The word “corporation,” derived from the Latin corporare, means to physically embody. In his History of the Corporation, Bruce Brown notes how in the first thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, “the world’s most powerful corporations were all trying to embody the Christian God.” In 1534, Saint Thomas More spoke of Jesus Christ as the ultimate corporation. “He [Jesus] doth . . . incorporate all christen folke and hys owne bodye together in one corporacyon mistical.”
Needless to say, in the 21st century, corporations as creations of civilization make no pretense of embodying the Christian God. In fact, today, corporations come much closer to embodying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than Jesus Christ. Ironically, created by and managed by humans, corporations have become almost robotic monsters, perpetrating, even feeding off human misery, threatening every aspect of human life – the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat – and even the future of mankind itself. What have these corporate Frankenstein monsters done for us lately?
At least 1,127 people have died in a collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the deadliest such accident in world history. As of this writing, the largest American clothing corporations, Gap, Walmart and Target, who are end users of these death-trap factories, are still unwilling to commit to any safety improvements. Fifteen people were killed and over 200 injured in West, Texas, from an explosion at a fertilizer plant. Despite the deaths of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary school, no meaningful legislation to subdue ongoing gun slaughter in the United States will get passed.
All of these recent tragic headlines have a common denominator. Corporate profits were, and are, allowed primacy over all other considerations. Even Wayne LaPierre’s foaming-at-the-mouth speech about freedom, liberty and second amendment rights is a smokescreen for ginning up profits for gun manufacturers, because American gun owners are on a steady, 30-year decline. The death certificate of all these victims – at Dhaka, West and Sandy Hook – should read, “Death by corporation.”
But rummaging over the current and historical larger-scale threats to entire societies, countries and mankind in general, we see a grotesque, recurrent theme – corporations willing to kill, maim and destroy even their own creators in the name of profit.
The science on the broad consequences of cigarette smoking was well established in Nazi Germany by the early 1940s. Nonetheless, tobacco corporations successfully fought any substantive regulation for the next three decades, while tens of millions of people died early deaths in the name of tobacco profits. Recall the testimony in 1994 from the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco corporations before Congress unanimously declaring that nicotine is not addictive, knowing full well that killing people was part of making them rich. Marketing cigarette addiction to children was an integral part of the strategy.
But the tobacco industry was no worse than the lead industry for the first 70 years of the 20th century. Awareness of lead’s serious health consequences – including madness and death – dates back to the Romans, the first to use it extensively. Symptoms of “plumbism,” or lead poisoning, were already apparent as early as the first century BCE. Mental incompetence from lead exposure came to be synonymous with the Roman elite, manifest by the shockingly imbecilic emperors Caligula, Nero and Commodus.
Fast forward to 1980. In paint, gasoline and a myriad of other products, Americans were using 10 times more lead per capita than the Romans according to Jerome O. Nriagu, the world’s leading authority on lead poisoning in antiquity. The average American lost about 6 IQ points from leaded gasoline and paint. Much worse for the nation as a whole, that loss of IQ also decreased the percentage of the population qualifying as “intellectually gifted” by about 40 percent and increased the population of “mentally challenged” by a similar amount. Numerous studies also showed a tight correlation between blood lead levels and aggressive, anti-social and criminal behavior
For over 50 years, the Ethyl Corp., General Motors, Standard Oil, Du Pont and the American Petroleum Institute obscured, obstructed and lied about the mounting evidence of a public health catastrophe from tetraethyl lead, aggressively marketing it worldwide and fighting every attempt to regulate or curtail its use. Ethyl Corp. even increased its overseas business 10-fold between 1964 and 1981 while its product came under growing harsh scrutiny in the United States. C.M. Shy, of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, in a paper published by the World Health Statistics Quarterly, declared leaded gasoline is “The Mistake of the 20th Century.”
A report commissioned by the United Nations calculated the yearly global cost of lead in gasoline had reached 1.1 million deaths, 322 million lost IQ points, 60 million crimes committed and an economic loss of 4 percent of global GDP, or $2.4 trillion. Lead didn’t even benefit engine performance. Lead, like other heavy metals, does not degrade, is not combustible and is never destroyed. The world was permanently blanketed with this deadly metal purely for corporate profit.