Earth Day Speech

Delivered on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus April 22, 2003
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

 April 22, 2003

Earth Day is here again – and none too soon – to remind us that we have responsibilities that extend beyond our own backyards.

Earth Day challenges us to take seriously our job as caretakers of our natural environment. It inspires us to think of more than just our own sustenance – to act on behalf of this planet we share and all its inhabitants.

If Earth Day makes you think about how you can do more to make sure the air we breathe is clean and the water we drink is pure, then it is doing its job.

If Earth Day gets you to worrying about the safety of our food supply, or of wild places, or of wildlife, then it is serving its purpose.

All of these are critically important concerns. And most of us seem to need a special day set aside to prod us to care about them. We owe a debt to Earth Day for that.

But caring about clean air or clean water or endangered species or genetically engineered food is not enough.

The greatest environmental challenge of our time is the health of our democracy. Democratic reform is the issue behind every environmental issue. Clean water will never flow from dirty politics. When the polluters are allowed to own – or at least rent – so many of our public officials, environmental policy will not be made in the public interest.

I represent a small band of citizens known as the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. We are working for something that no longer exists in our land.

We just had a $23 million race for governor. When running for office costs that much, the vast majority of citizens are priced out of the market. How can we possibly lay claim to an authentic democracy when all but a handful of citizens cannot make a serious run for state or national office?

In this $23 million campaign, the two major party candidates got three-quarters of their money from just over 1,100 people – three one-hundredths of 1% of Wisconsin taxpayers. In a state of 5 million people, it is a real stretch to call this a democratic election when 1,100 people bankrolled the campaign.

There’s a lot I don’t understand about politics and politicians. But I know this: Elected officials serve us best when they serve in fear. And I can also tell you this: They don’t fear you. Not unless you make a habit of writing very large checks to political campaigns.

Just as campaign finance is the issue behind every environmental issue, it is the issue behind issues affecting everyone from seniors to college students. Whoever is governor has reason to fear the 1,100 people who pay for gubernatorial campaigns. But not too many fixed-income seniors or college students write $10,000 checks to campaigns. That explains why seniors will have to pay up to 70% more for prescription drugs under the SeniorCare program and college students face tuition increases of as much as $700 a year to balance the state budget. But despite a $3 billion budget deficit, corporations get to keep every last one of their tax breaks.

In a real democracy, you don’t have court-appointed presidents. And that’s not the half of it. Real democracies don’t have a corporate-anointed Congress. Or state legislators and governors who are wholly owned subsidiaries of the privileged class.

In a real democracy, you don’t have moneyed interests going in one room and choosing the Republican candidate, going in another room and picking the Democratic candidate, and then coming out and saying, "Now let the people decide."

In half of state legislative races in 2002, voters got no choice at all. The races were uncontested. They used to have elections like that in the former Soviet Union. And they held one like that in Iraq a few months ago. One name on the ballot. That’s a lot of things, but a democracy it ain't.

A democracy it ain't when the First Amendment is turned into a commodity that is bought and sold. There is nothing free about political speech. It costs a bundle. Wisconsin political candidates aired over 40,000 ads – 40,000 doses of poison, if you ask me – at a cost of over $13 million in the 2002 campaign. You have a right to speak, but you have no way to be heard unless you have a truckload of money. A democracy it ain't.

Whenever we’e told by the embedded media that we’e fighting a war for democracy, one thought keeps coming to mind: You cannot give what you don’t have.

Earth Day is here again – and none too soon – to remind us that we have responsibilities that extend beyond our own backyards.

If Earth Day 2003 is remembered for anything, let it mark the day that we came to understand the greatest gift we could give Mother Nature is a healthy democracy – a political process responsive to citizens regardless of the size of their bank accounts and devoted only to the common good.

Let Earth Day 2003 stand for a new resolve to take back our government and resuscitate our democracy. Let it stand for reclaiming what belongs to us:

  • The ballot box. A vote means nothing if there’s no choice on the ballot.
  • The First Amendment. The right to speak means nothing if you cannot be heard.
  • The broadcast airwaves. They are public property. They do not belong to the media monopolies, they belong to you. Let’s take them back.
  • That building on the other end of State Street. It is public property. Those offices are public offices. They are not luxury suites to be leased to corporate sponsors. They belong to you. In the name of Earth Day, and for the sake of our natural resources, let’s take them back.
WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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