“Corporations are people, my friend,” famously said the then-Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney, and through the benevolence of a self-described conservative Supreme Court majority, corporations in the United States do now enjoy many of the benefits accorded to people.
Corporations are also businesses, usually big businesses, but size is not what matters in defining a corporation. What sets corporations apart from other business is their “limited responsibility.” Shareholders in a corporation are sheltered from responsibility for their businesses’ debts or errors. So, one could say, if corporations really were people, they would be the kind of people who limit their moral, as well as fiscal, responsibility.
Corporate power is just one “blame shelter” which our guest today, environmental lawyer and activist Barbara Freese cites in her new book Industrial-Strength Denial. In the book Freese examines eight deadly wounds which people – usually acting through corporations – have inflicted on other people and on the planet on which we people.
Among the man-made crimes against humanity Freese explores are slavery, radium poisoning, pollution from leaded gasoline, unsafe cars, cancer-causing cigarettes, pilferage and fraud in financial markets, and devastating attacks on our atmosphere, and the planet it surrounds by CFCs and fossil fuels. For each of these horrors, Freese asks of the men responsible – how did they do it? How did they get away with – and get rich from – mass murder? And then, there’s the second, more original question posed in Industrial-Strength Denial – how could they? How could they have justified to themselves their grossly destructive dirty work?
Barbara Freese is the author of Coal: A Human History, a New York Times Notable Book. She is an environmental attorney and a former Minnesota assistant attorney general. Her interest in corporate denial was sparked by cross-examining coal industry witnesses disputing the science of climate change. She lives in St. Paul.