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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2012

A River of Money Runs Through It

selection from a painting depicting the character 'uncle sam' in the guises of the 'see-no-evil', etc. monkeys, borne on the palm of a giant; an industrial wasteland is behindChris van Es, www.chrisvanes.com

America is under assault from a deadly, insidious, and persistent pollutant. This pernicious contaminant threatens our health, safety, and way of life. Its noxious emissions are rising fast, fouling every corner of our nation. It attacks our brains, distorting rational thinking and decision-making. It poisons the air of civilized discourse. It has made it all but impossible to achieve meaningful progress on climate change, chemical policy, and a long list of other environmental issues confronting our country and our planet.

I’m talking, of course, about the influence of money on American democracy.

The shocking sums that big businesses and wealthy individuals spend to sway elections and manipulate legislation is the chief obstacle between the dirty, unhealthy, unjust mess our country is in and the clean, safe, and fair society the vast majority of us want.

($30 billion - $180 million) /
$180 million
=
16,566 % Return on Investment
—Nice ROI—

During the 2009-2010 election cycle, the oil and gas industry contributed more than $30 million to federal level political interests. In 2011 alone, the industry spent $150 million on federal lobbying. Sure, $180 million is a chunk of change. But it’s nothing when you figure that the carbon barons receive at least $10 billion annually in federal subsidies — or roughly $30 billion during that same period. Source: Maplight

More than 80 percent of Americans want clean energy. Three-fourths support tougher laws to keep toxic chemicals out of consumer products. Eighty-five percent think corporations should have less influence over government.

Eighty-five percent? When Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington in 1963, only 23 percent of the country supported the march. Yet within a few years the movement he helped build changed our society in dramatic ways. So why, with all this popular support, does the environmental movement find itself fighting the same battles over and over again?

It’s no big secret: Follow the money. If we had a Toxics Release Inventory for the pollution spewed forth by corporations’ political spending, it would, among other things, reveal:

In 2009, as Congress debated a climate change bill that would have begun to slow carbon emissions, the oil and gas industry’s lobbyists spent $175 million to defeat it. ExxonMobil alone spent $27.4 million. More than 770 companies and interest groups hired 2,340 lobbyists to work on the issue, with an overwhelming majority of those lobbyists working to defeat it. That’s four lobbyists for each member of Congress.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em
… Buy ‘Em

In May, the US EPA held public meetings in Washington, DC and Chicago to discuss the agency’s regulations for CO2 emissions at new power plants. Environmental groups were determined to turn out their supporters to applaud the landmark standards. The coal industry hoped to do likewise … only apparently it couldn’t find people to make the case that more carbon-spewing coal plants are good for America. So at least one pro-coal group decided to buy some public support.

graphics of t-shirts with dollar signs on themOn the eve of the hearings, the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center spotted a Craigslist ad offering people $50 in cash “to wear a t-shirt in support of an energy project.” Some people took the bait, and a few fellows showed up at the hearing wearing plain gray t-shirts with the tagline: “America Counts on Coal.” The Potemkin coal supporters were also provided a free lunch.

In the 2010 election, corporations and the super rich funneled $300 million to so-called “independent” political action committees to run attack ads and advance corporate interests. In this year’s presidential election, these so-called “super-PACs” are projected to spend more than $1 billion.

Just as the latest Hollywood blockbusters shatter previous box-office records, corporate spending in the future could make even those numbers look like chump change. The reason is the Supreme Court’s awful Citizens United v. FEC decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited spending to influence American elections.

So ExxonMobil can spend whatever it wants to make sure it and other oil companies continue to get tens of billions of dollars a year in federal subsidies. The American Council on Clean Coal Energy can spend whatever it wants to make sure Peabody Energy and Arch Coal can keep blowing the tops off mountains in Appalachia. The American Chemical Council can spend whatever it wants to make sure toxic flame-retardants remain in kids’ pajamas and our living-room furniture. As this Earth Island Journal report on money in politics shows, corporations play an outsized role in determining how we grow our food, produce our energy, and dispose of our waste.

Hope, however distant, is visible on the horizon. People across the country are coming together, exercising their citizen muscles to get our democracy back to work for people and the planet. Almost 80 percent of Americans say the Citizens United decision should be overturned. Legislators in six states have passed resolutions or signed letters calling for a constitutional amendment to do just that.

Read more in this special report on the environmental pollutant called money in politics.

Adopting a constitutional amendment is a huge challenge, but one that everyone who cares about the environment should be committed to. As Jim Hightower says, the water won’t clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek. Or put another way: It’s time to move the swine out of our political system.

Annie Leonard is the co-director of The Story of Stuff Project and the host of eight online movies, including The Story of Citizens United v. FEC.

info-graphic showing the amounts politicians have received from oil and gas interests, and their score from the League of Conservation Voters

The "return on investment" figure in infographic, "Nice ROI," has been corrected from the original that appeared in our print edition and originally online here. We badly underestimated the oil industry’s return-on-investment. We misstated Big Oil’s federal subsidies during the timeframe covered — it should be $30 billion, not $10. Then we miffed the arithmetic by failing to move a decimal point over two places. The oil industry’s ROI on its federal lobbying from 2009, 2010 and 2011 was not 54.5%, as we reported. It’s actually 16,566%.

   

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