Life As We Knew It

The government does funny things when your back is turned. Back in January, reading Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street, I learned that the government treats corporations as people. It assigns certain rights and privileges to these collectives so that business can thrive without interference. A recent article by Chip Colwell in The Conversation asks, “What if nature, like corporations, had the rights and protections of a person?” This isn’t merely an academic question. As Colwell points out, New Zealand has recently accorded a natural area personhood status to protect it from exploitation. Meanwhile we in the United States live in a country where companies—those nasty people—are chomping to get their teeth into the “natural resources” of our national parks and wilderness areas. Not because it’s best for the planet, but because their corporate person has one of humanity’s greatest evils—greed. Gluttony used to be a deadly sin. Now it’s called economy.

One thing this corporate person doesn’t understand: we have only one planet and it belongs to everyone. Or no one. Our capitalist outlook has given an undue sense of entitlement to those who have the means to take without asking. They can frack the ground under your feet and you’ll never know it. Until the earthquakes or sink holes come. Meanwhile natural areas—as Colwell indicates, considered sacred by many Native Americans—are unprotected from fictional persons that have immensely more power than any individual. We know what happens when the sacred is engaged in battle by the economic. It’s an unfair fight.


When the crush of work stress gets to be too much, nature is our balm. Many times my wife and I will head to the woods on a weekend just to regain the balance that is stolen by what we call civilization. Manhattan has its wonders, to be sure, but they pale next to a simple stretch of “undeveloped” land and a path to walk through it. There’s a reason that corporate executives have their vacation houses far from the towers they build. It’s not a question of whether the sacred forests are valuable, but rather who gets to own them. With the legalization of fiction—corporations are not people, no matter how logic may be distorted—we have doomed fact. The earth is our fact, and, at this moment our only fact. As Colwell suggests, if it were treated like a person we’d have to show it some respect. And with respect true civility can thrive.

The Bottom Line

AltarWallStUnderstanding, or even caring about, economics has been one of my abiding weaknesses. I suppose growing up poor, excess money was a foreign concept—at least on a quotidian basis—the possibility of acquiring much of it remote. The poor know their place. Still, I was intrigued by Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. It has turned out to be one of those very important books that could be world-changing, if enough people read it. The basic idea is simple enough: Economics is a religion. Immediately many people will put the book down. Economics may be the dismal science, but at least it’s a science, right? Not so. Not completely. While economics uses scientific principles (as does theology), it is a belief system based on an underlying myth that has pushed us to the place where the rich are far too rich and we’re convinced that the plight of the poor is simply a reality with which we must live. It’s all based on a myth of barter.

There are places I quibble with Gustafson, but he makes a very compelling case that the Global Economy, through a series of historically discernible steps, has come to be money making money for money’s sake. As he clearly demonstrates, developments in stock trading have made this an enterprise where people are completely left out of the equation and understanding what has happened impossible. As long as money has been made, the Economy is happy. This way of thinking, which is de rigueur for business schools and presidential wannabes, believes with the conviction of an evangelical that as long as money circulates everything will be fine. Those who believe this walk down Fifth Avenue with blinders on.

Step by step Gustafson demonstrates that Economics has all the trappings of any religion: a priesthood, mythology, rites and rituals, and an overarching theology. And this belief structure, like that of many religions, persecutes heretics. Indeed, human sacrifice is an innate part of this religion called Economy. It has sent missionaries out to the far reaches of the world to convert other ways of living to that of the Global Economy. And in this religion, it is safe to say, those who make it to Heaven are remarkably few. This book does offer potential solutions. They are solutions the wealthy and powerful will not like, so they are probably not going to be enacted any time soon, if at all. So while the rest of us are standing in line at the soup kitchen, I would suggest some reading that will make far more sense than you think it might. At the Altar of Wall Street could change the world for the better, if the Economy allows it.