Academic Life

CAFOs and a More Perfect Union

What is this “more perfect union” our forefathers envisioned and wrote about in our Constitution? Is it not, at least in part, a matter of finding the proper balance between individual freedoms and civic responsibility? Let us examine each of these principles, in turn.

Put simply, having freedom, being free, means being able to do what we wish, to act as we choose, without interference from others and from our government. This is well and good, and thus we enjoy the freedom of choosing where to live, what job or profession we will enter, what religion we believe in, and so on.

The balancing force to individual freedom is civic responsibility. This comes as a qualifier to the principle of individual freedom and can be expressed as “…as long as others are not negatively impacted by our actions.” It is these two principles, in conflict or in balance, with our government representatives in their role as referees, that characterize our democracy.

Initially, CAFOs can be seen as positive expressions of individual freedom: It is in the sense of this principle of individual freedom that farmers have the right to build CAFOs, or to farm any other way they choose. Farmers choose to build these operations for their individual gain, for their own profit, and that is perfectly allowable under our democratic system.

It is when we introduce the second part, the “…as long as others are not negatively impacted by our actions” that the problem arises. Clearly, CAFOs produce widespread and deeply felt negative impacts on a multitude of citizens that live in places where these operations have recently been constructed. The evidence is abundant and irrefutable, and I need not go into detail on the ill effects of airborne pathogens, water pollution, declining property values, etc. The evidence of our own sense of smell ought to be enough to allow that we, the neighbors of CAFOs are adversely affected.

This brings us to the role of government as the appointed referees in the conflict between individual freedom and civic responsibility. In the case of CAFOs our government has clearly not done its duty to protect its citizens form the harm that can arise from the abuse of individual liberty. In Iowa, the DNR is in a divided state of affairs. Part of the DNR has created the Master Matrix, a system which was ostensibly designed to limit negative impacts on our citizenry and our natural environment. It does a good job at neither. On the other hand, there are environmental divisions within the DNR that understand the serious issues of air and water pollution and would play a stronger role in this debate, had they the power to do so. They are outnumbered and outgunned by the factions representing corporate farming and the Master Matrix approach.

This brings us to the state government that oversees the DNR, and to the overwhelmingly pro-corporate, pro-big ag attitude of our current administration. Unfortunately, we can expect no help from that quarter. The best we can do is to vote them out and to insist that the new leadership closes the door to the corporate interests that have impacted our lives by promoting and funding factory farming.

At the local level our county supervisors seem to believe that by passing the Master Matrices of CAFO applicants “they are just doing their job.” In one sense this is true, and it is admirable that they are trying to follow the rule of law “to the letter.” But there is a wider scope to this, and that is the reason for this essay. We must examine and discuss how it can be that following the law “to the letter” can lead to such disastrous consequences for the quality of life in our county. How can it be that good intentions on the part of our supervisors, which I have no reason to doubt, can bring those who live near sites where CAFOs are built such misery and loss?

To find answers we must look to the system, to the structure of law enacted by our legislators. Here we find the root of the problem: the undue influence of big money, big ag, underlain by a pervasive neoliberal philosophy of market fundamentalism which says that the market is always right, always brings to society the best solutions for our collective well-being. CAFOs give us reason to doubt the system. In short, the narrow interests of the few have been allowed by our government, in the name of freedom, to trample our own individual rights to clean air and water and a healthy living environment.

Clearly, we are looking at a formidable foe. “They,” the players in the system, are powerful in money and influence, and are well organized to deflect any attempt we may make at restoring the balance between individual freedom and civic responsibility. Hence the “gag” laws and other legislation designed to mask the true conditions within CAFO operations. The system is robust. It will resist even the truth, when it must.

So how do we dismantle or otherwise change such a system? As history shows us, it is not easy, and it does not come without sacrifice, sometimes very great sacrifice. Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement are good examples. It oftentimes takes extraordinary measures on the part of ordinary people to bring about positive change. And that is what I am asking for in this appeal. Who will step up to defend the side of civic responsibility over that overrated principle of individual freedom, the balance of which must be restored when our own lives are so severely impacted?

I will end this appeal with a clue to what may work: What we need most is extraordinary solidarity and an unstoppable will toward regaining that “more perfect union.” It is only with these elements strongly in place that all revolutions of equity and justice have transpired. It will take a strong citizens’ group, well informed and well organized, to arrest the spread of CAFOs in our county. JFAN is doing a great job with this, but the approach of going after the Master Matrices line-by-line has been frustrating and disheartening. While I am all for continuing to support JAFN in its efforts, I think we need a parallel response.

I suggest that we, the citizens of Jefferson County, ramp things up, by convening the largest citizens’ protest groups we can muster, by being visible in numbers as often as possible. Our county supervisors, the press, and those who seek to build CAFOs in Jefferson County need to know that enough is enough. Our rights to clean air and water, and a healthy environment, outweigh individual (and corporate) rights to pursue profits.

Categories: Academic Life

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