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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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).


Excited GIF


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“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: 

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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.

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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: 

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“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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.