Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Corporation

My sociology professor had us watch The Corporation last week. It's an outstanding Canadian documentary that examines the history of the corporate entity and how corporations are degrading just about every critical sphere of human existence: our environment, our democracies, our health...

Jane asked us to write a reaction paper. I'm posting mine below. I highly recommend viewing the documentary. You can learn more about it here and purchase a copy here.

After watching the film, there are a dozen things I might suggest that you do. I'll start with one: make sure you are purchasing milk that isn't treated with rGBH or rBST. These are synthetic growth hormones injected into dairy cows; the product is called Posilac and is sold by Monsanto. Posilac has been banned in the European Union because of concerns about endangering human health.

You can read about the lawsuit that I mention in my paper here. You can learn more Posilac here, here, and here.

Here's my paper:

Watching The Corporation was a “look under the rug” experience for me. I know that things are dirty down there, but seeing just how neglectful we’ve been about protecting our democracy and our world was rather overwhelming. I was left wondering, “Where do I begin?”

I took six pages of notes while watching the documentary, but there were three moments that stand out for me. The first was the metaphor of flying and how it applies to sustainability. The second was how children are manipulated to help companies sell products. And the third was the reasoning which led the whistleblowing reporters’ lawsuit to be thrown out: “falsifying the news is not illegal.”

The flying metaphor was a great explanation for how our civilization appears to be purposely moving forward, yet all the time I have this sinking feeling that something’s wrong. As explained by the corporate CEO, the problem is that rather than flying we’re actually in free fall. His company’s manner of operating wasn’t sustainable; neither is our consumption-oriented way of life. By externalizing costs—getting someone else to pay for things whenever possible—corporations have become plunderers. But ultimately we are the plunderers… I am the plunderer. I do my best to recycle and to be efficient. Yet as long as I live in an American city (particularly one in the desert), my footprint is huge: greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use to raise the food I eat (including my occasional steak) and to produce the things I buy… it goes on and on.

That’s not to say that I can’t do things that make a difference, but I can’t overlook the fact that I’m embedded in a system that, by design, is only “working” when more of everything is being consumed.

What I’m doing: recycling more, shopping less, cooking at home more, buying carbon offsets when I fly, rediscovering the library, and setting the thermostat higher in the summer.

My second big reaction to The Corporation was disgust at the way that psychologists utilize their expertise in order to design advertising and marketing campaigns with the goal of manipulating children. I was dumbfounded by the woman who calmly explained about how her company helped to ensure that kids would nag their parents to buy things for them. She went so far as to make the point that when parents are up against an industry that is spending billions, they never really have a chance at beating the system.

A few days before I saw the documentary, it occurred to me that maybe America began its decline with the invention of television. That’s not to say that corporations weren’t greedy before the broadcast era, but television allowed them to enter our homes in a way that nothing before then had. We humans aren’t designed to resist an intruder that smiles and titillates and (oh!) looks so damn shiny! As long as a business was something that existed outside the home, we could keep them at bay. But once we invited the vampire inside, we exposed our necks… and worse, we exposed our children’s necks.

I think the most distressing thing I saw in The Corporation was the segment about the investigative reporters who worked for Fox News. They were able to connect the hormones that Monsanto sells to dairy farmers to negative human health effects, such as cancer. When Monsanto threatened legal action, Fox sat on the report. I cheered on the journalists as they refused to shed their integrity and water down the story as their superiors had ordered. But I was devastated when they ultimately lost their case because the court ruled that “falsifying the news is not illegal.”

A little voice in me whispered: “they’ve won.” Because if the corporations get to decide what the news is, how far are we from Orwell’s vision in 1984?

But a louder voice replied that they haven’t won. We were all sitting there in the classroom watching the documentary. We were each having our individual reactions and learning something that had been hidden from us.

People often act as if we don’t want to know the truth, the details of what’s really going on. But deep down I suspect that they do. I know that I do. Sometimes we just need to have someone sit us down and pull back the rug. I’m buying a copy of The Corporation, and I’ll be making sure that I get as many people as possible taking a look at the mess we’re in. It’ll be a whole lot easier cleaning it up if we’re doing it together.

UPDATE: Note that The Corporation is available for rental from Netflix.

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