by Walt Bresette, Lake Superior Greens, 7th Generation Committee
State and national legislatures are gutting environmental laws in a misguided effort to in response to the populist "wise use" movement and their corporate backers. The momentum is strong as the political pendulum swings against the earth.
The movement focuses on market value of private property, arguing that environmental laws are unfairly devaluing private property. A too narrow, yet effective, campaign in today's political atmosphere.
Once a fringe group, the "wise use" folks are now one of the new darlings of Congress. While some want private property owners to be compensated, others seek to remove any environmental law or regulation over private property.
Fortunately, the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution provides for some compensation. However, if the private property movement, fueled by corporate interests, have found safe haven, who is defending common property—that which provides the basis of life for all of us?
Where in the Constitution is air and water and ecosystems protected? We have an obligation to act, and our great grandchildren have a right to inherit our wealth, which certainly means more than a balanced budget.
In this rush to shore up private property rights, we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The short term solution for some creates an even greater and long term problem for us all. A fairer solution is to protect all property.
The taking of common property through abuse of private property use should be as illegal as the opposite.
Currently, common property-that, which by its nature, cannot be owned by an individual-is without protection. Yet, preservation of common property, such as air and water, are essential to all other rights.
Indeed, past environmental laws have had ambiguous constitutional authority; they were more common sense or common law. Some argue they are all reactionary, albeit necessary for the common good.
As effluents went beyond the fence line or smokestack or factory door, neighbors complained and rules and laws were promulgated. Necessary, but reactionary nonetheless. Today, when pitted against the clearer 5th Amendment protections, these laws and their protections are now endangered. Yet, the effluents continue and without regulation will increase, with very real impacts on health and habitat.
The challenge is to protect both, rather than getting rid of one at the expense of the other. In light of the obvious partisan politics afoot, what's needed is Constitutional balance, not more reactionary debate.
By adding to the definition of property we also broaden the concept of "takings," the term used in the private property debate. Common sense tells us that common property exists, and is being undermined, and needs protection, just as private property has protection.
7th Generation Amendment — Draft Language
The rights of the people to use and enjoy air, water, sunlight, and other renewable resources determined by Congress to be common property, shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for the future generations.
The taking of common property through abuse of private property use should be as illegal as the opposite. Therefore we propose a Constitutional remedy which can provide these dual protections.
In revisiting the Constitution, we found no protection for common property. But we did find a that which, when married with new language, will provide protections. The basis, we think, is in the Preamble.
The Preamble states that these constitutional rights belong not just to us alive today but also to the future: "We the People of the United States . . . secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (Emphasis added.)
This Posterity clause clearly states that our descendants are guaranteed these "Blessings of Liberty." And we must infer that while we may use them today, we have no right to expend or damage them so that they are not available for the future. Rights were legally guaranteed for future generations. This was not a typographical error nor was it a superfluous filler. We intend to enliven this clause in our effort to assure the needed protections.
Thus, as we seek common property protections, we do so not just for today, as a momentary reaction to those in power, but we become constitutionally obligated to be caretakers for generations to come.
This different vision will enable us to see the consequences of our actions differently. By protecting rights for ourselves and for posterity we provide for the baby while changing the bath water.
Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons, in an interview with Bill Moyers, said that Benjamin Franklin turned to the Iroquois among others in trying to shape a better form of government. Apparently he listened and included elements of Iroquois governance including the concept of posterity.
Franklin's posterity, found in the Preamble, was the Iroquois concept of providing for the 7th generation. Chief Lyons said that as the Iroquois leaders contemplate policy they must always factor in how today's decision will affect the 7th generation into the future.
By simply attempting reform with what is available today, we remain in a stagnated "jobs vs. environment" polarization. In these complex times we must be more creative, yes proactive, and indeed accommodate all of our interests and rights, especially those yet to come.
To that end we, the 7th Generation Committee, have developed draft language which we think overcomes this dilemma. We call it the 7th Generation Amendment to the US Constitution. It was initially called the Common Property Amendment.
Our goal is to have a national debate beginning on Earth Day 1996, to have a bill before Congress on Earth Day 1997, and to get the necessary state ratifications by Earth Day 2000.
We chose Earth Day 2000 because half of those involved are youth who will turn 18 (voting age) on or after Earth Day 2000. The only criteria we ask of their participation is that they promise to vote.
If we adults refuse to look out for the future, the children of Generation M—the Millennial Generation—will rightfully set aside. In seven generations we will all be gone.
If we can rob from the poor to give to the rich ostensibly to balance the budget to prevent an unfair future economic burden, then surely we can commit the rest of our lives so that these same Great grandchildren will have the opportunity to breathe and drink safely.
And we must always remember, water is always more precious than gold.