Ethics of Profit


In my last post I commented on a consevative lady’s comment about my being jealous of people who had utilized their skills to become successful. Yesterday a friend showed me a movie called The Last Mountain, which perfectly illustrated my point about just what skills successful people utilize, and just how they utilize them.

The movie is about coal mining in West Virginia, how it affects local communities, and what local communities do about it. Coal remains one of our major energy sources. When you use electricity for anything, chances are it was generated by burning coal. Massey Mining is perhaps the 2nd or 3rd largest coal mining company in this country, and specializes in mining through mountaintop removal. This particular method used to be illegal, although practiced, until Massey (and probably other coal companies) made large contributions to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000. The movie quotes Bush as commenting that his campaign had been “coal-fired”, and shortly after he took office the law controlling what coal companies could do with the waste associated with strip-mining (essentially what mountaintop removal is), was changed to allow the companies to dump waste just about anywhere they pleased. They could now do was fill dump trucks with waste, back them up to the edge of a drop, and dump them, with little need to be concerned for what was below.

What was below was not only people, many of whom worked in the mines, but also streams, which were often covered by the debris, or at least badly polluted. Jared Diamond, who wrote Collapse about ecological problems, commented that oil spills are bad enough, but you can at least see the oil, and it’s also degradable. Waste from hard-rock mines (not just coal, but also mines for metal ores) are different. You may be able to see some of the debris, but what you’re unable to see is often the most dangerous. Particles of heavy metals, or various chemicals, for instance. If you have heavy metals in your drinking water (and streams rising from the Appalachian mountais feed aquifers affecting millions of people) you’re likely to ingest them, and they and brains don’t get along well. In one small town the movie cited, there were six people who had recently had brain tumors, something that occurs rarely in the general population.

Of course the coal companie denied what they were doing was adversely affecting anyone. They claimed to be “job creators”, even though statistics showed that even as production numbers were going up, employment numbers were going down. The movie pointed out that prior to the CEO of Massey taking office there had been a lot more jobs in coal mining, and many of the mines had been unionized. One local resident said that working in a unionized mine was like working in day, as opposed to night. Another pointed out that Massey’s goal had not only been to break the union, but to drive local residents (many of whom had lived in the area for generations) out, so that Massey could use the land in any way it wanted.

  Besides that, Massey had a record of accidents in their mines, which a TV commentator called “questionable”. Actually, it wasn’t questionable at all. They obviously cared nothing about safety for their employees, to say nothing of anyone else living in the area.  What Massey had done with wastes from theirn mountaintop mining was create a huge reservoir in which to dump toxic sludge. This reservoir was located right above a local school, and the company wanted to build another such reservoir right next to it. Locals were not happy, but what could they do?

Massey had been cited for some 60,000 violations regarding pollution, and when the local authority charged with enforcing those laws finally got around to doing so, they fined Massey $20 million (which Massey could make in less than a day), and then it was simply business as usual. Massey could largely control the regulatory apparatus wherever they were through political contributions, a classic example of what George Orwell said in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, a sentiment expressed even more clearly in a poster I saw on Facebook the other night. “Why is Bernie Madoff the only Wall Street crook who got convicted? He stole from the 1%.”

I don’t think it come as a shock to many people that there is more than one standard of justice in this country. That’s the way it is in the rest of the world too, but it’s one of the ways in which America is supposed to be an exception. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the ways we fail to live up to our best ideals. At the same time that people are gettting excited about illegal immigrants, from what I read, a lot of Mexicans are going back to Mexico. They apparently believe the opportunities that brought them to this country are no longer going to be here. Massey is just one example of why they might think that.

The movie does end on a fairly happy note, though. The people of the town the movie follows manage to stop Massey from beginning to blow up the last intact mountain near them through nonviolent resistance, and have begun to make arrangements to install wind turbines on the mountain instead.They’ve also managed to get a new school built, outside the immediate danger area of the dam of sludge (which might well eventually break, releasing 2.8 billion gallons of the toxic stuff into the valley, as has happened elsewhere).

The irony of this whole confrontation is that wind power turns out to be tremendously more efficient than coal power, especially when you factor in not only the costs of production, but also the costs of illnesses caused by both mining and burning coal. The one difference is that the mining process is already in place, it’s very profitable (especially when run without concern for employees, residents near the mine, or any others who might be affected in any way), and, I would imagine, those who are responsible for running the operation enjoy doing it that way. It’s an expression of Social Darwinism, the survival of the “fittest”, which must here be defined as prospering through criminal activity.

As horrifying as this story might seem, it’s a good example of why we’re fortunate to live in America. In a totalitarian country, to protest such activities would mean to be imprisioned or killed out of hand. Some have the courage to protest anyway. A lot of people don’t. One reason why some prefer dictatorships, especially if they get to be the dictator. They can “achieve” without any pesky regulations to constrain them, just as Hitler, Stalin and Mao “achieved”.  In this country we have the possibility to protest without the immediate danger of death or imprisonment. That doesn’t gurantee dissent will be successful, but it is as “American as apple pie”, and things will have to change quite a bit before the way other countries routinely suppress it get accepted here.



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