The Company Did It: Coal USA Day 2

by Carroll Muffett

June 27, 2008

It’s the beginning of Day 2 here at Coal USA.  We weren’t completely sure they’d let us in this morning.  We’ve played very nice by our standards.  None of us have rappelled from the ceiling or chained ourselves to any of the speakers or taken more than our share of muffins from the muffin table.  

But we learned from a reporter yesterday afternoon that the coal industry guys were really angry about our young activists (Drew, Mike and Kate) giving out asthma inhalers.  Apparently, the coalies said it’s unconscionable for us to exploit children like that.   (Even if both the kids and their parents think it’s something worth doing.)  Now me, I think it’s unconscionable to build a toxic sludge pond on a hill right above a school house.  Or to sell a product that puts thousands of kids in the hospital each year with asthma attacks–kids like Drew, who has severe asthma.  Or to burn a fuel that afflicts thousands more with brain defects, neurological disorders and autism.   But I can see how reasonable minds could differ on these things.

What’s interesting, of course, is when we talk face to face, many of the people here ARE reasonable.  Most are also polite.  And a few are even friendly.  I look me and, with a few significant exceptions, I don’t see a room full of evil, mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash impersonators.  I see a room full of (mostly) normal people.  People, no doubt, with their own problems and their own families and their own kids to worry about.

It makes me wonder how so many seemingly reasonable and decent people could be so heedless about the harm they cause to other families and, for that matter, an entire planet.  How can a reasonable, decent person feel okay about poisoning a town’s drinking water?  Or think that wrecking an entire mountain is nothing anyone should complain about?  Or look at a quickly melting Arctic Ocean and think "That’s nothing to do with me."

I could get all wonky, and talk about Cognitive Dissonance, and how people rationalize away the bad things they do.  All of us do this, in fact; it’s just that some have to do it more than others.  A lot more.

But maybe Paul Vining, the President of Magnum Coal, put it more simply:  "It’s about serving shareholders."  Perhaps the folks in the coal industry, like folks in other industries, just say to themselves:  "It’s not me doing it; it’s the company.  I just do what I’m told."  Or, if you run the company, you tell yourself:  "I have to do this because the shareholders want profits."  And if you own the company:  "If we don’t do it, somebody else will."  It’s easy to do anything if you do it for a company, because then the company can be evil for you, while you just go on being a normal, decent person.  But what we easily forget is that a company, at heart, is simply a collection of people. Companies aren’t real in a human sense–they aren’t alive; they don’t have souls.  A company can’t choose to be evil any more than it can be good.  Only the people within it, individually and together, can make that choice.

So, I think that will be my last contribution to the meeting here.  To remind. the people assembled here that they aren’t coal companies.  They are parents.  They are neighbors.  They are friends.  They are human beings.  And like all human beings should be, they are free to make their own choices.  And they are morally responsible if they make them badly.

While their many colleagues in the coal industry may empathize that, together, they had no choice but to wreck the planet.  They should ask themselves whether the children left with that wrecked planet, including their own, may have a harder time with forgiveness.

Carroll Muffett



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