Saturday, September 15, 2007

Meditations on a Beach

Today was Coastal Cleanup Day in California. For the last ten years or so, I've taken my Cub Scout Den or my Girl Scout Troop out to a particular on the bay. It's not too far from our neighborhood; but it's not in town, so there aren't as many volunteers as in other areas. We tend to pick up plenty of garbage--a bag or two per person.

Last year, Junior ROTC groups from San Francisco and Oakland showed up to help. This year, San Francisco no longer offers the JROTC program in its high schools, so there were only the students from Oakland Tech High. But there were several corporate groups: Chevron, whose refinery is nearby, and Starbucks, who provided coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks. More local corporations donated the trash bags and gloves.

DD#2 came with me and we walked along the beach, enjoying the day, commenting on the number of shells littering the beach, especially crab shells. Picking up litter is a boring job, especially plastic bags and containers that crumble in your hands, but that must be picked up so the seagulls and marine life don't think it's food. Plastic grocery bags resemble kelp and jelly fish, so we were especially on the look out for those.

The irony that we were using plastic trash bags didn't escape me.

I had ample time, though, to think about Christian stewardship and Corporate Responsibility and how the two are related. Some would argue that Christian attitudes--particularly Western Christian attitudes--lead to the destruction and desecration of the Earth. Our civilization should take their cues from other cultures, where all life is sacred, not just human. And, yet, these same attitudes have given us the standard of living and the freedoms that we now enjoy.

Not having the wisdom of angels, we mere humans struggle to find the balance between use and abuse, not only with the world of Nature but also in relationships among our fellow humans. The sick need to be cared for but what if they refuse it? The homeless need shelter but what kind? The unemployed need jobs but what if they don't have the skills? Is it always better to teach someone to fish rather than giving them one? What if they don't want to learn how to fish or have no aptitude for it?

Over the years, the idea of what the obligations are of society and its institutions has changed. The park I helped clean is in a prime location--beautiful vistas of the Bay, great weather, a haven for birds, bats, and butterflies. The reason that it wasn't built up with housing is that it was the site of a dynamite manufacturing plant. There had to be a lot of empty space in case of explosions--and there were several. The trees were planted to act as buffer for the shock waves. The company provided housing, as did many of the other refineries and chemical plants located in the area. They provided stores in these remote locations, in an era before chain stores.

The problem, of course, is that once you were no longer employed by the company, you no longer had a home or a way to buy food. This was especially devastating for women whose husbands were killed--they were forced to move out.

The companies got out of the housing and the food markets, selling their homes to their employees first and then to the general market. But where do their employees, especially the young ones, find an affordable place to live? In outlying areas, forcing them to commute in, sometimes from long distances.

Few of those old companies remain and those that have find themselves surrounded by houses and schools instead of empty fields and communities that are as likely to sue them as to be grateful for providing local employment. Chevron, as an oil refining company, is an easy target. They are constantly trying to polish their image: adopting schools, providing mentoring programs for local high school students, donating grants for environmental efforts, encouraging their employees to volunteer in the community.

In other words, acting on those Christian stewardship values that had the Board of Directors followed them from the beginning, would have been so much a part of their corporate culture that I wouldn't notice their effort.