on civil disobedience

Construction to begin never by Public Herald

I’m old enough to remember a time when metro Atlanta had gotten big enough to be a serious obstacle in the way of getting myself and my young sons from where we lived in Alabama to the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia or North Carolina. Also big enough to have what had to be if not the biggest the very best independent bookstore on the planet, Oxford Books in Buckhead (d. 1997). But small enough to be usable. You could get in and out in one day and have a not too stressful metropolitan good time without a police escort, browsing at Oxford Books, maybe then going downtown to enjoy great Southern veggies for lunch at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, and perhaps over to the fabulous Rich’s department store (d. 2005) for a bit of shopping, etc. Back then, a visit into the city was definitely in my comfort zone. I’m talking about the late Sixties and early Seventies.

But back then metro Atlanta’s population was already heading toward a couple of million, which is what made it also an obstacle, and the sons and I were always happy to get beyond the expressway snarls, gaining elevation on the winding two-lanes in the forested north Georgia mountains we loved.

Last Saturday I made the trip again, up I-85 and through the now even greater Atlanta into at least the beginnings of the hill country, in uttermost Cherokee County.  Judy and I attending the granddaughter’s spring dance recital. So I can tell you Atlanta’s northward metropolitan sprawl, especially along I-575, now covers up quite a bit of that previously forested and sparsely peopled north Georgia hill country. I-575 does make it easier and sometimes faster (depending on time of day and whether it’s under construction, which currently it is) to get farther north of Atlanta. But I just can’t “like” all that asphalt and concrete covering up what I used to think of as unspoiled countryside.

I guess since I had just recently read Dave Pruett’s Like the Dew article, “We’re All in the Sacrifice Zone Now,” I started thinking of the area we traveled through along I-575 as a sacrifice zone, “unspoiled countryside” sacrificed to feed Atlanta’s need for never-ending growth. But of course Pruett’s thesis is that the “geographic zone” of sacrifice is the entire planet, being consumed by the beast of a free-market neoliberalism that “views economics as blood sport and willingly sacrifices all on the altar of profit: the future, the planet, and its peoples.”

I agree with that thesis, as far as it goes (more on this later), and I applaud Pruett’s call (“Tea-Partiers and Sandernistas unite!”) to action to oppose and defeat this ideology.

But what, actually, is the action to be taken? I want to hold up the best example I have seen lately, set by the citizens of Grant Township in Pennsylvania. Threatened by a Pennsylvania General Energy corporation (PGE) proposal to drill a fracking wastewater injection well in their town, Grant citizens, with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), adopted a Community Bill of Rights establishing the community’s right to self-government, its right to have clean air and water, and its right to protect itself against any intrusion threatening those rights. The town further sued PGE on behalf of the local ecosystem, the Little Mahoning Creek Watershed.

The courts have ruled against the town on all these points, but the Grant Board of Supervisors has now adopted an ordinance legalizing civil disobedience, “prohibiting any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action” in defense of the town’s rights.

Whether “we the people” win or lose any particular case and regardless of whether the concerns are environmental, economic or social, the principle that needs to be challenged everywhere is the idea (now in Federal law) that corporate “persons” have rights equal to or superior to the rights of individual human persons and their communities. Since corporations by law must make earning a profit above all other considerations and investors require steadily increasing stock values, that principle makes money rule over all and mandates ever-increasing expansion regardless of the consequences. .

I said I agree with “We’re All in the Sacrifice Zone Now,” but only as far as it goes. Although the title says we’re all in the zone, the essay saves the evil remnant 0.1% “who own our politicians and benefit royally by exploiting the 99.9%.” If free-market neoliberalism truly threatens “the future, the planet, and its peoples” – and I think it does – then that 0.1% could only get a temporary stay.

More important, the truth, I think, is that while free-market neoliberalism is vicious, it is only a come-lately monstrous version of what has been the driving (and consuming) faith of our time, that we can have and deserve to have never-ending economic growth, producing ever more wondrous prosperity. Over the last three hundred years or so, we observed what seemed to be never-ending industrial, economic, and population growth, so we had some reason for adopting that faith. But that experience was created by the one-time gift of millions of years of ancient sunlight – energy – preserved in the fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas. Plentiful and absurdly cheap, at least at first. But – you heard it here – non-renewable.

You can see how insane our economic system is (neoliberal or not) by considering a barrel of crude oil and asking what its value is or ought to be. That barrel’s use value is to make it possible to get done today physical work that it would take a reasonably fit human over ten years of full-time (40 hours/week), full-out physical exertion to get done. At minimum wage (not a living wage at all) that comes close to $150,000. So we take something capable of doing at least $150,000 worth of work and sell it on a commodity market for maybe $40 a barrel, or maybe $140 a barrel. So our economic system says a barrel of oil is worth about the same as a cheap pair of sneakers, or maybe some designer jeans. It’s insane.

I said “non-renewable,” but don’t worry about that. The problem is that as we drill and mine for all this energy we’re smart enough to go first where it is easiest and cheapest to get, then move on to less-easily producible stuff. Which takes more and more energy. The energy payoff of U.S. crude in the 1930s was easily 100 barrels out of the well for every one barrel burned in drilling, etc. We’re now down around maybe a 15 to 1 energy payoff.  And that’s for conventional crude. Tar sands and shale are barely above breaking even, if that. In other words, we are coming up against the limits. The net energy actually available to do work keeps sliding down.

And note: the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) doesn’t provide net energy information. It reports only barrels of oil, tons of coal or cubic feet of natural gas produced. Which means that realistically, all official (usually very optimistic) energy numbers must be judiciously discounted.

What I’m saying is that while neoliberalism undoubtedly is making everything worse for all except the top 0.1%, no economic or social policy, however well intentioned, can reverse the effects of declining energy availability. Other “natural resources” are needed, of course, but energy is what makes it all actually happen and we’re on the downhill side of that curve. A situation made worse by the horrific environmental effects of our having burned up so much fossil carbon energy so rapidly.

Looking back to my nostalgia for the Sixties and Seventies, in and around and beyond Atlanta, I know now that U.S. conventional crude oil production peaked in 1970 and that the overall economic decline of the U.S. middle and working classes began in the early Seventies. So in a way that time might be treasured as some kind of pinnacle of civilizational achievement. But. I also know that what back then I wanted to think of as “unspoiled country” was already far along the curve of industrial spoliation. And that I too in my small ways have fed the hungry beast of Atlanta’s economic expansion.

Truly, it’s not just that we’re all now in the sacrifice zone, it’s that we’re all of us responsible to greater or lesser extent for having participated in creating that beast. I say that without intending any sense of personal blame. We have all simply been acting on and out of the faith we were raised in. We called it the American Dream.

Now it’s wake-up time.

Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt website is a good wake-up on the insanity of our monetary and banking systems; and don’t miss the link there to her Public Banking Institute.

But the best overall informed and wisest on all these issues person I know is Nate Hagens. Nate got an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago, went to Wall Street for a successful if brief career there, quit when he decided money-making was not what he wanted his life to be about, took a few years off traveling the world and reading books, then went to the University of Vermont for a PhD in natural systems/ecology, while serving as editor of The Oil Drum (a website devoted to analysis of energy and its impact on society). Nate now practices simple living and working  on his Wisconsin farm; but also gives occasional presentations and teaches a course at the University of Minnesota titled Reality 101. Go to: The Monkey Trap and watch his latest presentation, titled “A Guide to Being Human in the 21st Century.”

Want to know more about Grant Township and community rights? A good place to start is: Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDR.org).

Click these links if you are interested in the history of Rich’s, Mary Macs, and Oxford Books.

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Image: Construction to begin never by Public Herald via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
Jim Allen

Jim Allen

Jim Allen at 80 is living happily ever after with his lovely wife Judy Collins in the faraway tiny rural sweet home Our Town of Fredonia, Alabama, because, well, “Why not?”* In Fredonia, he is a member of the Fredonia town council, founding board member of the Fredonia Heritage Association and editor/publisher of the Free Fredonia Times. In former lives he more or less successfully impersonated a college English teacher (prepared by his background as dump truck driver, missile guidance technician, and math major) while publishing poetry in leading literary quarterlies, then moving on as ag publications editor for Extension at Auburn, freelance “communications consultant,” co-founder of the Vine & Fig Tree Community, nonviolent peace-with-justice activist, Alabama New South Coalition board member, founding board member and president of the Alabama Sustainable Ag Network, and invited speaker on environmental and energy issues. He blogs now and then at The Slowdown Dirty Truth. *Tolstoy, “Ivan the Fool”