The Money Culture

We are killing the planet. There is no other way to say it. Our greed and arrogance have prevented us from taking the necessary steps to ensure that the planet we will pass along to our descendents is livable. We believe cheap oil is our birthright and that cracking down on the corporations that control our energy is a radical affront to capitalism.

We are confronted with the evidence nearly every day, with reports of spills and accidents around the globe. The explosion in April on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig — only the most recent high-profile disaster — killed 11 crew members and dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, depleting oxygen and sucking the life from the Gulf.

But as McClatchy pointed out in a May report, the “damage from exploration and drilling” in countries from which we import our oil “is more common but goes largely unnoticed.”

“No one’s tallied the damage worldwide,” the news service reported, “but it includes at least 200 square miles of ruined wildlife habitat in Alberta, more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into the rainforests of Ecuador, and a parade of purple-black oil slicks that skim across Africa’s Niger Delta, where more than 2,000 polluted sites are estimated to need cleaning up.”

None of this is factored in to the price we pay at the pump, which has hovered at about $3 a gallon for the last couple of years (it is about $2.75 a gallon by me in central New Jersey).

Most of us believe the prices we pay for gasoline are high, but the prices at the pump do not come close to paying the true cost of our addiction. The National Priorities Project, in a 2008 report, estimated that we spend more than $200 billion a year (including a portion of the cost of the Iraq War) on securing our energy supplies. And there is a cost to the environment and our health created by the burning of oil, in fouled air (carbon and other toxic substances are emitted) and poisoned water (carbon residue and other particulates from car exhausts settle on blacktop and get washed into the water supply), by transportation of fuel and extraction.

Our addiction fuels corrupt governments and has led to the death of untold numbers of men, women and children around the globe. If we use the ratio that the National Priorities Project used to estimate oil’s portion of the monetary cost of the Iraq War — about 30% of the cost — to the number of lives lost, we can estimate that 1,500 to 2,000 Americans have died because of oil in Iraq - and upwards of 100,000 Iraqis.

All of this is OK, because it is determined by a free market — or so we think.

The corporate state has done a masterful job of convincing us that unfettered capitalism and democracy are one in the same, that freedom requires a market with no strings, no obstructions, nothing to impede the free flow of money and goods.

But the free market is not free, not by a long shot. American capitalism is in many ways no different than the crony capitalism and favoritism we decry in the Third World. Only our corporate culture operates on a system of legalized bribery — campaign contributions, corporate lobbying, a revolving door between government and the lobby shops - that results in legislation written to maximize profit and protect business and so-called “regulatory capture,” i.e., the co-opting of the regulatory apparatus.

Democracy has given way to an elaborate corporate bureaucracy that, as Chris Hedges pointed out recently, is numb to the consequences of the tradeoff it has made — a tradeoff that consigns humanity and the natural world to a trash heap, that prizes money above all other things.

The men and handful of women at the top of this broken system “are at once banal and dangerous,” he writes.

“They possess the peculiar ability to organize vast, destructive bureaucracies and yet remain blind to the ramifications,” he says. “The death they dispense, whether in the pollutants and carcinogens that have made cancer an epidemic, the dead zone rapidly being created in the Gulf of Mexico, the melting polar ice caps or the deaths last year of 45,000 Americans who could not afford proper medical care, is part of the cold and rational exchange of life for money.”

I used to think that reform was possible, but I’m no longer sure. Reform becomes difficult when the reformers have all been compromised, when they are a part of the larger systemic problem.

If we want to reclaim our democracy — and ensure that we leave a livable planet to future generations — we have to break the grip of the corporate leviathan, level the playing field and make respect for humanity and the natural world, rather than the almighty dollar, the principle that guides us.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. E-mail; blog,,

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2010

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652