July 16, 2010

The Green View / Patricia and Conrad Cortellini

Water flow raises questions of morality

Patricia and Conrad Cortellini“Then the Lord asked Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He answered, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ” (Gn 4:9)

The case can be made that the whole of the New Testament is the answer to this question from the Old Testament. All the stories, all the parables, are summed up with Jesus saying: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).

This commandment is the wellspring of our Christian morality. Think how our human existence would be improved if this one simple commandment became the universal rule to live and do business by.

The pilgrims who came to America to escape royal tyranny and religious persecution established the notion, now firmly ensconced in our American way of life, of separation of Church and state.

This notion, expressed in our laws and through our popular beliefs, has been elaborated into a separation of Church values and business values. “One cannot run a corporation as a charity!” is a popular adage heard in this regard.

This absolution from morality has been very good for business for centuries. More recently, we have witnessed an unprecedented growth of wealth and prosperity through ever increasing levels of material production and consumption. From “The Green View’s” perspective, however, this prosperity has come with high hidden practical and spiritual costs.

Recently, we were deeply moved by Flow—For Love of Water, a 2008 film by Irena Salina that we highly recommend. It tells stories of the growing global water crisis. The film opens with a quotation from W.H. Auden: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

The human body is 70 percent water. Human blood is 90 percent water. Water flows through the rivers of our veins to nourish and cleanse. It exhales in our breath and evaporates from our skin to cool. It flows through us and gives us life.

Likewise, the Earth is 70 percent water. Water permeates land masses and flows in its rivers to the oceans, where the Earth exhales to the atmosphere. Clouds form, rain falls and rivers flow in an endless life-giving cycle. The Earth is alive because of water. Water is God’s gift. It is part of the Earth itself. It is as necessary for human existence as the air that we breathe.

In 1997, the World Bank forced the government of Bolivia into privatization of the municipal water system in the city of Cochabamba under the threat of being cut off from water development loans. Suez, a leading world company in the water treatment and distribution business, led a transnational effort to provide this third largest Bolivian city with potable water and sewage treatment.

As part of the agreement, Suez obtained a virtual monopoly on all forms of clean water sources, including independent communal water systems and even rainwater collected from roofs. Even as the public relations billboards proclaimed “More water, more life,” the engineers were calculating that, to be profitable, water rates would need to be set at $20 per month in an economy where the average income is less than $100 per month, which subsequently led to 208,000 people being excluded from potable water service because of their inability to pay for it.

The water crisis is complicated and, as it worsens, we will need to confront the questions of who is responsible for water pollution and how do we stop it? Who owns water or is it part of the commons?

Yet the deeper issues are questions of morality. Can profits justify denying water to those people who cannot pay? Can business truly be conducted with a disregard of our moral values, our conscience and Christ’s commandment?

(Patricia and Conrad Cortellini are members of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis.)

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