Feature Photo by Jeremy Bishop
By Kai Huscke, Tish O’Dell, and Chad Nicholson
The overturning of Roe v. Wade (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) and the weakening of the EPA (West Virginia v. EPA) by the US Supreme Court sent shock waves across the nation, generating a flurry of coverage, activism, and policy development at the national and state level. Those court decrees have emboldened many and outraged many more.
And as the reverberations continue to be felt today, there are a number of critical analyses as to how we have arrived here that are still not being discussed as they should be. The activism and conversations generated have largely stayed only at the surface level of reflection and not looked deeper into root causes and definitely not looking further out on the horizon…to the future. The dialog has focused mainly on electoral politics and electing one party over the other as the path to getting back what was taken. Are we actually riding a wave toward a solution or are we being tumbled about in the surf?
As we analyze these court opinions from 2022, we are reminded that they have roots that go back to the early 1970s, an era of much resistance and many challenges to the status quo of the time. Back then the people used many approaches to push for transformational change – direct actions/civil disobedience, legislation, court challenges, music and art. It is an era defined by social and cultural unrest.
Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, was the subject of the Dobbs decision. To refresh everyone’s memory, the recent Supreme Court case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruled that the US Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion. With this one decision, Roe v. Wade was overruled and states were handed the authority to regulate abortions. The Clean Air Act initiated in 1970, was the subject of the West Virginia v. EPA decision. That case centered on the ability and authority of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions related to climate change.
And let’s remember there was much more happening 50 years ago in addition to the Roe case and the EPA being created. Women fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was ratified by Congress in 1972, though it later died and was therefore never added to the Constitution.
In addition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act passed in 1972, after other major Civil Rights legislation passed in the late 1960’s including the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Civil Rights Act (1968). None of these changes came easily, the marches, the protests, the court filings, the horrifying deaths of women, the photos of rivers on fire and the polluted air we breathe, all led to the federal legalization of abortion and a federal agency, the EPA, to protect the environment. Victories to be celebrated for the ages….or so we thought.
But how did so much promise for equality, environmental and human protection and justice get so twisted and turned upside down? Roe has been overturned. The authority of the EPA has been gutted and the Earth is on the verge of ecological collapse despite the adoption of major national environmental laws. People of color are still not treated equally. Workers are earning less today when adjusted for inflation than they were in 1968. And the 100+ year quest of women to be recognized as equals through the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be adopted.
Asking Big Questions
There was so much energy for change in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. There was a deep commitment and positive attitude to change societal structure and values. The goal was for the people to have a real voice in creating a government and society that reflected the people’s values. Values of equality, fairness, equity and protection of the environment that sustains all life. What we should be doing is learning from these examples. What did they do well and where did their movements fall short? As a culture we seem to only focus on “wins” and perceived victories and tend to sweep losses and ugly truths under the rug. Maybe if we did more reflecting on our failures and shortcomings, the rights of all people, future generations, and nature could be genuinely protected and enforced and not simply glorified as hollow victories that can be pulled out from under us at any time the political winds change.
Maybe we need to start at the beginning with a reflection on Democracy. When we use the word, it is assumed that the people have some voice or hand in the decisions and laws that are made to govern over all of us. Well, this could be our first clue as to why the “promise of the 70’s” has not panned out for the majority of people and nature. It turns out that there is a difference between having a “voice” and having real decision making authority.
Did we ever get to vote on whether women have the right to an abortion? Did we ever vote to turn over the protection of our community’s air, food, water and other necessary life sustaining functions to government non-elected agencies? Think of almost any major issue that is important to you and ask yourself if the government has ever given you the chance to vote on it.
Many of you will be saying, but we live in a “republic”, a “representative democracy”. Well if we go down that road, the representatives you elect are actually supposed to represent yours and the community’s views, values and best interests, but are they? Today we see electeds making decisions and passing laws that represent the monied interests and their own personal interests over the people and environment. One of the more definitive examples proving this is the Princeton Study. This deeply researched report clearly shows that people’s interests are not being represented, that the US is no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy in which only the interests of the wealthiest are represented by the government.
On a daily, ad nauseum basis, the media and the politicians speak of democracy and the importance of preserving it. Whether it is sending weapons, sanctioning other countries or threats of war to protect “democracy” abroad, one would think we must live in a democracy here. Functionally though, we don’t have a democracy, yet we have an innate pull to want to believe in and defend the idea of democracy. What would it look like if we actually created a real democracy– one that addressed the needs of people and nature and corralled the devastating impacts of concentrated wealth and power? What would your community look like if citizen power was a cultural, practiced norm and not simply a pipedream used as propaganda by those who want nothing to do with sharing power?
A second big conversation topic we should be dialoguing about has to do with political parties. For all intents and purposes, we live in a two-party system. The theory is that your party will represent your interests and values. The reality of that looks different from the local up to the state and then on to the national, but the net effect is that powerful economic interests are having their needs met while the majority of people and nature are either ignored, placated, or used as pawns in dangerous political games that impact economics, civil rights, and environmental health. The separation between the two major parties is quite narrow despite the rhetoric trumpeted by each. The two-party system has shown its distaste for democracy and an undying allegiance to concentrated power. Even George Washington warned us back in his 1796 Farewell Address about partisanship and political parties:
It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.
It makes sense that if there are only two parties to choose from, it creates an either/or situation. Are you with us or against us? Well, let’s be real, all our personal beliefs and views don’t fall into two distinct categories. We are all combinations of many beliefs and experiences that shape our views. And yet we throw out labels like liberal/conservative, red/blue, left/right all the time. These all come with assumptions and prejudices and sure don’t help us come together to dialog on important issues. And how many elections have you felt like you were forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils” or that you had to vote against a candidate and platform instead of for one that you truly believed in?
What would it look like if campaign finance was overhauled to protect the people and not the wealthy elite? What would it look like if there was a robust political arena dominated by ideas and not by self-serving interests of political parties which are merely corporations interested in its primary shareholders over that of the masses? What if citizen assemblies and citizen forums were the dominant means of political discourse?
Capitalism: The American Dream or Nightmare?
Lastly, we need to look at our deep seeded belief that capitalism is not only the best way, but the only way. We need to be able to have open dialog about a system that is based on producing and consuming more and more, year after year, and if that is really sustainable and in line with our values.
We know that the United States only has about 5% of the world population but we consume at a rate of over 20% of the world’s resources. We take and take from nature and poorer countries and even US communities without concern for the sustainability of this consumption.
With capitalism at the forefront and the rights of corporations to increase profits year after year, we have to ask if this represents our values? How does this connect to the rights of women and rights of nature, the environment? These are the tough questions we should be grappling with and figuring out a better, more sustainable way, if we want a future for life on this Earth.
Organizing for Big Change
If the promises of the 70’s were thwarted largely because the people attempted to make change working through the system but we now realize that the system itself, corrupted by monied interests, cannot actually provide what is needed to create the just and healthy communities for future generations, what are we left to do? The good news is we have been here before in history. It was in those moments when people gave up hope of making change within the system that people conceived of alternatives or alternative systems.
The word alternative means a choice or an option. We must reject knee-jerk reactions when alternative approaches and solutions are brought forward. We should pause and think critically about what we are being told in the media—is it propaganda to keep us from contemplating alternatives? We must think about our history- the Revolutionaries were proposing an alternative to being a colony of England, abolitionists were fighting for an alternative to slavery, the suffragists for an alternative to patriarchy and on and on. Reflecting back on the promise of the 70’s, people like The Janes provided a medical alternative to women in Chicago, the Black Panthers an alternative to community policing and providing basic services to community members, Maine farmers turned away from industrial agriculture in 1971 and created an organic model and the Public Worker Strikes of the 1970’s, where workers had to fight not only against employers but also the unions that were supposed to represent them.
All the changes that were inspired in those times were amazing and many people put time, effort and even their lives on the line to take a stand for what they believed in. But nothing in life remains static. Change is part of life. So when looking ahead, we need to learn from the past and evolve to new ways of thinking and creating for what works now and into the future. We need to consider whose voice and whose power is considered when making important democratic decisions that will affect all of us and not just leave it to a minority with power. We need to ask if we can get to where we want to go by working within the existing system or do we have to take more risk and go outside the system using an alternative means to get there? Do we want to keep being thrown about struggling for air, water and rights or can we learn how to change so we can create new ways to not control but to ride in harmony with the waves?