I went to college before CliffsNotes came on the scene. All those classics young people find boring—I had to actually read them. (Okay, not always carefully.) In the intervening years I’ve never gone back to give any of the assignments a second look. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I downloaded Enemy of the People, a play by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright of the nineteenth century.
Here’s the gist of the story: A Norwegian town has gone to a lot of expense to attract tourists to its baths. When Dr. Stockman discovers that run-off from a tannery upriver is contaminating the baths, making tourists sick, he assumes that telling the town’s citizens is in their best interest. But no. The baths promise prosperity, and rectifying the problem would be expensive. In a town meeting the mayor, Dr. Stockman’s brother, moves that the doctor not be allowed to give his report. The townspeople, considering the jobs provided by the baths, don’t want to hear the Truth either and proclaim Dr. Stockman “enemy of the people.” The baths will continue to operate, risking the health of unsuspecting tourists.
It seems that many of today’s moral decisions follow the same pattern. Scientists, don’t bother North Carolinians with facts. The sea level is NOT rising. To say otherwise might harm the economies of beach towns and developers.
If you Google fracking you’ll find that the first site to come up is http://www.energyfromshale.org/. “Shale natural gas market expansion leads to American jobs,” the site claims. There’s no mention of potential water contamination, earthquakes, and workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals. Whether we’re talking about the Keystone pipeline, logging in national parks, or mountaintop removal, the arguments in favor usually start with “It promises jobs for the community.”
I’m not saying that these projects should not be considered. I DO suggest, though, that our decisions, when they relate to people’s health and/or the environment, are in fact moral decisions. And doing what is morally right may not promise jobs or prosperity. Through Ibsen’s characters we see how easily the townspeople are manipulated by those in power, the ones who will most profit from the operation of the baths and the tannery. Readers can’t help but denounce the decision to choose economic wellbeing over the Truth.
We must take care not to make the same mistake.