The Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution


It’s time to sweep aside all the illusions:
*That the national environmental organizations have a secret plan to save the environment but just haven’t told us yet
*That local acts of environmental sanity in a few dozen urban areas will make a dent on the global degradation of the life-support-system of the planet
*That “new technologies” will solve the problem
*That individual acts of recycling and “conscious consumerism” will change what is being produced
*That good guy corporate leaders will eventually turn around the massive impact that global corporations have been having in undermining Nature’s balance
*That political sanity will prevail if only we get a new president (remember when you thought that about Obama? Are you now thinking it will happen with Hillary?)
Illusion after illusion after illusion.
We are up against a global economic and political system that has only gotten worse and worse over the course of the 45 years since Earth Day 1970. Consciousness has grown, small battles have been won, and the people who worked so hard on both fronts deserve our commendation. But don’t deceive yourself: the situation of the planet has gotten worse and worse, and it will continue to do so until we have a movement capable of fundamentally changing our economic and political system.
The reason: most of the mega-corporations of the world must constantly expand in order to survive in a competitive global marketplace. As long as the corporate leadership has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the investments of their stockholders, they have no choice but to make profits their “bottom line.” True, they can sometimes use token environmental steps to assuage the consciences of some of their investors, customers or clients, but only to the extent that those can be shown to contribute to their old bottom line of money and power. Individually, many people in these corporations are very decent human beings, and some go home from work and contribute to environmental causes. But they know they will lose their jobs if they don’t promote the old bottom line. And to do that, many of those corporations will have to extract resources from the earth in the cheapest possible way, engage in environmentally destructive processes in extracting, refining, and producing their goods, moving their operations to other corners of the globe where environmental restrictions are less constraining and/or workers’ pay easier to restrict to low levels, safety conditions less rigorously enforced. In the process, air, water, and ground land will be increasingly polluted and we and our children and grandchildren will pay the consequences. Sadly, many of the very people who care most about these issues will nevertheless provide the funding for candidates in 2016 who are too timid to address these issues, or too misguided, but instead will insist that “growth” is the golden calf which must be worshipped (as though the earth were a bottomless cookie jar and one could take without restraint or worry about future generations).
But there is a solution to all this. Partly it involves a new consciousness that is already developing in which we come to see the earth not primarily as a “resource” to use for human benefit, but as a sacred source of life that deserves to be responded to with respect, love, awe, wonder and radical amazement, and come to see ourselves as part of the earth and able to feel and mourn the assaults on it in ways similar (not exactly the same, but close) to the ways we would experience an Islamic State ISIL or Boku Haram fundamentalist terrorist hacking off one of our limbs. When we can feel that pain, we will stop eating cows and other forms of meat and allowing forests to be cut down so that cows or other animals can be grown for consumption. We will join efforts to get our governmental bodies, universities, religious and civic institutions, and anywhere we have investments or savings accounts to disinvest in corporations with dubious environmental practices, and we will refuse to buy their services or products.
But that can’t be enough. If most oil companies are among the worst polluters, you still have to get to work and there are no mass transportation options, you may feel bad but you’ll continue to buy the oil from one polluter or another. If organic food is only available at higher prices than the more polluted foods, but your children are hungry and you have been one of the tens of millions of American workers whose wages have not grown significantly plus now you have to buy various electronics to keep your children from being seen as bizarre if they don’t own what “everyone else” is giving their kids, you’ll sacrifice a little on organic foods and eat ones that may or may not in the long run cause a variety of health problems.
Moreover, the 1% of the richest people in the advanced industrial countries have so much more disposable income than almost everyone else that the economic marketplace will respond far more to their interests than the interests of tens of millions of others. The consumer marketplace doesn’t respond on the basis of one consumer one vote, but rather one dollar one vote. And the top 1% owns more of those dollars than the 50% of Americans earning below the median income level.
A first step is to promote a New Bottom Line, so that every corporation, government policy, our legal system, health care system, educational system, and every other major system is judged efficient, rational and productive to the extent that they maximize love and caring, environmental sustainability and responsibility, ethical behavior and generosity, enhance our capacities to treat other human beings not merely instrumentally to achieve fulfillment our own personal needs but as sacred beings, and our capacities to transcend a narrow utilitarian or instrumental approach to nature and instead respond to the Earth and to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and preciousness of all that is (of which we each are an important part). This New Bottom Line is a way of making whatever “new story” or “new consciousness” become a reality in our daily lives. But to make that happen, we need to translate this New Bottom Line into specific programs.
That’s why we at Tikkun and the interfaith (but also secular-humanist and atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed two key programs that can make a major difference: The ESRA and the Global Marshall Plan.
The ESRA (Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution) has the following planks:
1. It bans all private money from state and federal elections and permits only public funding, thereby eliminating the huge advantage that the super-rich have to shape the Congress, the presidency, and the various state legislatures. This is a far more powerful step than allowing the Congress to set limits on money donations by overturning “Citizens’ United” decision of the Supreme Court. ESRA also does make clear that corporations are not “persons” with rights that are granted to human beings in the Constitution and that money is not a form of speech protected by the Constitution.
2. It requires the wealthier corporations (those with incomes of over $50 million/yr–but excluding all the small businesses) get a new corporate charter once every five years which will only be granted to corporations that can prove a satisfactory history of environmental behavior and social responsibility–to a panel of ordinary citizens who will also hear the testimony of people from around the world who have had their lives impacted by the behavior of the corporation being reviewed. The system of “regulatory agencies” doesn’t work–the regulated corporations have succeeded in getting their own leaders, lobbyists or other loyalists, appointed to these agencies by presidents of both major parties–so the ESRA extends to ordinary citizens (with environmental experts as consultants) the ability to decide the fate of corporations just as our legal system now gives those citizens the right to decide the fate of fellow citizens facing crimes that might even lead to a death sentence. The ESRA specifies a set of areas that the panel must consider, but it can also bring in other environmentally relevant considerations. This part of the ESRA applies to all corporations selling goods or services in the US (whether based here or not) as well as US corporations operating only outside the US, and it provides a massive incentive to corporations to change their corporate behavior (because with the ESRA, the environmentally sensitive people within corporations will be able to insist to their corporate leadership and to investors that they risk losing their license to function and hence the investments of their stock holders totally unless they dramatically change their practices to be dramatically and demonstrably less destructive to the environment).
3. It requires every school from k-to graduate or professional levels to teach environmental practices, latest information, skills both in working with and protecting Nature but also in empathic communication, caring for everyone on the planet, and learning how to organize and use democratic and nonviolent methods for protecting the earth and humanity’s future.
4. It overturns any treaty or trade agreement (including the currently secretly negotiated TPP that Obama and the Republicans in Congress have sought to give “fast track” approval) which can be shown to be destructive to the wellbeing of the environment or to working people or is judged by a court to stand in conflict with the intent or specifics of the ESRA. It also requires corporations which seek to move assets or operations out of the US to provide reparations and compensation to the people of the area in which it previously had been operating. And all terms of the ESRA apply equally to any firms to which these larger firms subcontract.
Though it is written more like legislation than like previous constitutional amendments, a necessity given the propensity of the corporate-oriented Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional Congressional legislation and past Supreme Court decisions that limit corporate political and economic power, the Constitution does NOT specify what form an amendment can or cannot take. And while the Congress in the next few years (probably until post 2020 elections and the subsequent reapportionment and redrawing of electoral districts that might then be possible) is unlikely to pass this amendment, it may become easier for our movement to win support of State Legislatures which could call a Constitutional Convention to consider this and related potential amendments.
The Domestic and Global Marshall Plan
I wish I could say that this would be enough, but it needs another piece. No matter how effective this will be in the U.S., as long as people around the world are facing starvation or extremes of poverty, they will have a massive incentive to cut down the forests and sell their minerals and produce in environmentally destructive ways to sell their products in the international capitalist marketplace. So it becomes a major environmental measure to eliminate global poverty, homelessness, inadequate education and inadequate health care–so that people do not have to choose between the short term survival interests of their families on the one hand and the long term environmental safety of their children on the other. Hence the need for the Domestic and Global Marshall Plan.
The Domestic and Global Marshall Plan (GMP) calls upon the US to take the leadership by example in convincing all the top 20 industrial powers to dedicate 1-2% of their gdp each year for the next twenty to eliminate (not reduce or ameliorate, as the Millenium goals and other UN summits aim at) poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and to repair the environmental damage caused by 150 years of irresponsible forms of industrialization pursued by self-described capitalist, socialist and communist societies.
The plan is too detailed to lay out fully here, which is why I am urging you to read it at But its key elements avoid the past failures of aid programs. It ensures that monies will go to working people and poor people in localities, not to national elites of political or economic power or to US corporations using the money to adance their own interests. It overturns all trade arrangements that have led to impoverishment of local farmers around the world to the benefit of the advanced industrial countries, particularly the U.S. It eliminates all loans from US and other banks and private agencies to poor developing countries. It creates local and international governing bodies composed of social change activists and cultural and spiritual leaders in the relevant recipient countries. It encourages and seeks to develop an understanding that homeland security is best served by a spirit of generosity (embodied in this GMP) rather than by military, economic, political or cultural domination. And much more. If implemented as described, it would end the immigration crisis faced by the US and Europe, because people would no longer have to risk their lives to get to the advanced industrial countries as their only way to get income sufficient to provide for their families without having to sell their children into prostitution or to engage in the international drug trade.
Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis has introduced a House Resolution to support this proposed GMP.
What you can do is to build support for the ESRA and GMP in every possible place where you interact with others. You can seek to get them endorsed by your civic or religious organization, the social change organization to which you are affiliated, your union or professional organization, your universities and local school districts, the local branch of the political party to which you belong, your city council, state legislature, and representatives to Congress. And you can join our organization, the Network of Spiritual Progressives and work with us on a concerted campaign to save the environment. Do so at (you do NOT have to believe in God or be part of a spiritual community to be a spiritual progressive — you just have to want the New Bottom Line I’ve discussed above and which is critical to winning these kinds of programs.

Crossposted from Huffington Post Green
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, chair with Vandana Shiva of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, CA. He is the author of eleven books including two national best-sellers: Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. He welcomes you to join with him in the path described above:

2 thoughts on “The Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

  1. It is refreshing to read a lucid, and accurate position on the state of environmental affairs in the US. I was once a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri-Columbia during the mid-1990s. My field of study was Environmental History; however, I quickly moved into intellectual history under Eli Zaretsky after realizing that I could accomplish more with Intellectual history and biology than simply history alone. I soon went on to earn my M.S. in Botany, and have been working as a field biologist for 22 years now.
    The product of graduate studies in biology and history (as well as 12 years as a regulatory scientist of wetlands) helps me understand that without a federally-mandated program for environmental issues similar to what we had in the New Deal (the CCC, WPA, etc.), the US is peril. And imminent peril at that. Sadly, Americans are not capable, in my opinion, of establishing such a plan toward true conservation of natural resources and minimal environmental impact without a strong, centralized effort on the part of the government. The re-emergence and resurgence of the conservative right has taken advantage the recent economic downturn to idealize environmental deregulation on a scale that is truly disturbing. I found myself unable to continue working for the state of Florida because of the weakening of regulations to the extent that as a biologist, I had the least amount of discretion on projects with serious environmental impacts. Ironic, but true.
    This comment is not meant to explore the various approaches required to implement radical new changes in laws and education needed to establish a new environmental ethic and conscious of conservation. But merely to echo Rabbi Lerner’s argument.
    The importance of a “reverence for life” as Albert Schweitzer argued cannot be overstated; it forms the underpinning of any genuine effort to help humans understand that they are part of nature, and not separate from it. Have you ever heard someone say the “human animal?” This is an example of the false dichotomy so thoroughly entrenched in Western thought. Would you say “dog animal, fish animal, or “butterfly animal?” Probably not, so if you say “human animal” you should think about what it truly means.
    Beyond the call for a constitutional amendment, Rabbi Lerner hit on another aspect of developing a reverent environmental ethos: education.
    Environmental education should be taught from kindergarten through high-school. And no, I don’t mean playing in a school garden twice a week and participating in recycling aluminum cans. There needs to be another mandate that stresses environmental responsibility as a civic obligation, not something that you elect do as part of your life. We need children, that by the time they are 15, will find it shocking to not live a “recyclable life.” Children that grow up to find it unconscionable to throw a cigarette butt out the window (hopefully they won’t smoke).
    I meet fierce, skeptical resistance when I express such arguments to others. So much so that I’m convinced that a government mandate is absolutely necessary. Then, at least, we can begin to rear a generation of children to make what we say here a reality.

  2. For your information: This was published on on Feb. 26, 2015.
    You’re doing fine work.
    “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
    — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
    For the vast majority of Americans and, for that matter, for the vast majority of the people of the world, the health of the soil under their feet means absolutely nothing and probably few have any idea that the U.N. is concerned enough to make 2015 the International Year of Soils.
    With few small exceptions, the top six inches of soil is the single most important element that allows us to eat, whatever it is we eat every day. Of course, it takes water and sunlight, but we have little control over those as natural events. We do have great ability and opportunity to destroy our soil, however, and humans have been using and abusing the soil at an alarming rate in recent generations.
    For tens of thousands of years, humans had little effect on their environment, whether we were hunter-gatherers or early farmers of 10,000 years ago and it continued that way for countless generations. If we made a mess of our little world, we could pack up and move on and Earth would cover up the evidence of our presence and heal itself.
    Not so, anymore. There is nowhere else to go. The world’s soils are in trouble. It’s not anything new and that’s why the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has designated this year the International Year of Soils, because “healthy soils not only are the foundation for food, fuel, fibre and medical products, but also are essential to our ecosystems, playing a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts.”
    Even though the oceans, vast as they are and important as they are in providing the vital air we breathe, have been damaged to a dangerous extent by human activity, the damage to our soils is little known or considered. This is true of the general populace, but it is also true of those alarmed by climate change and global warming.
    Concern about damage to soils goes back in time, but in the U.S., the concern turned into action in places like New York State, where the destruction of Adirondack Mountain forests was so serious that the state legislature set aside six million acres for the Adirondack Forest Preserve, a mix of private and public lands that has allowed a semblance of return of the wild forests that existed before Europeans set foot on the land. The Adirondacks are vital as sources of oxygen and as a carbon sink, and they provide the headwaters for vital drinking water supplies.
    None of this happened without controversy and a political fight in the 19th Century, not unlike the political battles today over such issues as hydrofracking for gas and oil, the Keystone XL pipeline, drilling for oil in the arctic, and the life-and-death struggle over the demise of the oceans and their creatures, the overgrazing of publicly owned lands in the West, mountaintop removal coal mining, and the clear cutting of old forests.
    It is not surprising that there has not been the kind of controversy over the ongoing damage to our soils, probably because it is relatively easy to cover up toxic spills if nobody sees it. Much of this pollution is ignored and eventually Earth covers up the site, leaving the toxins below the surface. If it needs to be covered up more quickly, a bulldozer can push dirt or debris up over it. Yet, there is some controversy over soils; it just is not couched in those terms. Environmentalists have addressed the issue in terms of point pollution and non-point pollution, by the release of toxins into the environment, usually by industry, but also by farm factories and homeowners. For the most part, their immediate concern is the inevitable damage to water and air, not to the soil in general.
    In the U.S., much of the best farmland has been lost to housing and business development and road building. Some of the best soils for growing crops to feed our 320 million people have been covered over by these enterprises, which simply means that we have turned to soils of less productivity. And that created a two-fold problem: the fertile soils around the cities (mostly, they were built in or on rivers or lakes) were lost. Because of that loss, food had to be brought in from greater and greater distances.
    U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace warned in 1938 of the coming disaster of soil depletion and loss. In the forward of that year’s U.S. Department of Agriculture “Yearbook of Agriculture,” he wrote: “The Earth is the mother of us all, plants, animals and men…Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly. He overplows the cropland, overgrazes the pastureland, and overcuts the timberland. He destroys millions of acres completely. He pours fertility year after year into the cities, the rivers and the ocean. The flood problem insofar as it is man-made is chiefly the result of overplowing, overgrazing, and overcutting of timber.”
    Wallace’s concern was manifest (after all, we were still in the Great Depression and were far from healing the Dust Bowl) in his messages to all who would listen. Of the necessary things that must be done, he wrote in that foreword, “The public is waking up, and just in time. In another 30 years it might be too late.”
    It is more than three-quarters of a century since he wrote that warning, far past the 30-year period, which he thought might be too late and, still, humans are abusing the soil, the lifeblood of the circle of life. Everyone who eats the crops of the soil is responsible to at least know where the food comes from and how it is raised and what is done to the soil to keep the supermarket shelves full. Even better, those who eat of this bounty need to educate themselves about the soil and their relationship to it. Otherwise, the destruction of its fertility will continue.
    Much of the food we eat is grown on depleted soil and, to ensure that crops grow in those depleted soils, tons of chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, chemical herbicides, and chemical fungicides, and other offenses are poured on the soil. We may be reaching the end of our capability of producing heavy crops by forcing the land to give us food by such extreme means. The earth can’t take it. The soil can’t take it. There are other ways of producing food for humans, but generally speaking, there is not as much profit in it. The giant “food” conglomerate corporations want us to keep eating potato chips and corn chips and all of the other products that can be packaged for convenience.
    The answer of the powers that be to the problems of loss of soil fertility and the soil itself, is for “food laboratories” to formulate “food” from basic crops like corn, soy, canola, and wheat, and seed companies have rushed to genetically modify plants and animals to make up for the damage to the soil. Their propaganda tells us daily that this is the solution to the problem of feeding the planet’s seven billion, regardless of the quality of the soil, which has become just a medium for growing plants in what amounts to chemical solutions. For millions of years, humans did not face such problems, since they fed from what nature gave them, even though, at times, the quantity offered was less than adequate. Such food did not harm them.
    What is missing in this scene is that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) provide for the biggest profits for the few giant corporations that control much of our food. The effort to control the food supply (by and large successful in the U.S.) is moving into other countries. As the soil in the first world has become more depleted, transnational corporations and even governments have gone abroad to find soils that have not been depleted, and they have been successful in moving indigenous people off the land, turning them into low-paid farm workers, rather than peasant or subsistence farmers and pastoral peoples. This is happening throughout Africa, Latin America, and Asia today and the progress of the powerful over the people in those regions is only gaining steam.
    It has been pointed out by doctors, researchers, and others in medicine and agriculture over the years that, to have food that nourishes the body, the soils from which the food comes have to be healthy. No healthy soil…no healthy bodies. We are seeing the result of that unhealthy soil in the general health of modern humans. Humans may be living longer, but the kinds of diseases and maladies that were not seen in the past are now being seen at an increasing rate. We can develop all kinds of medicines and treatments for all of our ills, but the root of it is in soil that has been all but destroyed. Heal the soil, heal the Earth, and heal ourselves.
    That is a tall order, because most are just not aware of the effect of depleted soils on the general health of a people. Since it can’t be seen…you know, “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s why it is everyone’s responsibility to learn more about our food sources and the soil it comes from. And, it’s why the FAO has declared this the “year of soil.” Way back in 1938, Secretary Wallace wrote: “I do not feel that this book is the last word. But it is a start…in helping all those who truly love the soil to fight the good fight.” Let the fight to reclaim our soils and our health be resurrected and sustained!

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