Special Interest or Public Interest ?


Ray Ring's HCN report “Champions Go Both Ways – Two Weeks in the West” in the April 27th edition was sure to spur debate. The report focused on Obama Administration appointments at the Interior Department which were described as plums and pay backs which have been handed out to members of the environmental establishment in a manner similar to the way the Bush Administration rewarded supporters from extractive industries.

You can read the article and the multitude of comments from readers it has inspired on line.  And while these terms were not used in either the article or (so far) in on-line comments, it seems to me that the debate about Ray's report is essentially about the difference between special interests and the public interest.

Environmental organizations tell the world that they operate in the public interest. The basis for this claim is the Public Trust Doctrine.  First formulated by the Roman Emperor Justinian, the PTD declares that air, water and the shores of navigable rivers and streams are public property which can not be owned or controlled by private interests. The doctrine has been carried into American common law via the Magna Carta and English Common Law. It has been argued that laws like the Endangered Species Act have extended the concept of the public trust to apply to the survival of animals and plant species.

Politicians, however, treat environmental organizations not as representatives of the public interest but as just another special interest whose power, influence – and campaign contributions – need to be considered and weighed against the power, influence – and campaign contributions – of corporate and other private interests.

It seems to me that the environmental establishment has, for the most part, accepted the status of special interest while some environmental establishment organizations have wholeheartedly embraced that role. This is reflected in the proliferation of 501-c-4 environmental organizations which, while non-profit, can lobby for specific legislation. This in turn has corresponded to a waning of interest in claims and campaigns based on the public trust.

To be fair, it is a bit disingenuous to blame the environmental establishment for accepting a role which has been thrust upon it by politicians and society. In our society and in our politics many things that were traditionally public have been redefined as private – a process which continues to this day. Water privatization and air pollution trading are two contemporary examples. Privatization of the air and water are criticized by Indigenous activists as contrary to the essential public nature of these elements.

Most Americans are unaware of the extent to which the public interest as a guiding concept in our public life has already been eroded and continues under attack today. The drive to redefine water, air, wildlife and all things traditionally public as private is a radical development which conflicts with the bedrock values which prevailed during most of human history and which persist today in Indigenous societies and within our own traditions. Whether our children and grandchildren will enjoy the benefits of the Public Trust Doctrine, however, appears to be in doubt.