Business is always personal.

Oil derrick at sunset. Photo by xtriky

There was a great interview with Tim DeChristopher published this week. DeChristopher, who spent time in jail for interrupting the usual function of an oil lease auction, talks about many important issues here. Baby Boomers have failed to slow climate change, and thus have forced their kids and grandkids to suffer and pay for their disinterest. The justice system is being used to deny activists a chance to justify why they decided to break the law. Occupy is not dead, and the relationships formed by its meaningful dialogue continue to impact the world today.

All of this is important, and DeChristopher has a fire that sets him apart from the Unitarian Universalists I know and interact with. It was a small snippet, though, that captured my attention:

Talking about the corporate climate that pervaded in these auctions, where public land was sold for exploitation, he said:

That’s something that has always bothered me in the discourse around climate change; those who are choosing their own profits over people’s lives say, “Well, it’s just business.” They make it cold and calculating.

It’s only “just business” for the people making profits. For a young person looking at climate change, it is personal. It is an older generation trading our lives for their own short-term interests, whether that’s fossil fuel executives trading our lives for profit or whether that’s baby boomer liberals trading our lives for their own comfort and convenience because they don’t want to take the risk of fighting back.

That’s the thing. American capitalism triumphs over the moral aspects of life. Pollution is just the side effect of Americans keeping the economy going. Job loss is about supply and demand. Foreclosures are an important market adjustment. Any attempt to help the actual people that are affected is viewed as meddling. Unemployment benefits and food stamps are distorting labor incentives. Environmental regulation threatens industry and competitive American exports.

So there is this big business machine churning through all aspects of American life. Anything that gets in its way is bad, because the economic system itself has not been assigned a moral value. If this supercharged capitalism is a moral good, than attempts to interfere with it would indeed be meddling. But it’s more likely that social movements standing in its way are trying to stop something that is out of control and dangerous.

“It’s only business” reminds me of a generic action movie. A contract killer dressed in black, with slicked-back hair and a meditative look, pursues one of the good guys through the dark streets. He corners the mark in a dead-end, then raises a gun. “It’s not personal” he says, just before he pulls the trigger.

Maybe it wasn’t personal for the killer. He was just doing a job for the money, just like large petroleum and chemical companies. But his actions have personal consequences. The person he shot had kids, a spouse, a community. These people grieve and it doesn’t matter whether or not the person who killed had a personal motivation or an impersonal one.

Even if Bank of America has just a business motive when they reject a loan modification and foreclose on someone, they are responsible for personal turmoil and tragedy. Job loss, foreclosure, and cuts to services all push people to their limits. If a bank’s decision leads to a family falling apart, is what they did “just business”? No. There are consequences that go beyond spreadsheets.

DeChristopher is right- the personal cost of economic action is understated. It stems from assuming that business is somehow a virtue in and of itself. The truth is that what we do, for money, for love, for the common good- should be scrutinized. We can’t say that something is good or bad without having taken the fallout into full account.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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