Utne Blogs > Politics

Why the Environment’s Trashed, You’re Broke, and Wars Drag On

 How corporate power is ruining your life, explained in animated GIFs  

 April 1970, when 20 million Americans hit the streets to celebrate the first Earth Day:  

 Rihanna Party GIF 

And it wasn’t just a party. People of all ages and political stripes were demanding regulations protecting earth, air, water, and wildlife.

 

Not everyone was happy about it, though. When Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer from Richmond, Virginia, heard about Earth Day:

Gollum Not Listening GIF

Why? Powell served on the board of directors of several international corporations—corporations whose profitability would be hampered by all the new regulations.

 

When Powell thought of a way to stop them:

Gollum Thinking GIF 

He schemed up a memo—titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”—and presented it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. In it, he laid out a broad plan: corporate leaders would use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to enact “social, economic, and political change” in favor of corporate power.

 

What the rest of America was doing:

Fresh Prince and Carlton Disco GIF 

The memo was secret, so barely anyone knew about Powell’s plot until much later.
 

Really, Powell’s idea wasn’t totally new. He had already sued the U.S. government on behalf of the cigarette industry, saying the government’s assertion that cigarettes were dangerous was controversial and that cigarette companies had a right under free speech to promote their product in whatever way they liked. It worked. America’s response was to keep ‘em lit:

Don Draper Smoking GIF 


 

And when President Nixon nominated Powell for the Supreme Court and the Senate voted him in (less than six months after the Chamber read his memo):

Gollum Time's Up GIF 


 

With Powell on the Court, corporations got busy creating legal foundations to fund lawsuits across the country. They introduced the idea that corporations were “persons,” “speakers,” “voices,” and “protectors of our freedoms.” They said that government regulations over pollution, wages, or political spending made corporations feel like this:

Gollum Chained Up GIF

 

Meanwhile, Americans were cleaning house. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. After this came the Endangered Species Act (1973), the first fuel economy standards for cars (1975), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976).

Americans:

Excited GIF

Powell:


Gollum No GIF 

“Strength,” Powell had written in his memo, “lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years.”

 

By 1978, Powell and his cronies were ready to take his plan to the next level. A few corporations got together to challenge a Massachusetts law banning corporate spending in referendum ballots. They wanted to use corporate funds to defeat a progressive income tax vote later that year.

When they lost, progressives were all:

Lucille Ball Lucy Campagne GIF


 

But then they took their case to the Supreme Court, where Justice Powell had been waiting for just such an opportunity: 

Gollum Fishing GIF


 

Powell cast the deciding vote (5-4), declaring that “corporations are persons” and corporate money is “speech” under the First Amendment, ushering in the current era of corporate power.

 Horrible Decision GIF 

 

Between 1978 and 1984, Justice Powell overrode laws citizens had agreed on, in favor of legislation benefitting the pharmaceutical, energy, tobacco, and banking industries. By the time he resigned in 1987, the corporate world had made up its mind:

Ron Swanson Caring About People GIF 


When the agribusiness industry spends $75-145 million a year lobbying to make sure America always has a good supply of junk food at its fingertips:

Timberlake Money GIF 


Meanwhile, Americans: 

I'm Sick GIF 

“The health of Americans is secondary to layers of taxpayer subsidies and preferential treatment for corporate food giants and coal and utility corporations, resulting in epidemic-level rates of obesity, asthma, and type 2 diabetes,” writes Jeffrey D. Clements for YES! Magazine. And this in spite of healthy profits for pharmaceutical and health care corporations (which spent over $2 billion lobbying the government between 1998 and 2010). 


 

That’s not all. Between 1998 and 2010, military contractors spent over $400 million and ExxonMobil spent $151 million lobbying. But “control of our energy policy by global fossil fuel corporations and unregulated corporate lobbying, even for weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want,” Clements writes, “leads to endless war in the Middle East and uncontrolled military spending.”

It also means we continue to drive everywhere. When we build roads for cars that pollute the air and suburbs that destroy wilderness:

Sad Stitch GIF


 

So, we pay with our health, with endless war, and destruction of the environment—but there's more. Corporate rule is also why we’re broke.

Community Shocked GIF 

Yep. Between 1998 and 2010 the Chamber of Commerce spent $739 million lobbying in favor of big business. The results? “Corporate-friendly trade and tax policies have moved jobs overseas, destroyed our manufacturing capacity, produced vast wage and income inequality, and gutted local economies and communities,” writes Clements.

What that means for the corporate elite:

 Raining Money GIF 

What that means the rest of us:

I'm Poor GIF


Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission gave corporations the go-ahead to spend as much as they wanted influencing elections. 

Weeds Shit Gets Fucked Up

Politicians who failed to do what corporate lobbies asked were punished with negative ads funded by the corporate elite. So now when our elected officials look at us:

Peasants GIF 


And while corporations love consumers, this is what they say when we try to act like citizens:

Gollum Nobody Likes You GIF 


Case in point: Monsanto, when Vermonters tried to enact labeling laws for recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH):

Ron Swanson No - GIF 


And when people try to get environmental protections, fair wages, or an end to military offensives, one corporation or another is always:

You Underestimate My Power GIF
 

 

Nearly 80 percent of the public opposes the Citizens United decision. That it hasn’t been reversed goes to show how skewed the current balance of power is. Many representatives and citizens’ groups are calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse it and end money's use as "speech" altogether. When that day comes, we may finally be able to slow climate change, end war, get healthy, and get paid.

Tina Fey High Fiving a Million Angels GIF
 

This article is based on Jeffrey D. Clements essay, “Rights are for Real People,” from the Spring 2012 issue of Yes! Magazine. Clements is the author of the book Corporations Are Not People.

rowan carlsen
4/20/2013 10:19:30 PM

I don't feel I'm "slamming" anyone. I just think that we can oppose the encroachment of corporate influence without claiming that we are powerless over our own lives. You can't stop people from making bad choices, you can only inform them more fully of what their choices mean. That's the kind of thing I am totally in support of. Also, your facts need checking....the majority of Americans do not live at or below the poverty line. If they did, the "poverty line" would have been redefined. Plus, your belief that "fat" is one of the harmful things in our food is evidence of the kind of misinformation that leads to poor health nationally. A human being will die of malnutrition without proper fat intake...sugars and starches are completely expendable, however. I am not trying to be mean, but it's important to know your stuff if you want to really help people.


david jerde
4/20/2013 9:54:56 AM

I generally concur with Rowan; people can make choices in their personal lives that will beneficially impact their health (physical, emotional, and financial). The problem is that, for our system of representative democracy to be effective, The People must be an informed and engaged electorate; too many individuals subrogate their rights and responsibilities, preferring to take the easier route of being mere consumers. Unless and until more people choose to be active and involved in politics and the direction of the country, the concentration of wealth created by our producer v. consumer economy will accentuate the power and influence of corporations in government. It is insufficient to simply be individually responsible; there needs to be a collective, sustained grass-roots movement. This cannot take the traditional form, where special interests sustain momentum; rather, this groundswell of concerned citizens work together - building consensus to govern.


sylvan1
4/20/2013 3:39:44 AM

You could have stopped at "the political power of corporations is absolutely out of hand". No need to go slamming the little people who are being brain-washed by tv ads, and who buy food at the local grocery store which is full of fat and addiction inducing ingredients which were specifically designed for that purpose by the manufacturers. Most Americans live at or below the poverty line and work at soul-crushing menial jobs. They are tired at the end of the day. They could use a little help. It should be easier to eat healthy than to eat junk food. If our society cared about the health of its citizens, the laws would be skewed to enhance that, instead of the profits of corporations.


rowan carlsen
4/19/2013 8:57:01 PM

The political power of corporations is absolutely out of hand, but blaming them for all your problems is just making excuses for yourself. Plenty of Americans are perfectly healthy and financially stable. No one is forcing you to eat the junk food or spend more than you make. By not taking responsibility for your own lifestyle, you're playing right into the hands of those who want to treat you as a mindless consumer.