrow benefit of the already powerful.
The social contract has saved us from a Hobbesian state of nature: war of all against all. Or war of some against all. By sacrificing the individual freedom to wage war against one’s neighbor, we gain peace as a society in return; the right to the physical security of one’s person is inviolate. Yet that security is undermined by the very rules of business that knit together our culture. The freedom to earn a profit from one’s neighbor is a right that allows for harm. One’s land, neighborhood and environment are at constant risk from the whims of private enterprise. Our bodies may be safe, but the ground we stand on is not.
In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon defined the opposing sides, “the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation.” The New York Times reported in May on the plight of the Crawford family, whose land in North Texas was condemned under the right of eminent domain by a foreign corporation, TransCanada, the company building the Keystone XL pipeline. This was a seizure of private land for private interests upheld by a Texas court on August 22. Six days later, seven activists were arrested after locking themselves to the axle of a TransCanada truck carrying pipe to the construction zone. Our government has saved us from one kind of war but not from another: the war of extraction. The appetites of some people are indeed at war against all others.
To justify the sacrifice of families like the Crawfords, we employ spurious arguments of utilitarianism: the Crawfords suffer so that the country can prosper from cheap energy and jobs. The unfortunate consequences come in the name of progress – and the argument begins to reek, because it’s hiding a truth whose foundation we claim to despise: our economy is managed for the benefit of corporate and plutocratic interests.
There is a great cost that goes uncounted. Gone is the time when families could choose to live beyond reach of the mad consumerist existence. Gone is the time when those of us who choose not to live in cities can find solace and raise children in places protected from the war of extraction. If the hand of commerce does not touch a place directly, then its effects do. The warming of our planet is killing the pine forests of North America, a continental swath that stretches from Mexico to Canada. Travel to Colorado and witness for yourself the devastation unfolding in the Rockies. And on what ledger do we see the true cost of the pipeline or of the dying forest? Nearly all of us are like the Crawfords. We may live in New York City or in the grasslands of North Texas, but by day’s end, soot settles on the windowsill. A mother may move her child out of the Bronx to save him from asthma, but if she moves to Michigan or Louisiana or Wyoming, she risks exposing him to chemicals that may leach into the water supply from fracking. There is little she can do to protect her child, even physically. She is disenfranchised. Her adversary is either unseen or too strong, and the government is complicit. Our country claims to exalt the rights of individuals, but fails to acknowledge that the right to choose what kind of life we want has been infringed upon.
Arguments against unfettered capitalism have long been battered by labels of anti-modernist, hippie, Luddite, Marxist, romantic, utopian. But this is the rhetoric of an extractive culture poised to eliminate the chance that we can live in anything but an environment degraded by capitalism. It is the trick of a culture that has given the rights of people to corporations. Indeed, as the issue with the pipeline and the Crawfords makes clear, corporations enjoy more rights than people. “The protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers, “is the first object of government.”
But is this what government ought to be? Machiavelli warned, of course, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done sooner learns his ruin than his preservation. But ruin stalks either choice. So let us embrace an ideal and battle to extend the social contract to environmental rights.