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Are Corporations People? Not in the City of Portland, Maine!

bill mckibben speaking in westbrook, maine, university of new england

Two weeks ago, environmental activist, author and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, came to the Portland US District courthouse to join a midday demonstration "marking the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations unprecedented power to fund political campaigns," according to a story in the Portland Phoenix. "City councilor Dave Marshall recently submitted a resolution that calls on Maine's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment abolishing the so-called 'corporate personhood' codified by the ruling. 'We simply can't win the battle against carbon if politics remains polluted by corporate money,' McKibben says." Dave Marshall's resolution was indeed passed that Thursday night. The city council of Portland voted 6-2 to call on the state’s congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing “corporate personhood.” [Here's a good roundup of the issue from CommonDreams.org]

McKibben went on to give a lecture that Friday evening at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center hosted by the University of New England entitled, "Local and Global: Notes from the Frontlines of the Climate Fight." [Here's the video of the talk.] That talk is being broadcast today on MPBN's Speaking in Maine public affairs program.

Now Portland likes corporations just fine, but we like living and working to be in balance. We like our people to be people and our corporations to be corporations.

In fact, a lot of the companies that are attracted to Maine, and to the Portland area in particular, are trying to create solutions to the kinds of problems McKibben addresses in his most recent book, Eaarth, Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  ReVision Energy, Ocean Approved Kelp, Ocean Renewable Power, all presented at this year's Juice 3.0 conference and are all based in Portland. Other Portland green businesses listed on the Maine Businesses for Sustainability include Blue Reserve WaterPDT Architects, Wright-Ryan Construction, and Coffee by Design. A great resource for local services with green practices is the new green business directory from The Sunrise Guide.

McKibben's talk was Skyped live around the State to Belfast, Bangor, Houlton, and the Portland Public Library. Bill said he has been to all of these places, but this "is a very low carbon way to get around Maine!" He apologized, in advance for being, "a professional bummer-outer of people," but then went on to tell what we can all do to make things better. He praised Maine's initiatives in the local food movement and Portland's permaculture efforts during the 10.10.10 day of action, but he also said we need to do more.

In particular, McKibben thinks that the injection of money into politics is crippling our government's ability to make any substantive changes in our energy future. "I gave a little talk at the Portland courthouse today," he said, "because there was a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United thing that sort of opened up fully the money spigots for corporate America to interfere in our political life. And this is just cheating. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, and Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, is caught giving money to the referees beforehand, it's a national scandal. Everybody would be outraged, but if Exxon does it, then it's OK. That's crazy and we've got to stop it, right now."

McKibben speaks from the deep Yankee tradition (see my discussion with Colin Woodard in relation to this). In fact, in 2010 he wrote a series of articles for Yankee Magazine subtitled How New England Can Save the World. And he was clearly speaking to a receptive audience that night in Westbrook, "The thing that keeps us from fixing things is our cynicism. This is how it's always going to be. We need to be aggressively naive about this. I think we need to say, 'This is not right, it's not fair, it makes no sense. We don't know how it got started, but it's time to stop it.' And we won't stop it perfectly and all at once, but hopefully we can at least throw a scare into them. So we're going to have people all over the country and they're going to be following around their congressman with big signs pointing out how much money they've taken. And we're going to be making up suit coats for them that look like those uniforms that nascar drivers wear, with decals, logos, for each of their companies. It's shameful what's going on and there needs to be some shaming done."

Bill is not a naturally outgoing person and he has taken the mantle of activist leader somewhat reluctantly. In many ways, like many creatives, he would rather sit in his room and write. But there's clearly something about the momentum of social engagement, and 350.orgs surprising victories, that keeps him going. Returning at the end of his talk to the theme of local foods he concluded, "The secret is to have more fun than other people have, and part of that involves eating delicious, good things close to home, and frankly i think we've reached the point that i'm going to stop so I can eat some of them!"

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