Centralized power hurts environment, empower communities for greater local accountability

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To those wary of corporate power, Halliburton — a multinational oil field services provider — has become a sort of caricature, rivaled only by Monsanto in epitomizing shameless boardroom gluttony. Until 2007, Halliburton owned Kellogg Brown & Root, a company that specializes in a ridiculously cartoonish array of malicious enterprises, from contracting mercenaries to constructing oil fields.

Halliburton jettisoned the company in response to the impressively evil array of controversies that surround the company; KBR has been accused of bribing Nigerian officials, inflating gasoline prices, concealing the gang rape of a female employee, overseeing human trafficking operations in Jordan and exposing American soldiers to burning dioxin and asbestos.

In 2000, Halliburton’s CEO and chairman, Dick Cheney, left the company to become vice president of the nation. On Aug. 12, 2000, the New York Times reported that Cheney netted a $20 million retirement package in the process. After Vice President Cheney played an instrumental role in the government’s decision to invade Iraq, Halliburton — and, specifically, KBR — was awarded millions of dollars in exclusive military contracts, according to a Feb. 11, 2009, CBS article.

With this powerful anecdote in mind, it’s difficult to fathom why anyone who wishes to protect our planet’s natural beauty from corporate trampling would wish to concentrate power in the hands of the federal government.

KBR’s boom time Iraq War profits demonstrate that the most unjust of CEOs and politicians operate as a singular oligarchy. They are, in essence, the same group of people. Taking power from CEOs and giving it to their politician golf buddies doesn’t stand in the way of environmental destruction — it expedites it.

Political centralization is, for example, entirely responsible for the rise of CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations. These operations often involve tens of thousands of cattle, pigs and chickens, crammed into compact indoor facilities; the State Environmental Resource Center states the average CAFO puts 10 family farms out of business.

These animal factories are associated with water contamination, poisonous fumes and an unparalleled stench that devalues surrounding property. They are so disgusting that, in one Iowan facility in 1997, thousands of hogs quickly suffocated on their own gases when a ventilation system failed, according to a report by Mark Lawrence for the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

It is understandable that Americans who are subjected to CAFOs would overwhelmingly wish to protect the quality of their immediate water and air — not to mention their way of life — by driving these abominations out of town. A community might even peaceably prevent a CAFO from ever appearing by, for example, making immigration conditional on a contract that disallows selling otherwise private property to a CAFO operator.

CAFO lobbyists, however, have been very successful in persuading large government entities to shove CAFOs down the throats of dissenting communities. According to the State Environmental Resource Center, the state legislatures of Minnesota and Wisconsin have both passed laws that block local municipalities from making any decisions regarding CAFOs. If one individual chooses to sell property to a CAFO operator, the entire community is therefore subjected to the range of horrors that CAFOs offer.

There’s a remarkably simple reason why CAFO lobbyists have found state legislators vastly more amiable than city halls. Unlike the mayors and city councilmen of CAFO towns, the central legislators of these states do not inhale the putrid stink of CAFOs when they step outside, do not drink water contaminated by the concentrated waste of 10,000 hogs and do not have friends and family members whose family businesses and traditions have been steamrolled by outsiders.

Political centralization never favors those who bear the brunt of environmental damage. Local governments are the most accountable because they share the experiences of their constituents. Any concentration of power over greater and greater numbers of people in fewer and fewer hands ultimately reduces accountability.

I’ve repeatedly been asked how, given my concern for the environment, I can wish to decentralize government power. Granted, when communities are allowed to manage their internal affairs, some will invariably make the wrong choices. However, when we centralize power over many communities, we run the risk that even responsible localities will be stuck with a choice no less harmful. Our planet, and the generations who will inherit it, deserve better.

Ian Huyett is a junior in political science and anthropology. Please send all comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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