The Common Good

Big Oil, Corporate Greed, and Social Sin

As an urbanite fortunate to live within walking distance of work and trendy restaurants, I rarely drive these days. But running late to a pickup basketball game recently, I was low on gas and quickly pulled into the first station on the road. It wasn't until my tank was nearly full that I looked up and saw a glowing Chevron sign. My stomach sank. Last Friday, I attended the premier of Crude, a powerful documentary that chronicles the 16-year lawsuit waged against the oil company on behalf of nearly 30,000 indigenous people living in the rainforests of Ecuador.

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The lawsuit alleges that Texaco (bought by Chevron in 2001) dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon from 1964 to 1990. Plaintiffs for the indigenous tribes believe the ecological disaster poisoned an area the size of Rhode Island and is at least 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The once pristine waters that nourished generations of indigenous communities now run black with oil. Infants are born with birth defects, cancer is ravaging villages, and a way of life dating back 500 years has been destroyed.

Chevron executives deny responsibility and have used deep pockets to drag out the case. The company, based in San Ramon, California, recently reported profits of $3.8 billion and has no shortage of savvy PR consultants or expensive legal minds at their disposal. The nonprofit Amazon Watch is leading a coalition of international groups demanding accountability from the oil giant. Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, who attended the premier in Washington, D.C., visited the affected areas of Ecuador last year and in a letter to President Obama described what he saw as a "terrible humanitarian and environmental crisis" that as an American left him "angry and ashamed."

The film raises haunting questions for those of us privileged to live in comfort while others suffer from the greed of U.S. corporations. How do we reconcile our call as Christians to live simply and seek justice for the most vulnerable amid a culture of excessive consumerism? How do we avoid becoming indifferent to human rights abuses far from our daily experiences? Crude shakes us out of the cocoon of complacency. It forces us to consider how personal choices relate to systemic injustices. I grew up steeped in the intricate vocabulary of sin. In classes that should have been called Catholic Guilt 101, I learned about mortal sins, venal sins, sins of omission, and sins of commission from the good sisters at Immaculate Conception Elementary School. It was also a sin, I was sorry to hear, not to confess all my sins during confession. I suspect most of us still think about sin as personal slights and wrongdoing against another individual. Christian conservatives are particularly fond of railing against sexual sins and could barely contain themselves when Bill Clinton got into trouble in the Oval Office. But we hear much less indignation about "social sins" that include environmental exploitation or the humanitarian impact of war. Consider the potential for progress on some of our most urgent moral challenges if we could channel some of the anger fanning the flames of our ubiquitous "culture wars" into campaigns against global poverty, preventable diseases, and ecological disaster.

While some elected officials such as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma still deny the reality of global climate change and lobbyists for Big Oil engage in what amounts to legalized bribery on Capitol Hill, I'm proud that Christians are on the front lines of a growing movement for environmental justice and corporate accountability. Sister Patricia Daly and her fellow Dominican sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, challenge companies such as ExxonMobile, Dow, and General Electric at shareholder meetings. The Catholic sisters are part of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an association of 275 faith-based institutional investors that press companies to be socially and environmentally responsible. Each year religious institutional investors sponsor more than 200 shareholder resolutions. Pope Benedict XIV has been dubbed the Green Pope for his resolute commitment to environmental justice. The Vatican even became the first "carbon neutral" state in the world. The pope's latest encyclical addressed the need for sustainable development, and the responsibility wealthy nations have to help developing countries escape the deadly traps of debt and poverty. Last spring, the Catholic Coalition Against Climate Change launched A Catholic Climate Covenant: the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor. As Christians, we recognize that ending the poisoning of our planet is a pro-life issue central to defending human dignity.

Colonialism, in the official sense, is the shameful legacy of a bygone era. But multinational corporations that plunder and exploit the rainforests of South America or the mines of Africa continue this brutal cycle with tragic consequences. If those of us who know the truth fail to speak out, we stand complicit in our silence.

John Gehring is the media director and senior writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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