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Bernie and the Elephants, Part III

This is the conclusion of a three-part post where I examine the relationship between human economic inequality and environmental issues.

Part II of this post concluded by presenting Bernie Sanders (and to a lesser degree Elizabeth Warren) as the Democratic candidate most concerned with the bloated corporate power found in American economic and political institutions. While Warren has since dropped out of the race, Sanders remains and he has consistently railed against “corporations slashing wages and laying off workers, all while the richest corporate CEOs pay themselves huge bonuses”.

Indeed, according to the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978 (!) while the average worker compensation has risen a paltry 12%. Since first elected to public office in 1981, Sanders has made workers’ rights the backbone of his political platform. Few other current politicians have addressed these issues at all, nonetheless with the consistency and fervor of Sanders.

Now, whether Sanders, or any other president, could actually rattle the cage and fundamentally alter the marriage between politics and economic power is anyone’s guess. The eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills spoke of the difficulty in replacing these systems of political power due to “systemic imperatives”. Mills felt that political systems reproduce themselves since there are constraints on the power of the president, or any individual member of Congress, to make fundamental change, thus keeping the status quo in place.

Or, outside the Ivory Tower of academia, one might point to the old Southern saying that “rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide”. They won’t bite or kill themselves; others need to. The law of vested interest dictates that people won’t give up privileges voluntarily, so corporations and the politicians they support will not willingly cede power in order to create a more equitable playing field for humans or animals. But thanks to Sanders and Warren, at least it has become an issue in the center of political debates, not just the periphery. This alone gives hope.

On the contrary, President Trump has eliminated a 2% pay increase for government workers, reduced taxes on the wealthy, supported ‘right-to-work’ laws that make it difficult for unions to operate, and appointed federal judges with a history of pro-corporation, anti-worker decisions. He has also consistently rolled back environmental protections put in place by prior administrations and Congressional sessions in the (almost) four years he has been in office.

To wit, as I wrote the first segment of this post, Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency announced his agency will reduce the number of United States waterways that are protected under the federal Clean Water Act. [Tellingly, the announcement was made in Las Vegas at the National Association of Home Builders International Builder’s Show!] This is but one of many efforts made by the Trump Administration to not only ignore, but to exacerbate, environmental degradation. The U.S Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stated, “President Trump is restoring the rule of law and empowering Americans by removing undue burdens and strangling regulations from the backs of our productive farmers, ranchers, and rural land-owners. Once again, workers ‘strangled by regulations’ are pitted against our natural environment.

Changes need to be made throughout the American political system, but a good place to start would be reducing the influence of corporations in US elections. The non-partisan McCain-Feingold Act, which capped the amount of money corporations could contribute to political campaigns was a step in the right direction, but it was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The court essentially held that corporations have a First Amendment right of free speech and limiting their spending would curtail this right. The irony is that if a corporation (which is not a “person”) has free speech, then why don’t trees, or animals, or national parks? Lawsuits aiming to sue corporations for environmental degradation have routinely been dismissed since environmental entities to not have “standing”, and are therefore not protected by First Amendment considerations.

In my view, the links between human inequality and environmental issues are a matter of life and death, but of human life and death, not the planets’. The earth will survive human perfidy, but humans may not. My concern for the environment and the animals within is not driven by a “stewardship” notion that assumes humans have a moral obligation to take care of the planet, as if presented to us by some deity or confluence of existential events. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “we are one among millions of species, stewards of nothing; on geological scales, our planet will take good care of itself and let time clear the impact of any human malfeasance. Our planet simply waits”.

Similarly, the American Indian activist John Trudell implored us to “develop our loyalties to this planet and this future and our descendants more than to governing political systems that have created all these problems. If people are trying to find solutions to these problems in the defined abstractions of democracy, if they’re not willing to think objectively about our responsibilities to our own descendants, then they will come up with no solutions.” These are artificial political boundaries, yet they create and set forth policies that have concrete ramifications.

Protecting the environment for its own sake is worthwhile, but it may not suffice in our modern political and economic climate. Decency alone should be enough to motivate humans towards policies that acknowledge our interconnectedness with the physical environment and which provide stability for all. Thus, I will finish this three-part post with a quote from the Botswana conservationist Neil Fitt, and leave it up to you and me to answer his query:

“The question is how do we empower people to understand the global picture and not just see what is closest to them, therefore enabling them to truly make a contribution and if able, be allowed to have more say in managing the systems and natural resources they are closest to? The simple answer is education and good jobs for all but to my knowledge, no country in the world has ever managed that, so is it just a dream?”

[Photo credit: Bernabe, N. (2015, October 14). Untitled photo of Bernie and elephant. Retrieved from]


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