What we must do


From Ron Epstein

Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #1000, February 26, 2009

By Peter Montague

In this final issue of Rachel’s News, I offer the last installment of on our 17-part series, “What We Must Do.”[1]

This series was named after the prescient article, “What We Must Do” by John Platt in Science magazine Nov. 28, 1969, pg. 1115. It is worth (re-)reading Platt’s urgent description of “a storm of crisis problems” 39 years ago, comparing it to our world today, and then asking ourselves if what we are doing with our time seems likely to produce the outcomes we intend and hope for. Are we asking questions that are radical enough, which is to say, questions that get to the roots of our problems?

In that spirit, here are 17 suggestions, all aimed at avoiding the worst as our human population climbs from 6.7 billion to 9 or 10 billion or more by 2050. They are not ranked in order of importance because I think we have to try to do all of them.

1. Learn to live within limits

The toughest problem we humans face is learning to live within limits. I know it’s popular to pretend limits don’t exist, but they do. We live on a small stone hurtling through space, a stone “partly bare, partly dusted with grains of disintegrated rock, upon which rests a thin film of air and water no thicker, relative to the size of the Earth, than the fuzz on a peach.”[2] Furthermore, so far as anyone has been able to discover, ours is the only stone in the universe hospitable to our species. Earth is our only home, so we had better take care of it.

To puny humans, the Earth has always looked immense but just recently we discovered the truth: sometime during the 1970s, the human economy grew so large that it outgrew planet Earth. We humans have exceeded some invisible ecological limits and we are now degrading the planet’s natural capacity to renew itself. We are living in a condition called “overshoot” — like the cartoon Roadrunner who speeds off a cliff, hangs stationary in midair, still running ever faster, until the inevitable crash. To avoid the crash we humans must reduce our footprint by reducing our numbers or by reducing our individual demands upon the ecosystem, or both. Running ever faster won’t help.

In 2005, the authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was published — a five-year study of the condition of the Earth’s ecosystems, involving 1360 scientists from all across the globe. When they announced the first volume, the MEA Board of Directors said, “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

In 2007, the Global Environment Outlook report (known as GEO-4) was published. GEO-4 concluded (among other things) that human activities now require 54 acres (22 hectares) per person globally, but Earth can provide only 39 acres (16 hectares) per person without suffering permanent degradation. We are living well beyond Earth’s means.

(For additional corroboration, see Mathis Wackernagel and others, “Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 99, No. 14, July 9, 2002), pgs. 9266-9271 and see the web site of the Global Footprint Network.)

The evidence of overshoot is everywhere: global warming; the thinning ozone layer; marine fisheries depleted; oceans acidifying (damaging the base of oceanic food chains); humans crowding out other species, causing the sixth great extinction; tillable soils shrinking as deserts expand; forests disappearing; mountain snow pack and glaciers shrinking, jeopardizing fresh water supplies for large numbers of people; global-warming-related multi-year drought afflicting large sections of the U.S., China, India, and Australia; human and wildlife reproduction disrupted by industrial poisons now measurable everywhere on Earth; childhood cancers, diabetes, autism and attention deficits rising; and so on. This list could be readily extended.

We are no longer living off nature’s interest, but are now drawing down Earth’s store of capital, devouring the future. It is as if we were randomly pulling out roof beams and floor joists and burning them in the fireplace to warm our only home.

To learn to live within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere we need to get good at discerning, and then living within, ecological limits, and we need to get much better at monitoring the effects we are having on our home. We need to get really, really good at analyzing the human footprint lest we stamp out features and creatures that turn out to be essential for our own continued existence, exterminating something crucial before we even know it exists. Right now we are driving an ever-expanding fleet of bulldozers through Earth’s china shop blind-folded, hoping nothing essential gets broken. Yes, Earth and life will survive; they are not endangered. We are.

2. Make a serious commitment to the Precautionary Principle

While we are learning to see better (through improved ecological science), we need to proceed cautiously, doing our best to live within poorly-perceived ecological limits and still enjoy some of the benefits of modern technologies. This means we must (a) shift the burden of proof and start assuming that all activities, large and small, that impact the Earth are likely to be harmful and (b) therefore always search for (and adopt) the least-harmful way to proceed; and (c) constantly examine the consequences of our actions and be prepared to alter course, which means we should (d) favor decisions and courses of action that are reversible, avoiding irretrievable commitments. The name for this new way of living is “precautionary principle.” (My thanks to Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy Myers, Mary O’Brien, and Joe Guth for their deep insights into precautionary decision-making.)

These are common-sense proposals, but how remote they seem from the way decisions are still being made today!

Seeing things in this new way becomes unavoidable the moment we accept that humans have become a force of geologic proportions and are degrading the ecosystems upon which our species is entirely dependent. This implies that one of our major tasks is to inform the public, the media, the courts, the decision-makers (public and corporate), and the school children (among others) that the world is new — new because humans have become a force of geologic proportions and are now degrading the planet in ways that are ruining our only home. This is definitely new, and it requires a new understanding of our history and our kind, new goals, new habits, new attitudes, new thinking, new stories, new heroes and heroines. Much of what we learned in high- school is obsolete and in the way.

3. Limit the Means of Violence

But ecological destruction is not the only killer problem we face. We live in a world where at least nine nations now brandish atomic weapons, and in all nine there are fundamentalists itching to use them. Meanwhile, emotionally and socially, we are not all that far removed from chimpanzees. Perhaps more than any other mammalian species, humans habitually maim and murder each other — and in this endeavor, let’s face it, the U.S. has striven mightily for preeminence. During my lifetime we developed A-bombs, H-bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs, dumb bombs, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, chemical bombs, depth bombs, and penetrator bombs (among others), plus napalm, thermobaric weapons, pain weapons, noise weapons, shock weapons, heat weapons, laser weapons, stun weapons, space weapons, and no doubt many other ingenious new weapons we haven’t yet been told about. Now tens of thousands of our best-educated people spend their days hunched over drawing boards devising new techniques for exterminating — or at the very least blinding or crippling — other people whom some Very Important Person has defined as Enemy. In 2009 the White House is requesting $711 billion for military spending (roughly the same amount being spent on military preparation by all the other nations of the world combined). That $711 billion is $81 million every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone are absorbing $17 million per hour, 24/7/365. Meanwhile our libraries, schools, universities, hospitals, and physical infrastructure are wanting.

There is a reason why President Obama — after running on a platform of peacemaker — immediately upon taking office ordered 17,000 fresh troops into the Afghanistan meat grinder. Because our economy must perpetually grow, and civilians don’t reliably create sufficient demand (in truth, there’s already plenty of stuff to go around), we now rely on Enemy to absorb our surplus effort. In my youth, Enemy was communist. Now Enemy is Muslim fundamentalist. Tomorrow Enemy will no doubt be someone new — perhaps robot soldier (far easier to mass produce and train to kill than human babies are) — but you can be sure Enemy will be there. Enemy is the ultimate consumer, the flywheel of our economy. We have no national industrial policy (because that would smack of “central planning”) but we have the Pentagon. Because our economy exists in only two states — growing or collapsing — prolonged peace would produce severe economic hardship across this great land.

4. Shift into a Steady-State Economy

But there is hope: it doesn’t have to be this way. Both the problem of ecological destruction, and the problem of excessive militarization could be reduced to manageable proportions if we developed an economy that could grow but didn’t have to grow. If economic growth were optional, then nations that have so much they don’t know what to do with it could choose to limit growth, or even choose to shrink. This would make space for the large part of the world that desperately needs economic growth — roads, ports, power plants, hospitals, schools — yet could hold the total size of the human footprint within Earth’s ecological limits.

Economic growth in the so-called Third World would reduce the rate of growth of the human population. When societies achieve middle-class status, they can afford real social security programs instead of relying on large numbers of children as their only old age insurance. This is the answer to “the population problem.” Given education, a middle-class existence, and real choice, women tend to favor small families. Demographers (the people who study populations) call this widely-observed phenomenon the “demographic transition.”

At this time, I know of only one detailed economic proposal for an economy that could grow but wouldn’t have to grow, but there must be others. (Please tell me about them, dear reader: peter@rachel.org.)

5. Aim for a Global Culture of Fairness

To live within global ecological limits and put a priority on economic growth in the so-called Third World, it would help immensely to develop a global culture of fairness. Fairness is basic, and not just to humans. Dogs and chimpanzees (among others) have a sense of what’s fair. Humans definitely do. Every child at some point cries, “Hey, that’s not fair!” Fairness is fundamental. Roughly comparable treatment is the basic idea, expressed in every culture as some variant of the Golden Rule: I want to be treated fairly and with dignity, so it is only fair that I should treat you similarly. Conversely, if I treat you fairly and with dignity, it’s only fair that you should reciprocate. As we say, fair is fair.

Humans defined what fairness means in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration says, among other things, that everyone has a right to a livelihood: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Surely if we took these words seriously, the impetus for violence in this world would be hugely diminished (as would the impetus for large families with many children as old-age insurance). Yes, there are sociopaths among us, misfits with low self-esteem who need and even relish violence — some of whom from time to time even gain high office in powerful nations — but even strong sociopathic urges could probably be diminished in a world intent on treating everyone fairly.

6. To Promote Cooperation, a Policy of Full Employment

In addition to being a violent species, we humans are also a profoundly cooperative species. Our best expression of cooperation is working together toward common goals. Work is what we do. When we find ourselves “out of work,” we feel cast out, tossed aside, rejected, denied participation in the great common enterprise. This forces me to conclude that a policy of full employment is among the most important goals we — or any nation — could set for itself and aggressively pursue. Yes, it may be “inefficient,” in some narrow economic sense. But (I believe) the benefits of full employment would be unmeasurably large, creating conditions conducive to domestic and international tranquility.

A successful full employment policy would name government as the employer of last resort, admittedly not an entirely desirable state of affairs. Still, as a source of social stability, full employment would no doubt have a major dampening effect on crime and violence by giving everyone who wanted to work an opportunity to do so, thus preserving the all-important sense of individual dignity and worth by allowing full participation in the great shared enterprise, the economy.

At a time when the physical infrastructure of the U.S. (bridges, city services, public transit, communication, etc.) is in tatters, who can say that something like a Works Progress Administration or a Civilian Conservation Corps would be an entirely bad thing? As we know from Germany after World War I, high rates of unemployment and debt can spark aggressive expansionist and racist tendencies — even among the most cultured and best-educated people in the world — which can then destabilize whole regions of the planet. A full employment policy, guaranteed by naming government the employer of last resort, seems a better alternative. Look around your community. Is there not work that needs doing? Why not let everyone get to work?

7. Show Everyone the Lifeboats

As we try to step back from the brink of irreversible ecological decay and collapse, we need to demonstrate real, workable alternatives. As Patrick Reinsborough of smartMeme wrote in Rachel’s News #809, “Even though people might realize they are on the Titanic and the iceberg is just ahead, they still need to see the lifeboat in order to jump ship.”

Yes, we need detailed plans for a steady state economy — an economy that can grow but doesn’t have to grow — and we need to help people see themselves living and working within that economy. We need movies, videos, stories, novels, youtube shorts, magazine and newspaper and blog articles, plus of course technical analyses, about alternative ways of organizing ourselves, so we can live within the limits set by nature. We need to make sure people can see the lifeboats, to help people jump ship and declare allegiance to the future.

8. Acknowledge self-deception and denial

In doing this work, we need to give full recognition to the remarkable human capacity for self-deception and denial. That’s all I will say on the subject for now, but it’s a crucial reality that we must acknowledge and navigate. Humans do not accommodate change well. We resist it. We seem wired (as we age) to deceive ourselves and deny reality; we look for scapegoats to blame and punish. This means successful change will be thoughtfully managed (to the extent we can and still retain a commitment to individual liberty), not thrust upon us cold and unprepared.

9. Recast the environmental movement as a democracy movement

The “environmental movement,” I believe, should really view itself (and become) a “democracy movement” with heavy emphasis on “fairness.” The “environmental justice” movement is leading the way here, bringing fairness and justice into discussions that were for too long strictly technical and scientific, lacking a human dimension. The justice perspective is now spreading throughout the “environmental movement” — and the logical end of this trend is to declare that we are a democracy movement, dedicated to global (and local) fairness as a strategy for reducing the total size of the human footprint across the planet while promoting local and regional economic growth wherever it is needed.

10. Build and Maintain an Infrastructure for the Movement

But to move into its next phase, this incipient democracy movement desperately needs its own infrastructure, intentionally planned and built. Our neo adversaries — neo-conservatives and neo-liberals — built such an infrastructure starting about 1970 and it allowed them to prevail for almost three decades after 1980. Yes, their basic premise — expressed in 1987 as, “Greed… is good” — eventually failed to thrive politically, but during its 30-year reign it enabled the greatest transfer of wealth the world has ever known, extracting trillions of dollars from the pockets of working people and funneling it into the tax-free offshore bank accounts of a tiny elite of multi- millionaires and billionaires. This is no small achievement, and we could learn from the Greed Movement how to build an infrastructure.

At a minimum, we need 50 state-level organizations that local groups can turn to for help (what my hero Lois Gibbs calls “larger than locals”). We need a local electoral strategy. We need ongoing leadership development and training. We need political education. We need communication networks, and basic sources of reliable information (here, the work of Pete Myers is exemplary). We need sources of funding that are not dependent upon the largesse of anyone captivated or bedazzled by the corporate form. We need think tanks that train interns and offer endowed positions for researchers who publish books, reports, magazine articles, op-eds, talking points for decision- makers, legislative proposals, memos to the movement, bumper-sticker slogans, and so on. I don’t think we even know all the pieces of the Greed Movement’s infrastructure, but we could study them for the purpose of supporting a democracy movement to help humankind survive. We know, for example, that their institutional funders think quite differently from many of ours, which is regrettable.

11. The right of free association, to form and join a union…

As we have seen, the main enemy of democracy is inequality of wealth (and therefore power). When Big Money calls the shots, most people are disenfranchised like cattle. There is no evidence that wealthy elites make better decisions than the American people as a whole would make if the institutions of our democracy were working properly (media, schools, courts, legislatures, labor unions, law-making and policy bodies, local businesses and local economies, plus electoral systems for judges, legislatures, governors, and presidents).

If inequalities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy — and are the hallmark of an unsustainable society — then we could protect democracy and promote sustainability by protecting the institutions that reduce inequalities of wealth. First among these is the labor union. I am aware of many problems with many modern labor unions — some of them need democratic reform as badly as any other institution in our society, and a democracy movement should make such reforms a priority — but the fact is labor unions created the middle class and are needed now to rebuild the middle class, which the Greed Movement has decimated over the past 30 years.

As Peter Kellman discussed in Rachel’s #697, #698, #699, #700, and #701, for many decades U.S. leadership has been openly hostile to working people and especially to unions. The situation was so bad by 2000 that Human Rights Watch published a report titled “Unfair Advantage,” documenting how the U.S. routinely violates the three universally-recognized human rights of workers: the right to for join a union, the right to bargain collectively, and the right, if all else fails, to strike.

To preserve the dream of U.S. democracy and move us along toward sustainability, it is important to support and strengthen the labor movement — specifically by giving workers an explicit and strongly- guaranteed right to form and join labor unions, bargain collectively and, if all else fails, strike. (Of course ecological decline is already creating strong pressure to shift to a steady- state economy, which very well might be based on worker-owned cooperatives — a form of business organization already widely-used within the U.S. today. In such an economy, unions would no longer have any role to play and would cease to exist.)

12. Fully Embrace the Three Environments

Much — perhaps most — of the “environment and health” movement has not yet accepted the fact of the three environments: the natural, the built and the social:

The natural environment: We all accept the importance of the natural environment — all creatures need clean water, clean air, and good soil to remain healthy and survive.

The built environment: In the past two decades almost all of us have we have accepted the role of the built environment — suburban sprawl (and its flip side, urban abandonment), processed foods, highway pollution, “sick” buildings, the chemicalization of almost all consumer products, and so on.

The social environment: In general, most of us still ignore this all-important third environment — the social. We say we are working on “environment and health,” yet we mostly ignore the indisputable fact that, by far the best predictor of ill health and early death is relative poverty or inequality (of wealth, income, education, opportunity, etc.). We ignore that the social “pecking order” creates stress that contributes to at least as much disease as toxic chemicals do — stress related to economic disparities, joblessness, white privilege, sexism, a sense of powerlessness and that life is “out of control” — all are major contributors to distress, stress, disease, and death.

As we reported in Rachel’s #497, an editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) January 18, 1992, called this “the big idea”:

“… Big ideas don’t often arise, but the BMJ has been associated with several — and one of them is explored further this week. The big idea is that what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society. One political implication, appealing to those on the left, is that the best way to improve health in a society might be to take measures to distribute wealth as equally as possible.”

As we noted in Rachel’s #814, the New York Times reported June 1, 1999,

“Scientists have known for decades that poverty translates into higher rates of illness and mortality. But an explosion of research is demonstrating that social class — as measured not just by income but also by education and other markers of relative status — is one of the most powerful predictors of health, more powerful than genetics, exposure to carcinogens, even smoking.

“What matters is not simply whether a person is rich or poor, college educated or not. Rather, risk for a wide variety of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, infant mortality, many infectious diseases and some types of cancer, varies with relative wealth or poverty: the higher the rung on the socioeconomic ladder, the lower the risk.” [Emphasis in the original.]

In 2003 the World Health Organization published the second edition of its authoritative report, “Social Determinants of Health — The Solid Facts.” In 2007, we put together a short bibliography on the “social determinants of health.” Since that time, new evidence has continued to pour forth. For example, this from an article titled “Inequality Kills” in the British New Statesman magazine Sept. 4, 2008:

“…health is political in the broadest sense because it is influenced by the distribution of power, income, goods and services. Here are some more facts. U.S. blacks are rich by world standards but, in a highly unequal country, most are very poor by local standards. People from Tunisia, Jamaica, Panama, Libya, Lebanon and Cuba all have higher life expectancies than the U.S. black population. If black mortality rates were the same as those for U.S. whites 886,202 deaths would have been averted between 1991 and 2000. Over the same period, 176,633 lives were saved by medical advances.”

In sum, we in the “environment and health” movement could appeal to a much wider segment of the public if we adopted the all-important “social determinants of health” as a centerpiece of our strategy

13. Zero Waste and Clean Production

As part of the “lifeboat” that we must help people see is a world without waste. The essence of “zero waste” is redesign for reuse — retaining and endlessly recycling the function of products, not just the materials from which they are made. As Paul Palmer wrote in Rachel’s #900: “Zero waste demands that all products be redesigned so that they produce no waste at all and furthermore, that the production processes (a kind of product in themselves because they too are carefully designed) also produce no waste.”…

“In the new zero waste theory, products are designed from the start to be reused over and over. After many uses, including repairs, rebuilding, remanufacturing etc., disassembly into materials may become necessary for a step that resembles recycling, but even at this last stage, the reuse of materials has been carefully designed into the original product, planning for it in many critical ways. Thus even when zero waste comes down to the reuse of component materials, it does so in a way that is sharply different from an end- of-pipe method. For example, zero waste principles strongly recommend against the lamination or joining of different materials in an indissoluble bond unless the lamination can be reused as lamination, or disassembled. All parts must be well identified by markings and history, not something to be guessed at with inadequate symbols (like the recycling labels on plastic) of such generality that they convey little information of any use. Extensive information about every part, every piece, every material will be key, using every tool of modern information tracking such as radio frequency tags (rfid’s), bar codes, public specifications and the internet.”

This is such a radical departure from current industrial practice that it is hard to grasp — which is why I identify it as a key part of the “lifeboat” that we need to help people see, so they can jump ship and declare allegiance to a zero-waste future.

Palmer’s book, “Getting to Zero Waste,” and his Zero Waste Institute help, as do the publications and talented staff of Beverley Thorpe’s Clean Production Action in Montreal [see Rachel's #650 and #651], Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman’s Product Policy Institute, Eric Lombardi’s Ecocycle in Boulder, Colorado, and William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle concepts. Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff shows us the way — informative and entertaining at the same time.

These individuals and organizations differ in approach — they are aiming at different audiences and trying to solve slightly different problems, but all are heading in directions we need to go: toward zero waste in its most radical sense. Perhaps the ultimate expression of a zero waste philosophy can be found in the four principles of the Natural Step. Nature makes no waste and neither should humans.

14. Local Living Economies

As Tim Montague wrote in Rachel’s #830,

“In Philadelphia, Boston, Grand Rapids, Portland, and Toronto — indeed all across the United States and Canada — a movement to humanize and green the economy has taken hold from the grassroots and is growing steadily.”

In the U.S., this “sustainable business movement” is often now identified with the phrase “local living economies” and under that banner it has been spearheaded by Judy Wicks of Philadelphia, David Korten of Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Michael Shuman of Washington, D.C. More than anyone else, Shuman has spelled out the principles and practice of “local living economies” in his two books, Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age and The Small-Mart Revolution. Now BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies — the umbrella organization for all this local activity — is about to hold its 7th annual convention.

A Local Living Economy Defined

BALLE uses the following guidelines to define a local living economy: “A locally-owned business would be one where the community member has full autonomy and local decision-making authority with respect to their business practices.” A business must be privately held. Greater than 50% of the ownership must reside in the local region. The business should be able to make independent decisions regarding name, look, and purchasing decisions (factors that disqualify most franchises). And the business should pay all of its own marketing, rent, and general business expenses without assistance from a corporate headquarters.”

Living economy businesses are primarily independent and locally owned, and value the needs and interests of all stakeholders, while building long-term profitability. They strive to:

** Buy products from businesses with similar values, with a preference for local sources;

** Provide employees a healthy workplace with meaningful living-wage jobs;

** Offer customers personal service and useful, safe, quality products;

** Work with suppliers to establish a fair exchange;

** Cooperate with other businesses in ways that balance their self- interest with their obligation to the community and future generations;

** Use their business practices to support an inclusive and healthy community, and to protect the environment.

Local living economies will increasingly make economic, environmental, and social sense as…

** the price of fuel rises and long-distance shipping grows steadily more costly (environmentally as well as economically)

** workers in China unionize and begin to demand a living wage

** it dawns on more of us that a national policy of exporting jobs abroad — especially manufacturing jobs — does not improve purchasing power, security, or quality of life for most U.S. workers or their families. (An important group working to rebuild manufacturing capacity is Dan Swinney’s Center for Labor & Community Research in Chicago. Read his book, Building the Bridge to the High Road.)

The first idea of a “local living economy” is import substitution: look at all the things your local economy is importing (thus sending money out of town), and see what can be produced locally or regionally. Instead of using local economic development funds to try to attract the next Japanese automobile assembly plant — use those funds to find ways to support creation of local or regional businesses, to keep as much money as possible close to home where it can recirculate and thus do the most good locally.

I call this approach “precautionary economics” — economic principles to guard the future of your community. It’s time has come.

15. Get Private Money Out of Our Elections

There is a “brain drain” buzz on Wall Street these days — they say that capping top executive salaries at $500,000 per year (which is $250/hour) will cause a “brain drain” — all those smart people who brought you the current worldwide economic collapse will move to Singapore or London, leaving behind people of ordinary intelligence to run things.

Behind this “brain drain” buzz is the conviction that, not only should smart people be well-paid, but that ridiculously well-paid people must be super-smart and therefore must be best-qualified to make decisions for the rest of us. The “brain drain” defense assumes that, without the wealthiest corporate elite to make decisions for us, we’d be lost.

Is this profoundly anti-democratic belief really true? Are the super- rich better-qualified than the rest of us to make decisions for the nation? Not everyone thinks so. As N.Y. Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently, “…some of our country’s best-paid bankers were overrated dopes who had no idea what they were selling, or greedy cynics who did know and turned a blind eye.” N.Y. Times columnist Maureen Dowd called them “greedy creeps” and “Citiboobs,” referring to executives of Citibank who lost $15 billion in three months, took a multi-billion-dollar bailout from taxpayers (you and me), and then defended the purchase of a new $50 million private jet for executive travel. She quoted U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) saying, “I have no confidence that they intend or desire to change.”

Yes, the Masters of the Universe, as they are known in much of the media (with tongue in cheek or with real contempt), managed to feather their own nests to an unprecedented degree over the last 30 years. That is to say, they arranged the financial and tax systems to funnel trillions of dollars upward from the pockets of ordinary people into their own tax-free offshore bank accounts — creating an unbelievably wealthy (and tiny) elite. That is their major accomplishment of the past 30 years.

Paraphrasing what I wrote in Rachel’s #928 in 2007, which still holds true today:

It seems clear that problems of public health and environmental destruction are the result of choices being made by a tiny elite (who number roughly 50,000 individuals) — those powerful few who sit on multiple boards of directors of large corporations. How small is this corporate super-elite? All of them together would fit easily into the new Yankee Stadium with its capacity of 53,000. These are the masters of our nation, if not the universe. Their billions powerfully influence all the big decisions we face –

** Will our economy be powered by renewable sources of energy or will we continue giving multi-billion-dollar subsidies to coal, petroleum, and nuclear power?

** Will we allow global warming to develop, then try to fix it, or will we adopt a preventive approach?

** Will we commit our children and grandchildren to a perpetual global war on terror or will we develop non-military, preventive solutions?

** Will we provide care and nurture for all the nation’s children during their early formative years or will we keep expanding the prison-industrial complex, warehousing more and more young people for life?

** Will we operate the economy to provide a job for everyone who wants to work, and a livable wage for everyone who works, or will we continue to operate the economy for the few at the expense of the many?

** Will we commit to preventing illness or will we allow diseases to increase as we continually expand the proportion of GDP devoted to drugs, surgery, and other costly (and often painful and debilitating) technical remedies?

** Will we make the investments needed to develop an economy that meets human needs without compromising the ability of the biosphere to renew itself, or will we continue to wreck our only home?

** And most importantly, will we develop a system for financing our elections that eliminates the influence of private wealth, or will we allow corporate elites to continue to exercise their most potent perk — selecting who can run for office and who can’t, thus limiting who we can vote for, often giving us a choice between TweedleDum and TweedleDummer.

This is the most fundamental problem facing our representative democracy: the corrupting influence of private money in our elections. This is the critical place where the Masters of Our Nation — the New Monarchs — assert control. The basis of our democracy is one person, one vote, not one dollar one vote. With the advent of TV, elections have become more expensive year by year. This has created almost unbeatable advantages for office holders with access to mountains of cash. Unless candidates are wealthy themselves, they must beg the wealthy to put them in office; after they win an election they are beholden to the people who bundled up the tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars required to get into the race.

Ordinary people with good ideas and ethical standards cannot even run for office unless they gain access to big money. Thus the influence of money in democratic governance has increased greatly during the last 50 years. “One dollar one vote” is now a far more accurate description of the system than “one person one vote.”

This fact alone explains a great deal of what has gone wrong in the U.S. It explains how the system has been rigged to allow wealthy people to evade their taxes, destroy productive enterprises, ship manufacturing jobs overseas, erode the stability of the middle-class, and increase the numbers of the poor — all to make the corporate elite wealthier and more powerful than any other group of people in the history of the world.

Getting private money out of elections is the most important reform we can make — the single reform that would make all other reforms possible. This is work that a democracy movement would naturally see itself doing — work the environmental movement has (quite mistakenly) never viewed as relevant to its mission.

16. Rein in the Corporation

For the first 100 years of the environmental movement (starting about 1890), our focus was largely on government. We saw the world as government vs. the “private sector” and, being “private,” that sector was largely off limits and beyond scrutiny.

Then in 1992 Richard Grossman (founder of POCLAD) published a little pamphlet that changed everything. His pamphlet (co-authored with Frank Adams) was titled, “Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation.” Grossman and Adams described the unaccountable power of the modern corporation, revealing it as a force far more worthy of attention than any government agency. The environmental movement has never been the same since. For one thing, the movement has now sundered into two camps:

Camp 1. Those who understand that the modern corporation operates largely beyond the control of national governments (which was the main impetus behind the corporate “globalization” project and the creation of the World Trade Organization) and is the out-of-control behemoth chiefly responsible for destroying the planet as a place suitable for human habitation;

vs.

Camp 2. Those who are captivated or bedazzled by the corporate form and draw nourishment from it, as suckling piglets draw nourishment from their sow.

Paraphrasing what I wrote in Rachel’s #308, just as Richard Grossman was dropping his first, sundering bombshell that took our focus off of government and placed it squarely and rightly on the corporate sector:

The modern corporation defines our world today in the same way the church defined the world of Europe in the 15th century. Yes, the invention of the modern corporate form has allowed us to become the wealthiest people in all of human history. It has also allowed us — in just over 100 years of modern industrial enterprise — to march to the brink of collapse, rapidly destroying the planet as a place suitable for human habitation.

Today, when the top 2 percent of us hold as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, it is an open question whether our democratic form of government can survive in any meaningful way. Here again, corporations and the elites who profit most from them, are key. How to control the behavior of corporations, to steer them onto paths of sustainability, accountability, and democratic governance, has become a central question we must all address.

Early Americans feared corporations as a threat to democracy and freedom. They feared that owners (shareholders) would amass great wealth, control jobs and production, buy the newspapers, dominate the courts and control elections — all of which, of course, has come to pass.

In the 19th century, corporations were tightly controlled. Investors were liable for any harms the corporation caused. Total capital was capped. Corporations were chartered for specific, narrow purposes and for a limited time, often 20 years or even less. However, by the early 20th century, courts had limited the liability of shareholders; corporations had been given perpetual lifetimes; the number of owners was no longer restricted; the capital they could control was infinite. Today a corporation can grow without limit and can become very all but impossible to control, no matter what harms it may cause. A single large corporation may maintain a legal department larger than that of many government agencies. Many modern corporations are now larger than many member states of the United Nations. A corporation cannot be jailed. Fines don’t provide real deterrence — even big fines, which can be shrugged off as just another cost of doing business.

With some notable exceptions, the people who run corporations are not at fault. They are ordinary people, as ethical and concerned as you and I are. However, in their roles within the corporation, their behavior is dictated by the institution, and the institution itself has no conscience. By law, the publicly-held corporation must return a modicum of profit to its investors. It is not legally permitted to do otherwise. To meet this fiduciary duty, the corporation must often shed (“externalize”) many expensive responsibilities, like environmental protection and worker health, to the extent the law allows. And of course corporate money is powerfully influential in rewriting laws and giving laws new meaning through lawsuits — so corporations help shape the environment within which they operate. Corporate lobbyists gain favor with members of Congress by perfectly- legal “campaign contributions.” In sum, the modern corporation is a sociopathic self-perpetuating externalizing machine in the same way a shark is a supremely efficient killing machine.

Now Richard Grossman has joined Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and together they are devising strategies to rein in the modern corporation, helping local communities put democratic controls on corporate behavior. We can all help them succeed, by first attending one of their “Democracy School” sessions, then by carrying forth the message and the work.

17. Energy Choices

To me, energy choices seem clear and not all that complicated:

Of course the first requirement is to make do with as little energy as is humanly possible. This will be a major part of any zero-waste society because every conversion of energy (or materials) creates disorder that amounts to waste (made inevitable by the second law of thermodynamics).

Human use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) is contributing to global warming and to the acidification of the oceans. Either of these problems, unchecked, will not terminate the human race, but could eliminate 90% (or more) of the human population. It is hard to imagine civilization surviving such a cataclysm. Proposals to add an end-of-pipe filter, to capture carbon dioxide and bury it in the deep earth, hoping it will stay there forever, violate the basic precautionary decision-rule: avoid irretrievable commitments.

The other technology that could end civilization as we know it is nuclear power because of its inseparable connection to nuclear weapons. Except for the U.S., all members of the “nuclear club” developed their atomic weapons by starting with nuclear power plants to generate electricity. A commitment to nuclear power provides immediate access to education, training, knowledge, skills, technical assistance, nuclear materials, experience with nuclear technologies, and the glow of modernity. Making a bomb then becomes relatively much simpler. We know from the experience of Russia, France, England, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, China, and South Africa (which has now dismantled its weapons), and perhaps Syria — that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are inseparable. The conclusion is unavoidable: If we want to prevent the inevitable nuclear detonation, we will eliminate nuclear power worldwide. It seems unlikely that the world’s commitment to democratic principles of governance could survive even a small rogue nuclear detonation in London or Paris or Washington, D.C.

This leaves us with only one path to choose: renewable sources of energy — solar (in all its forms, such as wind, hydro, heat, and photovoltaics) plus geothermal and tidal.

That is what we must do.

==============

[1] There’s some confusion because we misnumbered the series; there was no Part 14 ever published. See Rachel’s #88, #89, #90, #91, #93, #96, #97, #98, #102, #106, #107, #112, #113, #122, #286, #288.

[2] This description of Earth is taken from Ted Taylor and Charles Humpstone, Restoration of the Earth (N.Y. Harper & Row, 1973).

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