In June, I attended the Daniel Pennock Democracy School in Bellingham, WA, the site of a newly proposed coal export terminal. (Daniel Pennock died in 1995 at 17 after being exposed to toxic sewage sludge applied to land in Berks County, PA.) Democracy Schools are a program of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which is a non-profit public interest environmental law firm based in rural Pennsylvania. According to its website, CELDF helps “community groups and municipalities write and adopt laws that assert community rights, including the right to local self-government, the rights of nature, and the subordination of corporate privilege to the rights of the community.”

The 12-hour weekend Democracy School course taught curriculum including readings from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, English Common Law, the Articles of Confederation, The Declaration of Independence, James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, William Llyod Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, as well as modern readings on the rise of a modern corporate state. Out of the selected readings, the U.S. Constitution emerged as a document championing property and commerce over the rights of people, communities, and nature.

The course was a very grounding historical lesson in the structure of U.S. governance systems, regulatory frameworks, and judicial institutions that were built in essence to support and legalize the rise of corporate power. The Democracy School contrasted readings from the Constitution and Articles of Confederation with the documents of movement builders, such as the Declaration of Independence. A startling lesson important for me to remember is that movement building takes a lot of time (30–40 years), and that the work today for justice is a legacy of the prior peoples’ movements that have come before us.

CELDF’s work has succeeded at the local level in assisting rural famers with their goals to ban corporate hog farming. Since then, nine states have passed legislation banning corporate farming. New initiatives are rising in Pennsylvania to ban fracking and other harmful environmental practices that environmental laws merely regulate. Overall, CELDF’s mission is to leverage its work at the municipal level to force constitutional-level change. (Linzey worked with Ecuador to include the rights of nature in its amended constitution.) The work that CELDF is doing at the municipal level, e.g. banning corporate hog farms and fracking, is unconstitutional because these activities are legal under state and federal laws. State and federal laws preempt municipal laws under the U.S. constitution’s preemption doctrine.

CELDF is pushing the legal limits of environmental law, which functionally regulates and mitigates environmental damages, but doesn’t go so far as to ban harmful environmental practices outright. Linzey pushes for structural changes that are so big that the anticipated push back and inevitable legal challenges—he hopes—will only help to fuel even greater resistance and movement building among communities whose rallying cry is “consent of the governed.” CELDF is courageously working toward building a movement that asks communities to say “Yes!” instead of “No!” CELDF encourages communities to ask themselves: “What do we want?” rather than “What do we not want?” Exploring a positive future vision, communities get out from under the technical legal language of expert-speak environmental statutes. Instead, CELDF is working to build a movement that speaks the language of the people—one based on the emotional, democracy-inspired terrain of rights that the movement builders before us died to protect.

The Democracy School took place at a particularly important moment in time for the history of Bellingham and Washington state as a whole. The city and the state are home to several proposed sites for receiving Montana and Wyoming coal shipped by rail for export to China. The community of Bellingham is currently organizing itself to determine appropriate tactics to oppose the coal export facility. Many of the Bellingham-based organizers have attended the Democracy Schools and are motivated by the deep learning inspired by the program: communities gain power by asserting the right to local self-government as a pathway to realize their vision for the future.

Mayors of several Washington cities are working together ensure a careful and united assessment of building coal export facilities at Washington ports. Watch this short video on King 5 for more on the mayors’ response to the issue.

Arguments for locating the coal export facility at Cherry Point argue that China is going to get coal from other sources anyway—at least Powder Basin coal is cleaner. Despite confusion over whether “clean coal” is a cop out, it’s a reality that the U.S. and China are locked into coal for the near future until renewable energy scales up. But rather than exporting 100 million tons of cheap U.S. coal to China each year (from Washington ports), and increasing consumption of coal in China by increasing the supply, we should think more seriously about the argument that James Fallows’s made in The Atlantic Monthly last December: coal is here to stay for a while, so the U.S. should be exporting research and development assistance to China to aid it (and other countries) to burn coal more cleanly while it lasts.