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Jurassic Ballot

When corporations ruled the earth.

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 3:28 PM EDT

The Phantom of Democracy

The oil dinosaurs want to win so badly in my home state because what happens here matters everywhere. The nation often follows where California goes. In the 1970s, we started setting energy efficiency standards that mean we Californians now use about half the energy of the average American (with no diminishment of quality of life or pocketbook pain). In the last decade, we created cutting edge measures to curb carbon emissions.

In 2002, Los Angeles state assemblywoman Fran Pavley (now a state senator) put out AB 1493, which was to—and will—reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. It was, unfortunately, held up for six years by the Bush administration and then transformed into a national standard by Barack Obama as one of his first acts in office. Pavley also authored the now embattled "Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006," AB 32.

If you think oil corporations and life share an interest, you should've been in the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago. I was. I saw their oiled pelicans, their unemployed fishermen, and their oil-smeared marshes. I tasted and smelled the poisons I could not see, and I read their lies.

The people of the Gulf will struggle to survive the recklessness of BP for decades to come, but the petrobeasts aren't just destructive when things go wrong; they're that way when things go according to plan as well. If the 5.5 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf, thanks to BP, had instead made it to our gas tanks, the consequences would still have been dire. They are dire. The companies funding Prop. 23 are themselves a major source of climate change and, of course, a major obstacle to coming up with solutions to it.

Like the people of the Gulf during the spill, the people of Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, live with those tastes, smells, and consequences all the time, because they're in the shadow of Chevron's biggest west coast refinery. (Corporate headquarters are only 25 miles away.) Sirens go off during excessive leaks of toxins like ammonia, and as if out of a horror movie, an explosion at the plant in 1999 that sent an 18,000-pound plume of sulfur dioxide fumes into the air was said to be so nasty it took the fur off squirrels.

Chevron is one of the biggest corporations on the planet. While the average income for a human being in Richmond is a little over $19,000, Chevron's profits last year were $24 billion, meaning the corporation is more than one million times as rich as the average citizen there. Nonetheless, the humans there won a huge victory recently, preventing the corporation from expanding and retooling its refinery so that it could process even dirtier crude oil (with dirtier local emissions, in a place that already suffers huge health consequences from the monster in its backyard). It may be the world's first victory against refinery expansion.

Chevron is both the state's biggest single greenhouse-gas emitter and a huge financial force in Richmond elections, invariably funding campaigns against green candidates. The mostly poor, mostly nonwhite citizens of Richmond are, however, organized and motivated, so if you want to watch a monster movie in which the little guys have been winning lately, follow city politics there.

One of the cool things about the West County Toxics Coalition, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Green Party mayor, and the activists working with them is that they know better than anyone how to act locally and think globally, and even sometimes how to act globally and think locally. Maybe collectively they're not so little. They're allied with antiwar groups, with Burmese human rights groups, with the people of Ecuador and Nigeria who have suffered petro-contamination at least as bad, if not worse than BP's Gulf spill this spring, with groups around the world fighting the petrobeast. There's a movement out there, and sometimes it even wins amazing victories.

Around the world this month, coordinated more than 7,000 demonstrations in favor of lowering atmospheric carbon to a sane 350 parts per million, while the climate justice movement had a global day of action on Columbus Day. Among the month's heroic efforts were direct action against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, blockades of refineries in France and Britain and of a coal-fired power plant in Germany, protests and gas-station blockades in Canada, and a rally in the Philippines, a demonstration in Finland, a march in Ecuador, a protest in South Africa, among others. In California, activists worked steadily against Prop. 23.

Think for a minute about horror movies: in some of them, the little people rally and do heroic things and the monsters or aliens are vanquished. The forces that have come together against Prop. 23 are impressive, ranging from inner-city job coalitions and traditional environmental groups to university think tanks and business interests. Winning or losing, however, depends on what happens when California voters look at that deceptive label "California Jobs Initiative" on their ballots on November 2nd.

If your heart isn't pounding, and you aren't biting your fingernails and teetering at the edge of your seat, then you haven't noticed the monsters yet. Look carefully. They're all around us—and they're coming for you.

Rebecca Solnit's brother David does organizing work against Chevron, and she often shows up for the marches. She is the author of 13 books, including the forthcoming Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (which maps toxins and right-wing corporations in the Bay Area, among other things) and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She writes for as often as she can. It's her personal version of being David in the face of all those Goliaths. To catch Solnit discussing "mixed-up California" in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

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