The Science and Environmental Health Network

Activist Tips

Tips for Activists

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Volume One: Planning and the Public trust Doctrine

The Public Trust Doctrine was established so no one (king or corporation) could keep the public from access to fishing and navigation. The rationale for the Public Trust was that people had a right to access the commons. When they were denied access to the tidal waters and submerged lands, they couldn’t obtain the essential necessities for a livelihood.

This basic idea of the Public Trust Doctrine has been extended beyond the economic necessities of transportation and fishing to cover access of shorelines and waterbodies for the recreational benefits provided by these waterways and adjacent lands.

Recently, the Public Trust Doctrine has been expanded to commons assets other than water bodies. Young people are bringing lawsuits in state and federal courts charging that government has a public trust responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases to stabilize the climate. These young people, as beneficiaries, are making the case that the atmosphere is part of the public trust and that government, as the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to protect the atmosphere from climate change.

We at SEHN and the Women’s Congress for Future Generations are advocating a much wider view of the Public Trust Doctrine: it is actually an elegant approach to the role of government. The Public Trust is an expression of the most fundamental responsibilities of government: to care for all the things we share, the things that are part of the commonwealth and the public health. The commons include drinking water, parks, wildlife, roads, bridges, public schools the atmosphere and so much more. As the earliest advocates of the Public Trust Doctrine recognized, the commons are the foundation of the economy. Without the road to market, farm products have little value. Without clean drinking water for the city of New York there is no city. And on it goes.

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Volume two: planning and disaster preparedness

Planning, of all kinds, is a universal experience and is already widely understood as important. So, why, are we so invested in planning and preparedness at SEHN?

 We see planning and preparedness, especially in the face of climate change and climate-induced disasters, as a fundamental manifestation of both the Precautionary Principle and the Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine dictates that government has a fiduciary responsibility to care for common assets such as our atmosphere, by reducing greenhouse gases and stabilizing the climate-- thus protecting our right, as community members and beneficiaries, to the air, the water, the commonwealth, and public health-- all the things we share that have come to be considered as the commons. The best way to fulfill that responsibility is by implementing the Precautionary Principle, which was literally designed for thinking ahead for a difficult and uncertain future. The Precautionary Principle urges that we actively think about the impact of our actions on the health and well-being of future generations and use that as a guiding standard for all of our decisions. How we live together, govern ourselves, and plan for an uncertain and difficult future will shift as we anticipate how climate change and potential disasters will affect us.

 We already know that human activity can make things better or worse. In a recent radio interview Rebecca Altman, environmental sociologist and SEHN board member, urged listeners to really consider our place and our role in environmental issues. She said, “We can be more than just anti-litterbugs, more than just great recyclers, and more than better consumers. We can be citizens and we can have a say...” This call to action resonates through every aspect of current environmental concerns. We can be citizens in the sense that Aldo Leopold used it—members of the larger ecological and biotic community. And we can have a say, especially on how our communities, and all the things we share, are prepared to deal with climate induced-disasters.

 This booklet will start out with tips on how we can prepare for the effects of climate change and climate-induced disasters on an individual level. This is a great way to begin thinking about and implementing the Precautionary Principle on your own. However, this is just the starting off point. In order to truly have a say, we will need to act as citizens, as neighbors, and as partners for each other in our own communities, working as concentric circles on every level to establish a coordinated response. As mentioned earlier, how to live together is one of the greatest indicators of how we will literally weather the storm(s) together, and how we will survive and build our capacity for resilience as a collective group.

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Activist Tips: Analyzing and Shaping Public Budgets

 Much of environmental and social justice work depends on government action of some kind – legislation, regulation and litigation. Often an invisible part of that work has a public budget element. Federal, state and local budgets are the vehicles for government policies.

Public budgets are built on basic assumptions of what government is for. If your governor has based her administration on the premise that her job is to promote economic growth, she will set goals and establish budgets that seek corporations to locate within your state. She will privatize basic government services and slash funding for environmental regulation.

 If, however, your governor is basing her administration on the idea that government is to serve the public good and she is charged with the well-being of the people, she is more likely to set goals and spend money that protect the common wealth and public health.

 Our task is to shape the public conversation and policy. Taking public budgets seriously and showing that public money should be in public hands and used for the public good, is a way to highlight an appropriate role for government.

 Here’s how you can analyze your state or local budget and come up with recommendations for both revenue and spending.