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The Rural Sacrifice to Capitalism and Christianity

This piece examines the confluence of capitalism and religious fundamentalism in the environmental destruction of rural communities.

In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, she refers to the sites earmarked for resource extraction as “sacrifice zones.” These are the places that exist to provide materials for capitalist accumulation, as well as a population that has been determined to be of no importance other than providing those materials, or being removed as a barrier to those materials. Many rural communities across the United States now fit this description; they are high poverty, far from urban capitalist centers and with populations that have little to no political power. Corporations have targeted rural communities as sites for industrialized agriculture, concentrated animal feeding operations and destructive resource extraction, such as mountaintop removal coal mining and fracking. Curiously, despite the efforts of much of the rural population, there exists another segment of that population that not only accepts, but also willingly embraces the destruction of nature and their communities. One only has to recall the chants of “Drill baby, drill!” that became a rallying cry during the 2008 election. What is occurring here is a confluence of neoliberal capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity, wherein rural Americans are being groomed to embrace the sacrifice of their health and communities in the name of accumulation.

Under capitalism, all space must be commodified and re-appropriated for accumulation. For rural areas that are home to important natural resources, this means the complete domination and exploitation of nature. A rural site is only as valuable as what can be taken from it, and that generally leads to its inevitable destruction. This destruction can be tangible, as seen in the Appalachians, where more than 500 mountains and 1 million acres of forest have been destroyed due to mountaintop removal coal mining; or in water quality studies such as those performed near large-scale industrial pig farms, where bacteria greatly exceeds the amounts established in federal and state guidelines. Corporate agriculture is also having detrimental effects on human health, as large, concentrated animal farms are producing antibiotic resistant strains of disease and new forms of influenza.

While there is nothing overly shocking about capitalism’s willingness to destroy nature and sacrifice populations, the growing religious aspect of it may come as a surprise. The current brands of fundamentalist Christianity growing in the rural US, while hardly monolithic, are generally in agreement that we are living in the “end times.” As such, many religious leaders are pushing to create the conditions to bring about the second coming of Jesus, or believe he will be here any day now and a theocratic government must be put in place to prepare for his arrival. Therefore, there is no need to protect or sustain the planet for future generations. Believers in this “end times” theology have shown a great resistance to policies that address climate change and are more supportive of those offering short-term gains rather than trading short-term costs for long-term benefits. Under this religious ideology, the domination of nature becomes a sacred rite, and humans have not only the right, but also responsibility to subdue and reshape nature to make it productive. Under this logic, if cultivation is sacred, then what of uncultivated and uncommodified land? When accumulation has become sacred, then sustainability must be profane.

French philosophers Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss described at length the concept of religious sacrifice in their book Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions. They defined sacrifice as a religious act that consecrates the victim through the actions of a moral person; the moral person generally being a priest or religious elder. In this case, the sacrificer consecrating the victim is the corporation, which makes sacred the profane, unused land by commodifying and ultimately destroying it. Hubert and Mauss describe the ceremony, wherein the sacrificer is placed above the world of common people. This is achieved by placing corporations above the law, by providing special privileges, tax breaks and exemptions from environmental and labor legislation. These privileges also establish the site as a holy place. Outside of holy places, a sacrifice is just murder, and outside of industrialized agriculture, chemicals in the water would be considered an act of terrorism; blowing up a mountain would be an act of war. Perhaps most importantly, Hubert and Mauss describe the importance of the mindset of the sacrificer. They must have full confidence in their actions and remain always in a religious frame of mind. Faith in the market and belief that capitalism will eliminate poverty, combined with a firm denial of the long-term issues of industrial development, is the only path to ensuring the current system continues. Finally, the sacrificer must be portrayed as a sympathetic benefactor, who only acts in the greater good. Corporations cover up their destruction through philanthropic endeavors like donating to local schools and public works, or through the buying of carbon credits to give the appearance they care about the long-term health of the community. In many cases, just living in the community, one is bombarded with propaganda of the good things being done by the local industry. Roads are named after founders and CEOs, and family names adorn schools, hospitals and parks.

Hubert and Mauss also write that all sacrifice contains selfishness, as both the victim and sacrifice perform the ritual as a way to achieve an end, whether that end is actually achieved or not. While the selfishness is obvious in the case of the sacrificer, it is less so for the victim. The rural populations who willing enter the sacrifice are hoping for jobs or increased economic opportunity, no matter how short-term those gains may be. However, Hubert and Mauss did note one completely unselfish form of sacrifice: the sacrifice of a god. The god is both sacrificer and victim and gives up life wholly for the benefit of the world. It is quite possible that the only solutions to the problems being created through rural industrialization can be found in the self-sacrifice of capitalism itself.

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