Moral Pollution

03/10/2014 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

When asked to define pollution, I usual reply "excess," advocating that not all things are polluting in or of themselves, but become so in excessive quantities -- thus natural sugar is a body health requirement, but too much sugar contributes to unhealthy outcomes that accelerate disease and death. Too much chocolate, too much untreated waste, too much pesticide, too many emissions, too much acid in the air and sea, too much money -- all these things, in the extreme, compromise stability, security, and survival.

Is there such a thing as moral pollution -- an excess of principle or ideology that can have similar spiritual or social effect? For example, if one believes in a certain religious concept to the exclusion of all others, can this fervor not corrupt moral balance and lead to extreme acts of suicidal terrorism that go against, indeed inhumanely disrupt, a society prepared to acknowledge, respect, and integrate different religious views and practices as part of societal norms, a successfully integrated community, and accepted tenets of civilization? We may ask this question every day in response to events around us.

In the context of the ocean, indeed of our relationship to the natural world in general, the operative extreme relates, in my view, to greed and its associated derivatives, corruption and hypocrisy. If greed is the rapacious accumulation of wealth regardless of consequence, then we have examples of it everywhere in the behavior of some (certainly not all) governments, politicians, corporations, entrepreneurs, and individual confidence schemes that dilute, corrode, exploit, and contravene all attempts to modulate the unrestrained making of money and to except this conduct from regulatory structures designed to protect the rest of us from theft, fraud, bankruptcy, and other forms of financial and societal compromise.

The corporation is one place to look for such phenomenon. Perhaps you recall the classic declaration of the fictional investment banker, Gordon Gecko, from the film Wall Street that, "Greed is good!" The statement was extreme, but honest. Gecko did not care at all for any consequence of investment in corporate behaviors other than short-term return. Just an exaggeration of fiction? Well, not really, as we so often hear chief executives of corporations publicly justifying extreme strategies in terms of maximum return to shareholders, measured in ever decreasing intervals that theoretically influence stock price and CEO performance bonuses from year to year. That the strategy might lessen mid- or long-term impact on the sustainability of the company and its investment value over time seems irrelevant. This attitude explains the ever-increasing articulation of opposing proposals in annual meetings, and shareholder-initiated actions to challenge such behaviors, report profits differently, or modify or curtail certain technologies, products, market opportunities, accounting practices, lobbying activities, executive evaluation and pay, and other strategies that determine what the proposers see as excessive, unnecessary consequence, indeed as poison that pollutes both the landscape and the community.

Corruption and hypocrisy are inevitable by-products of this way of doing business. Millions are spent to influence politicians to provide government subsidies, tax loopholes, statutory exemptions, regulatory exception, and other, almost invisible, but very profitable modifications that exclusively benefit the funders. Given the role corporations now play in political campaigns, political action committees, business associations, lobbyist firms, and special interest organizations, we can explain the steady stream of ethical reprimands, indictments, convictions, and precipitous decisions not to stand for re-election that are a result of this corrupting political process.

The concurrent hypocrisy is frequently stunning, not just in the self-justifying statements of politicians caught in their contradictions, but also revealed in the actions of the contributing executives themselves. A most egregious example concerns Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, one the largest and most profitable corporations on earth; at $40 million per year, one of the most highly paid executives in the world; one of the most articulate defenders of consumption-driven energy policy; one of the largest corporate beneficiaries of US government subsidy; one of the most vociferous deniers of climate change and the negative impact of automobile emissions and energy production facilities on air and water quality; and one of the most fervid proponents of hydraulic fracking for natural gas, aggressively promoting the manageable risk of the fracking process in the face of documented impact on fresh water supply, the surrounding, typically agricultural, community, the regional landscape, along with the introduction of contaminates and potential health hazards into aquifers, groundwater, and the further impact of leaked polluted water entering the watershed to poison streams, rivers, and the ocean. Recently, Mr. Tillerson joined a lawsuit against another energy company setting up a 160-foot water tower to support a fracking operation on land adjacent to his private Wyoming horse farm, as a plaintiff citing increased noise, heavy truck traffic, and other negative impacts on his property values.

What does this say to the citizens of the places where his zealous corporate enterprise has disrupted their lives, depleted their spirit, ravaged their landscape, and polluted their land and water without apology or concern? This is moral pollution at its most egregious, for which there is no redemption.