Democracy and an Ecologically Sound Future

The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 is the oldest federal environmental law in the United States. This act made it illegal to pollute any waterway in our country without some form of permit. It established harsh penalties for breaking this law and only passed after overriding a presidential veto.

One aspect of this act that is unique, and has had far reaching ramifications on our environmental law, is what is known as a “bounty provision.” According to this provision, anyone who found and turned in a polluter was rewarded with half the fine. This precedent was later included in almost every piece of environmental legislation that came out of the ’60s and ’70s, the era that gave birth to the first Earth Day.

The thinking behind this “bounty provision” was not just a vigilante-justice mindset of the era. It came from the knowledge that those affected by pollution are those who see it first, and need restitution. In fact, in Rome around 80 A.D., one of the oldest environmental laws was passed that set a fine for polluting or interfering with the city’s water supply. The fine was the modern-day equivalent of $50,000. These early concepts of environmental justice are based in the very nature of our system of government: a Democracy.

Environmental laws, in and of themselves, are not enough to create lasting change. Without a working and representative democracy, these laws — those that are even able to be created in the first place — would have no enforcement and fall by the wayside. “Business as usual” would end up being the norm, which isn’t what is best for the people.

A more informed people with more economic opportunity is the life-mission of one of our 2017 Conference speakers, Heather McGhee.

McGhee is President of the public policy organization Demos. Named after one of the root words of the word “Democracy” meaning “the people,” Demos’ mission is “Working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.” Their work includes expanding voter registration opportunities for low-income voters and developing policy and strategic planning toward a new responsible and inclusive economy.

By bringing more equality into the democratic and economic systems, the voices and interests of the people, the commons, can be better included in the decision-making process. For Heather McGhee and Demos, this isn’t just about more equality in the economy or in our politics, it is also about improving systems for better environmental justice — something our forbears have strived to do for centuries.

In her upcoming 2017 conference keynote titled, A New “We the People” For a Sustainable Future, McGhee will review the nature of our democracy and economy and discuss how we can improve both in an environmentally responsible, lasting way.

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