The Battle Against Municipal Freedom

Adam Krause made a collage about conflicts over municipal freedoms

The conflict between municipal power and corporate interests is underway, intensifying, and hidden in plain sight in the backs of our newspapers.

Two examples, both from the United States, and both from Texas, are particularly illustrative. In both cases, the rights of citizens to control and construct their own space are clashing with corporations interested in freely exploiting that same space.

In November 2014, nearly 60% of Denton, Texas voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within city limits. Lawsuits against the decision were filed within hours, and state representative Drew Darby filed House Bill 40, which attempts to take oil and gas activity out of municipal hands. It declares that

a municipality or other political subdivision may not enact or enforce an ordinance or other measure, or an amendment or revision of an existing ordinance or other measure, that bans, limits, or otherwise regulates an oil and gas operation within its boundaries or extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Under HB40, the State of Texas, rather than the cities in question, would be able to say what oil and gas companies can do. Furthermore, all decisions would need to be “commercially reasonable”—“a condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.”

Similarly, Fort Stockton, Texas recently voted to ban plastic bags. These have a tendency to blow around in the West Texas wind and clutter up the landscape. The law was set to be enacted March 1, but it has been pushed back to September. Although this seems like a perfectly reasonable ordinance, it may never become a reality. House Bill 2416, which is actually entitled the “Shopping Bag Freedom Act,” a name apparently concocted and presented with a straight face by actual adults. It declares that “a business that sells an item to a customer may provide to the customer at the point of sale a bag, package or other container made from any material.”

So municipalities can create legislation to make cities safer and more pleasant to inhabit, but if these bits of legislation stand in the way of “corporate freedom,” the next level up in the governmental chain of command will do everything in its power to preserve “corporate freedom.” And even when that “corporate freedom” is something as silly as the right to hand out plastic with every purchase.

The power of people to construct and control space is essential in overcoming the myriad environmental crises we currently face. And how we utilize our space largely determines who we are choosing to become. So just who will we choose to become? Citizens in cities of our own making, or powerless pawns in the game of global capitalism?