When future generations look back, if future generations there will be, they will see a time when corporations ruled the earth and, in a little over a century, brought its devastation.
Rising sea levels, not to mention tides and storms, will inundate countless seaside cities worldwide in our children’s lifetime. Acidification of the oceans is laying waste to whole worlds of sea that once brimmed with life. The dedication of more and more resources to preparations for war leaves infrastructure to deteriorate. And the evolution of world capitalism into financial parasitism imposes “austerity” on the world’s people and concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, so that now 60 families have more than the poorest three billion.
We have allowed this. We who live in the wealthiest nations, we whose world we have put “first,” we who work so hard and who seem to have so little say in the conditions of our lives—we have allowed this. Because even though it has been generations since bullets and bombs filled the air in Europe and America, even though we do not see naked children with distended bellies standing alongside streets running with sewage, even though we eat well, nevertheless we have seen the way of things.
No adult with an honest turn of mind can look at pictures of the brutally impoverished world and witness business as usual in our comfortable world and fail to sense the direct connection. Even those among us who raise their voices to blame the victims are shouting down a conscience that stirs within. Because we all know what happens in the boardrooms.
The business of America is business, and business means making money. That’s all. Every decision made by the oil industry and the tobacco industry, by General Motors and Volkswagen, by pharmaceutical companies and hospitals and arms manufacturers is made to maximize revenue. Even at the cost of other people’s lives. The language of the boardrooms has a term for dead customers. They are called “externalities.” And the logic of the system, the profit motive, seeps into the lives of ordinary people who are trapped in a world where corporate greed determines almost all of what we eat and wear and read and do for a living.
Not only trapped but infected. Because the system has fed us well. And clothed us, and provided most of us with a living. And so, just as surely as an executive with a conscience, we have kept silent about what we know to be wrong. In the language of boardrooms, we are risk-averse. We are silent, but we know. We know that the lies of tobacco companies were not an isolated incident. The lies of Honda about its deadly airbags and GM about its deadly ignition switches and pharmaceutical companies who market their products “off label”–these are not aberrations. This is business as usual. We know it, and we have allowed it.
But something about the water crisis in Flint coinciding with the GM ignition switch scandal has us angry in a way we have not been angry in a long time. One righteously angry man is Clarence Ditlow. The head of the Center for Auto Safety, Ditlow insists that those at GM, Volkswagen and Takata (the manufacturer of Honda’s airbags) responsible for those companies’ crimes should do jail time.
This is a radical call, but Ditlow sees these as radical times. “This is one of the most egregious corporate crimes I have ever seen,” he says of Volkswagen’s criminal activity in deceiving the Environmental Protection Agency regarding diesel emissions. “Clear knowledge. Clear intent. And they got caught.”
Ditlow points out the extremely harmful effects of the particulates emitted by the VW diesel engines in question, which put out 40 times more pollution than is permissible by law. “The government in the U.S., the governments throughout Europe and the rest of the world should hit Volkswagen over the head and send the responsible executives to jail” Ditlow says.
In the case of the GM ignition switches, which would inadvertently turn the engine off while driving, also turning off the power steering, Ditlow is just as adamant. “So, there have been, admitted by GM, at least 174 deaths to date due to this defect,” he says. “The Center for Auto Safety believes that the true death count is at least twice that, well over 300 deaths.” GM simply took out the “corporate checkbook,” Ditlow says, and avoided justice. “On Wall Street it was the banks were too big to fail. At GM, the corporation and the executives were too big to jail. It’s a corporate crime that went unpunished.”
In the Takata case, the airbag company in 2001 replaced the standard propellant, sodium azide, with a dangerous explosive, ammonium nitrate. “It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to bring down the government office building in Oklahoma City,” Ditlow notes. He claims the company knew its airbags were exploding, sending shrapnel into drivers killing and injuring them, but that it covered up its knowledge during government investigations. Ditlow calls for criminal prosecution of Takata’s executives responsible for the coverup.
Typically in cases of corporate crime that are pursued by the government, the result is a fine that looks immense to ordinary people but that represents only a tiny percentage of the company’s annual revenue. What is needed is more people like Clarence Ditlow, who see the insanity of our society and justice system where corporations are concerned. It is the burning for justice, for an equitable justice that applies to rich and poor, that we will need to pull down this oligarchic class that oversees our unsustainable society of human inequality and environmental destruction.
It is insanity our descendants will see in looking back. It is up to us, collectively, to see to it that the illness of our corporation-strangled society does not prove fatal. Our children and grandchildren must not be our generation’s externalities.
Photo credit: zimbio.com