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Oligarchy and the Way of the Divine

The Problem

Early hominids hunted the wooly mammoth to extinction. In fact, one can trace the path of homo sapiens out of Africa, through Asia and into America by the path of animals that became extinct when humans arrived. Clearly, the issue of environmental stewardship is not new. It’s been around a long time, but the context today is new. Instead of paleolithic tribes we have governments, multi national corporations, often working in tandem with government, and an oligarchic elite that seems to be worldwide. Wooly mammoth step aside: the whole planet is in trouble. Fifty years ago picking up litter along the roadside was de rigueur, lest the observing Native American shed another tear. How naive it seems we were.

Environmental stewardship is defined in Wikipedia as “…the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices.” Inasmuch as most business on the planet is controlled by a small number of corporations, these are the words that must apply to these biggest of multi-nationals: responsible, protection, conservation, and sustainable practices. Would that they did.

The problem today is monumental. The impact of climate change is manifest everywhere, even as pseudo scientists on the payroll of big oil continue to deny the truth. Estimates are that in 15 years 30% of the globe will be short of fresh water. In the state of Nebraska signs in motels and restaurants warn against drinking the water, laced as it is with chemicals from agricultural runoff. The CEO of Nestle, one of the world’s largest bottlers of water believes that people should have to pay for this precious commodity. Water. Clean air. Waste disposal. 9 billion people. Non nutritious “food”. The list is endless.


The Players

The question is not about who is responsible for having created this situation. In one way or another, we all are. Nor is the question about who is responsible for fixing the mess. Again, we all are. The more urgent question is: who has the power? Rounding up the usual suspects, we find three: government, corporations, and populism.

Speaking from within the American context, the line of demarcation between government and business is quite fuzzy. The “revolving door” moves government officials into corporate positions of leadership, where they can influence their former colleagues, who are waiting their turn at the big money. Corporate lobbies often write the very laws that are supposed to regulate them. The government relies on industry for almost everything. Computers. Missiles. Feeding the army. Fighting wars. Cyber security. Without business expertise, legislators hardly know what to do. Witness the great recession, wherein only the banks understood the financial instruments that they themselves had created. How is an elected government to govern when they don’t understand the problem? How many officials are elected because they do in fact understand the issues? And we know that this situation is not limited to the American scene. The Eisenhower warning about the military industrial complex needs to be updated. The complex to be feared today is the government/corporate symbiosis.

There is, however, another level of complicity. Bankers called to testify before a senate hearing scoff at the questions being put to them. In Russia recently, a Putin critic with populist support was shot down, killed as were many other critics, but at the so-called Mercury Club, representing the leading business interests, the main speaker was critical of both Putin’s economic and foreign policy, but spoke with total impunity. When the US and other governments impose sanctions, they target not only vital interests of the nation involved, but also the interests of the business moguls supportive of that country’s leader. In the shadows of government and corporations there appears to be a group of powerful people who are very powerful indeed. If we ask about who has the power to address the environmental crisis that we face, one answer is government, another is business, and a third seems to lie with the oligarchy that inheres in both.

In the good old days, aristocracy had a sense of longevity and honor- they wanted the estate to last for future generations. The problem with a modern corporate based oligarchy is that it is interested primarily in immediate reward. Accumulation of profit and therefore power is measured in seconds. The definition of environmental stewardship which includes sustainability is a concept alien to modern money makers. It doesn’t have to be that way, but myopia seems to rule the markets.

Part of the problem are the investors. Of course, many of these phantoms are very wealthy people masquerading as hedge funds and the like. Their sole purpose is to make money fast, not build a factory in a town, not plant fields of grain. Other types of investors are somewhat more familiar, if not likable. Pension funds, for example, are charged with getting and maintaining and increasing the amount of money available to future retirees. Insurance companies need income from investments to pay claims. When the US government fined BP for the oil spill, a British pension fund heavily invested in BP lost a great deal of money as the share value declined, and pensioners were hurt. In various entanglements, we are all invested in the destruction of the environment and reap the short term benefits.

Another dimension of the problem is that we have sold our soul to quantification. At this very moment, the EPA has set forth guidelines to regulate the emission of mercury into the air via smokestacks at coal power plants. The coal interests challenged the Agency (while, surprise, the nuclear interests supported the agency!), and brought the issue to the US Supreme Court. The question is not whether mercury in the air we breathe is a good thing or a bad thing; no one would say it is good. The issue before the court is whether the EPA counted the cost of implementing its regulations. It’s not sufficient that we know people will die from bad air. We have to know how many, so that we can tabulate how much money should be spent to remove the mercury. The health and well- being of millions has to have a price tag, otherwise we can’t be sure that the regulations are “worth it”.



But what are we to say to oligarchic power? We could appeal to a sense of morality. Do the right thing, please! Likely not to have much effect. We could use Norway as an illustration of what can happen when the common good takes precedence over profit. But, in the US, at least, socialism has been made into a bad word- even though Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from the state of Vermont is being received by millions who prefer populism over oligarchy. Or we could appeal to a common sense survival instinct. Like- “if you destroy the planet, even you will have no clean air and clean water, and there will be no one with any money to buy your stuff”. When Henry Ford outrageously doubled the wages of his workers, he knew that a good capitalist relies upon a good market in a healthy environment, and his workers bought Fords. To whatever extent a global oligarchy exists, surely they must understand that the concept of a gated community does not apply to the planet as a whole, and that there is no escape from the destruction. Or not understand.

There is another way. There must be another way. There have always been captains of industry who worked hand in glove (or pocket) with the government. The oligarchy has always been there. But so have the people. Again, speaking from the American perspective, the power of the people has been the corrective voice that steered the ship of state safely between the twin threats of dictatorship and nihilistic chaos. Inasmuch as the US is the most powerful country on earth, it lies within our purview to be the defining influence in environmental stewardship. Common sense would show us the way.

Populism, however, can also go astray. Just because the people choose the path does not necessarily make it the right path.

And that brings us, inevitably and necessarily, to God’s will and those who dare to divine it as best they can. Whoever has the power to influence environmental policy, be it government, industry, oligarchy, or the populace, they need to hear a voice that speaks from the spirit.

Impossible as it may seem, there are those fundamentalist christian voices that proclaim that it is not the responsibility of Jesus’ followers to care for the earth, that when god wants to end it, he will do so. Jesus, it would seem, thought otherwise. Here was a man who reminded all he encountered that the earth was the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, who incarnated the battle against oppression, be it of peasants or of the land they worked, and who challenged men and women to be what God called them to be, including good stewards of the earth.

Of course, he was crucified. The government did not tolerate sedition. Business liked matters as they stood. The oligarchy recognized an enemy when they saw one. And the people…clamoring, cheering…and then abandoning.

But that was not the end, at least if we can believe the witness of the men and women who became followers of Jesus. Though dead, they knew him to be alive in their midst, and they committed their lives to spreading the good news. And what was that good news? That God is love and love conquers all. Progressive Christians live in the knowledge that God loves the creation, and we are called to love likewise.

Topics: Social & Environmental Ministry. 8 Points: Point 4: Act As We Believe and Point 7: Integrity of the Earth. Seasons & Special Events: All Seasons and Earth Day. Resource Types: Act, Articles, and Go Green.

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