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Francis Koster: Corporate sins result in real harm for citizens

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Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis. He runs a not-for-profit that loans equipment to students to inspect their schools for pollution (www.thepollutiondetectives.org).

We need to think about the impact science is having on our understanding of what things are “sinful.”

Most humans govern their personal behavior by some “moral compass.” If you went around some gathering of people you know slightly, like your acquaintances at a 30 -year class reunion, and asked them about what personal behavior is acceptable and what is not, regardless of what church they attend, chances are you would find almost universal agreement on what is good and bad.

America is spiritually very diverse — for every 100 adults, there are 25 Evangelical Protestants, 21 Catholics, 15 “Mainline “Protestants,” six black Protestants, two Mormons, two Jews, one Muslim, one Buddhist and one Hindu. Twenty-six claim no formal church affiliation, but still say they follow a personal moral code.    

The vast majority of all religions use some version of the Ten Commandments as their “moral compass” .   

To show you what I am fretting about, let me focus on three of the commandments — paraphrased (by me) as “Thou shalt not murder, steal, or bear false witness against your neighbor.”

You are likely to find lots of support to punish those individuals who injure or kill others, or steal from them or lie to them for financial gain. But the traditional understanding of those boundaries is changing.

There are two areas that concern me. The first is that modern science has invented a lot of new chemicals that can do short-term good for some people, but along the way hurt others — often from exposure to those same chemicals over longer time periods, and often invisibly.   

At the same time, scientists can now look deep into your heart, brain and reproductive organs and see damage being done to your family that used to be hidden.  If it is a “sin” when a human acts in a way that harms innocent victims visibly and quickly, what do we call it when the harm is being done invisibly and slowly?

The second area of trouble is that it is not usually individuals who harm us invisibly and slowly — it is companies.

Individuals who would never put arsenic in their neighbor’s coffee may be unwittingly participating in an energy production system that puts that same arsenic in rivers and lakes, only to be taken up in drinking water, or fish flesh, and consumed by your kids.

And the medical people can now see who is being hurt by the pollution being added to our air and water — and there are a lot of victims.

We willingly pay taxes to hire police officers to protect us from those who do not follow our commonly held moral compass — if you kill, or steal, we complain loudly if the police fail to protect us, and want to hire more. 

Why is it a different matter when companies are hurting us? 

Fertility rates in women are falling due to pesticides in food. Men’s testosterone levels are falling, and both the number and the strength of their sperm is declining, and both are linked to manufactured chemicals found in rivers. Autism rates have increased 289 percent for the period 2006-2008 compared to 10 years earlier — and continue to rise, driven in part by environmental pollution.   

In my view, if a company’s action makes a man or woman infertile, or damages a child’s brain, they have committed theft of the worst kind.

One in 10 women of childbearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood that her newly conceived child will be at risk of developmental damage.    Most of it comes from coal-fired electrical plants. 

Our president just removed the cops — he has issued an executive order reversing existing rules aimed at protecting those kids.

Another example from dozens I could show you: North Carolina recently passed a law called the “Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies” bill, limiting the damages a companies like a commercial hog farms must pay citizens they hurt. Under this law, injured citizens cannot be compensated for damages related to health, lost income, or quality of life — only for the reduction in their property value. ,

Current law is protecting the sinner. Where is the moral compass guiding both the pork factory and our legislature?

In 2015, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters uncovered records proving that Exxon Mobil, over 20 years, had deliberately concealed its own scientific research showing that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change.  hy? To protect its profits.

When citizens uncover corporate cover-ups about the dangers to the public from discarded chemicals, the debate is cast as one between those in favor of economic development on the one hand and those in favor of excessive regulation on the other. The word “sinner” is not used, nor is benefit to the public health put on the table.

What clever but deceptive public relations campaign has brought us here?

How do we get our moral compass back?

Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis. He runs a not-for-profit that loans equipment to students to inspect their schools for pollution (www.thepollutiondetectives.org).

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