The January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia that has deprived some 300,000 people of safe drinking water for the last week is a horrible tragedy. What is even worse is the larger problem of corporate irresponsibility and disregard for mankind and and nature alike that this catastrophe brings into focus. Many large corporations can cause massive damage to the natural environment, to local communities, and/or to ordinary people's lives, health and jobs and get away with it. Oh, they may be slapped with a small or even a very large fine here and there, as recently happened with Goldman Sachs when it was punished for trading irregularities with a $550m penalty, or be required to pay some kind of compensation to victims of corporate malfeasance, as with BP (British Petroleum) and the 2010 oil spill that wreaked havoc with the Gulf of Mexico, killed or sickened marine life, downgraded the health of Gulf waters, and wrecked the lives of local fishermen and others whose livelihood depended on the Gulf of Mexico being a healthy ecosystem and not a toxic cesspool. None of these fines or penalties are ever large or severe enough to actually pose a serious threat to the continued survival of the corporations in question; they are more like additional business expenses that may reduce profits for a time, but can gradually be absorbed and forgotten, without the companies involved having to make any fundamental changes in how they do business. It was calculated that the seemingly huge fine imposed on Goldman Sachs would only cost the financial behemoth about 24 minutes worth of its usual profits. Most of us suffer more financial hardship from traffic fines or parking tickets than do these monstrous companies from billion dollar penalties.
Furthermore, corporations are often able to greatly reduce their fines or wriggle out of paying anything at all through fancy legal maneuvering. When it's big government versus big business in the courtroom, large corporations can often afford more and better lawyers than can the government, and they can also opt to run out the clock, keeping the matter spinning in legal limbo for so long that the government either agrees to a settlement far less costly than the original proposed penalty, or simply gives up. Beyond that, when the government tries to create new regulations or even new government agencies to fight back against corporate greed and malfeasance, corporations are able to bribe, threaten and otherwise influence many legislators and regulators into either halting the new legislation or agency in its tracks or watering it down with loopholes, exclusions and exceptions that essentially thwart the original intent of the legislation or agency. In addition, corporations and their legal teams are able to recruit former politicians and regulators to work for them to circumvent laws and regulations, creating a revolving door situation in which government officials take corporate jobs working against the very laws and agencies that these officials once were in charge of. Another strategy is to leave the laws in place but cut the funding so that the regulatory agencies involved will not be able to enforce or implement the policies they are charged with. Conservatives love to claim that big government regulations are strangling our economy, but I think the truth is more that powerful corporations are strangling our government and leaving the American people with little protection from the depredations and abuses of the corporate elite.
On the night of January 14th, the late-night comedians and political commentators Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made the trenchant point that if the poisoning of public drinking water in West Virginia had been caused by Islamic terrorists, Americans would be up in arms and screaming for our military forces to attack, invade and obliterate the "bad guy" terrorist in retribution. However, since the toxic spill was perpetrated by American corporations rather than foreign militants, there are only muted and muffled calls for investigations of what went wrong and aid to those affected. This double-standard says volumes about the privileged position occupied by business and corporations in our culture, society, system of government and sense of morality. Business is sacred and given deferential treatment, even when it causes terrible harm to us.
It hasn't always been this bad. The environmental movement was able to gain traction in our political culture in the 1960s and 1970s and scored some notable successes such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cleaning up many polluted sites, such as the Ohio River, which used to be flammable, so thick was it with pollutants. In recent years, though anti-government conservatives have been waging a tireless campaign to reduce what they cynically label "job-killing" environmental regulations and to reduce the funding for the EPA.which some have pronounced Public Enemy #1.
Well, capitalism, corporations and big business may be sacred to anti-government conservatives and Free Market Fundamentalists, but what does all this mean to Pagans?
I know there are a fair number of American Pagans, including Heathens and/or Asatru members among others, who consider themselves conservatives and/or libertarians. They take a very negative view of government authority, which they see as infringing on individual liberty. However, the sacredness of nature is usually considered to be a core component of Pagan beliefs and worldview. I would think it pretty obvious that this puts Pagans on the side of protecting nature, not defending its despoilers. To put it another way, I would think that a true conservative should try to conserve nature, not ally him or herself with "conservatives" who care more for corporate profits than environmental purity. In mythology, there are gods like Thor that protect the earth, but such gods were nowhere in sight when industrial pollution struck the Gulf or West Virginia. In our reality of the present day, it is the government--yes, the big, bad liberal government--that strives to protect nature from corruption and degradation through such agencies as the EPA and by passing and enforcing laws that restrict and punish industrial and corporate pollution. It therefore seems to me that you CANNOT be a self-respecting Pagan of any sort and be in favor of letting businesses and corporations freely pollute our world and destroy our natural environment and be opposed to the government protecting what is supposed to be sacred to you. You should support the government in being the caretaker of our environment, and pray for more and better laws, regulations, policies and agencies to protect nature, NOT less and fewer.
Pagans, stand up for nature! And let's welcome people of other faiths and traditions who also care about the future health of this planet that we all share.