Vancouver Institute Lecture
University of British Columbia
March 25, 2000
Thank you. I am very happy to be here tonight, and for several reasons.
First, this university is my alma mater — and the alma mater of my father, both my brothers, my eldest son, and my wife. In addition, my father, my son and I have all taught here. I even think I have a dim childhood memory of my parents going out to attend lectures at the Vancouver Institute. My mother would certainly have been shocked at the notion that her rebellious, duck- tailed, leather-jacketted, hot-rodding eldest son might eventually speak under these august auspices. Once she recovered, she would have been very pleased.
Second, most of the speakers in lecture series like this one hold impressive positions in academic life, finance, politics, and the professions; very few are self-employed lowlifes such as freelance writers. I have twice resigned tenured university positions to live in a tiny Cape Breton village and take up or resume the trade of freelance writing. Such a move is the status equivalent of bungee-jumping. Your career trajectory is determined by gravity. You sink from the view of polite society in a flash, bouncing just before you splash on the pavement. Yesterday you were a distinguished professor. Today you’re a sweaty marginal hack, a coarse and dissolute denizen of Grub Street who would hardly be invited to speak in venues like this one. I’m grateful to be an exception.
Most importantly, though, I’m grateful because of a peculiar feature of the writing life. Writing and self-employment are addictive; that’s why I was willing to bungee-jump not once, but twice. Being a writer is like being paid to be a student. You go rummaging around and digging stuff up, and writing up your findings, and they give you money for it. For someone with a restless (some would say centrifugal) mind such as mine, this is a wonderful way of life. And, when you finally achieve the position of a newspaper columnist a commentator, a pundit, almost a respectable citizen again it’s even better, because now you decide what to write about, and you’re allowed, even encouraged, to have opinions.
The penalty of being a columnist, however, is that you begin to see the world in 800-word chunks. I’ve written radio plays, TV scripts, magazine features, novels and much else, and whenever one form of writing has become my staple, I find myself seeing the world around me through the lens of that particular form of writing. If you’re writing drama, the world is full of potential plays. If you’re writing political commentary, almost every situation appears to be a function of some intelligent or misguided policy. If you’re writing natural history, you see the human being mainly as a factor in the natural world. Your vision adjusts itself to see what you need to see. It’s a fascinating process, and I don’t recall ever having seen it discussed in print. Come to think of it, there may be a column in that idea…
My problem as a columnist is that I have 800 words — no more, no less — and the world doesn’t come in 800-word chunks. So the preparation of this lecture has given me a rare opportunity to tease out some of the ideas which underlie the weekly columns and the magazine journalism, to explore the substrate on which they rest.
What I want to talk about tonight, then, are some larger themes which have emerged only in small fragments in my columns, and the connections between those themes and fragments. To put it in the simplest terms, I am alarmed about sustainability about what we are doing to the environment and also to one another. I find myself wondering what can be done about it, and how such action might be organized and prosecuted.
In 1998, when I began writing columns, I had just completed a project called The Living Beach. The project began as a consulting assignment for the federal government and subsequently took the form of a magazine article, a pair of documentaries for the CBC radio series Ideas, a TV special for the Vision network, a home video, several newspaper columns and a book. My objective was to explore the nature of beaches their origins, character, behaviour, and ecology and also the human relationship with beaches.
My research brought me into contact with geologists, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists, and that experience permanently changed the way I think about the world — about the subtlety and intricacy of its natural systems, about our dependence on the earth and the other creatures with whom we share it, about the vast changes we are wreaking on the environment while our ignorance of how the environment actually works remains monumental. In particular, my work on beaches had a profound impact on my sense of time.
As John McPhee once remarked, most of us think about time over a span of five generations: two behind us and two ahead of us, with a heavy emphasis on the one in the middle. The geologists showed me that this habit puts us tragically out of sync with the earth’s own time scale. To a geologist, a million years is too short a time for anything very interesting to happen; geologists routinely think about tens and hundreds of millions of years. As one geologist said to me, “Geological processes are very slow, but they’re very persistent and they have all the time in the world.”
But even a geologist can’t really think about millions of years in any very intelligible way. The numbers are too vast, the epochs too unspeakably enormous. To gain any sense of deep time of the lifetime of the Earth, say we have to use metaphors. For example: as McPhee reports it, David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, “invites his listeners to consider the six days of Genesis as a figure of speech for what has in fact been four and a half billion years. In this adjustment, a day equals something like seven hundred and fifty million years, and thus ‘all day Monday and until Tuesday noon creation was busy getting the earth going.’ Life began Tuesday noon, and ‘the beautiful, organic wholeness of it’ developed over the next four days. ‘At 4 P.M. Saturday, the big reptiles came on. Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, there were no more big reptiles. At three minutes before midnight, man appeared. At one fourth of a second before midnight, Christ arrived. At one fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began.”
This vast backdrop of time is also the home turf of Peter Ward, a distinguished paleontologist at the University of Washington, whose special field is mass extinctions. There have been many such occasions, when large numbers of species were totally eliminated from the earth. But the two big ones were the Permian extinction, which Ward calls “The First Event,” around 250 million years ago — suppertime Saturday, in David Brower’s metaphor and the Cretaceous extinction, Ward’s “Second Event,” about 65 million years ago, or nine o’clock Saturday evening.
In the First Event, something over 90% of all the species living on the earth died, and we don’t know why. It may well have been climate changes, which in turn could have resulted from the movement of the continents or from a great volcanic eruption in Siberia. It could have been the result of the earth colliding with an asteroid. We don’t know whether it took five years, or five million years. The First Event, says Ward, is ” a great, long-running murder mystery.”
The Second Event was probably triggered by a massive outpouring of carbon and sulphur dioxide gasses from volcanic vents in what is now Pakistan — “pipelines from hell,” Ward calls them, “belching forth the foul, sulfurous breath of the underworld.” These were actually greenhouse-gas eruptions, and they were followed by an episode of dramatic global warming. And then, while the earth was already undergoing a vast biological re-organization, an asteroid six miles in diameter struck the Yucatan. The impact set off fires which burned half the earth’s forests and acidified the atmosphere and the sea. It produced clouds of debris which darkened the earth for months. When the skies cleared, perhaps 70% of the earth’s life forms were extinct, including the dinosaurs.
After each extinction, life rebounded, filling the earth with new and more varied species. Life was more profuse and diverse after the First Event than before it, and it became more abundant still after the Second Event. And a good thing too, since Ward believes that a Third Event is occurring right now. This time the culprit is a locust-like plague of human beings, whom Ward calls “the ultimate weed.”
This brings us to the first of the two engines which are driving the current environmental crisis: the growth of human population. It took humanity 100,000 years to reach a global population of one billion, which we did around 1800 AD. Just 200 years later, we number about six billion. The UN predicts that by 2050 we will be somewhere between 7.7 and 11.2 billion, and that the population will peak between 11 and 15 billion in the early 21st century. And every one of us demands food and heat and shelter, not to mention cars and fridges. As we reshape the world to accommodate our vast numbers — cutting the forests, plowing the prairies, armouring the coastlines, digging up the minerals, seining the oceans, spewing out pollutants, altering the whole biosphere — we literally push tens of thousands of other species out of existence.
This extinction of other species at human hands is not a new phenomenon. When the first migrant humans reached North America about 12,000 years ago, they found mammoths, mastodons, camels, lions, giant ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats. In not more than 2000 years, all had vanished. And the record shows the same story in scores of other once-isolated habitats on the widely-scattered Pacific islands, for instance.
In our own time, technology and industrialization have greatly intensified the pace of extinction. During periods of biological stability, one species goes extinct every five years or so. Today, scientists estimate that in Brazil alone the rate has been four species a day for the past 35 years. Paul Erlich, the noted biologist, suggests that we may soon measure the extinction rate in species per hour.
“Each species,” writes Peter Ward, “is like a tiny piece in a four-dimensional jigsaw, interlocking with other species… a tiny conducting part of the energy flowing through the living world. But what if species are also stacked together like a giant house of cards, each supporting other species in some small (or large) way, so that if enough species are kicked out of place by their extinction, the entire house falls down?” In that case, we might unexpectedly find ourselves facing “a sudden torrent of extinction,” a catastrophic climax to The Third Event.
The second great engine driving the environmental crisis is our dedication to economic growth. You cannot have economic growth without making additional demands on the earth’s carrying capacity, and the greater the growth, the greater the demands. More production means more mining, more logging, more dams, more toxic chemicals, more greenhouse gasses.
Rising population combined with ceaseless economic growth means that we are putting exponentially more pressure on our environment with every passing day. You cannot have infinite growth in a finite environment, and the limits may be nearer than we think. A recent Worldwatch Institute publication, Beyond Malthus, considers sixteen “dimensions” of the population problem matters like grain production, water supply, cropland, energy and fisheries, factors which determine the “carrying capacity” of the planet. Their studies show that the limits of carrying capacity are not far off, and suggest that some countries may already have reached them.
For example: the earth now has little or no new land to cultivate. As populations rise, therefore, the amount of farmland available to support each person will decrease. In small, crowded countries like Japan and South Korea, the amount of grain-growing land per person is smaller than a tennis court. Such countries now import grain from countries like Canada, the US and Argentina. But the harvest of the exporting countries is not increasing, and as their own populations grow, they will export less. The population of impoverished Ethiopia is projected to rise from 62 million to 213 million. Similar increases are forecast for Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and other underdeveloped nations. Even if those people have the money to buy food, where will they find it?
Some of these nations will be caught in a hideous spiral known as “the demographic trap.” A developing society goes through three demographic stages. In pre-industrial societies, high birth rates are matched by high death rates, and the population is roughly stable. As societies modernize, birthrates remain high but death rates plunge, creating dramatic increases in population. In post-industrial nations, both rates are low and the population stabilizes once again.
The only post-industrial region with a stable population is western Europe. Even industrial nations like Canada are still in Stage 2, with rising populations. The exploding populations of Third World nations are straining all their resources, including the energy, legitimacy and ingenuity of government. If these problems overwhelm such a society, its death rate may rise to meet its high birth rate, pushing the country back into Stage 1.
This is the demographic trap, and some nations already face it. The most obvious sign of an exhausted government, say the Worldwatch authors, is its inability “to respond effectively to emerging threats such as new diseases, water shortages or food shortages.” In industrial nations, for instance, less than 1% of the adult population suffers HIV infection. In several African nations, the rate is more than 20%. As a result, life expectancy in a nation such as Zimbabwe has dropped from 61 years in 1993 to 49 now. It could fall to 40 by 2010. A society overwhelmed by such suffering simply disintegrates. Somalia, say the Worldwatch authors, “is still treated by UN demographers as a country, but in reality it is not. It is a geographical area inhabited by warring clans one where ongoing conflict, disintegration of health care services, and widespread hunger combine to raise mortality.”
I don’t see why this analysis should be restricted to individual nations; ultimately, that may be the fate of the world. As the hungry billions vacuum the seas of plankton and burn their tropical forests in search of firewood and farmland, they will eliminate entire fisheries and degrade the air we all breathe. Imagine the consequences of social disintegration in a nuclear Pakistan or Iran. Imagine the threat to peace posed by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt with an additional 231 million people, all desperate for the water of the Nile, which is already fully utilized.
Survival demands a revolution in the way we live, which in turn requires a revolution in the way we think. When there were only a few of us, we could afford to be stupid. Today, when our numbers and our ingenuity have made us a force of nature in our own right, our stupidity has lethal consequences.
To illustrate what I mean by a revolution in thought, consider just one of the “dimensions” covered by the Worldwatch study: energy, and in particular oil and gas. This winter, the price of crude oil has tripled, with heating oil and gasoline following right along. A windfall for the oil companies, a kick in the wallet for the rest of us. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries may increase production next week, relieving the immediate strain — but in the long term, oil prices must inevitably move much higher. The earth has a finite amount of oil, and the bottom of the barrel is visible.
Oil comes in two forms. “Conventional oil,” which occurs in underground pools, is the cheapest oil, and it accounts for almost all of the oil we use. But new discoveries of conventional oil peaked in the 1960s, and have been falling ever since. These days, despite massive exploration efforts, we’re not discovering even one-third as much conventional oil annually as we use. The alternative is “unconventional oil” from offshore sources or from oil sands and shales. There’s a lot of unconventional oil around, but it’s much more expensive to produce.
Meanwhile, world demand for oil is rising faster than predicted. The US Department of Energy thought demand would reach 70 million barrels a day by 2010. In fact it reached that level in 1995. The International Energy Agency now reckons that we have used almost half the world’s supply of conventional oil — and as the reserves dwindle, the price will inevitably rise.
How fast will the reserves dwindle? I have been reading some speeches by Matthew R. Simmons, a highly respected independent analyst and investment banker to the oil industry who argues that oil production both in the US and elsewhere may fall surprisingly quickly because many of the world’s older oil fields are approximately the same age, which means that a number of important fields could all become depleted in very quick succession. Every individual oilfield operator allows for depletion, Simmons remarks, but the analysts who follow the industry as whole seem to have forgotten it.
“Hydrocarbons,” says Simmons, “might rank as the world’s most precious, costly and certainly most useful commodity.” He doesn’t quite call oil a magic material, but that’s surely what it is. Our lives are permeated with oil, in a thousand different forms. If there is a single point in the structure of the economy where a single change in a single industry could produce a huge effect in society, it is surely the price of oil. We’ve just seen it triple in one year. Suppose it tripled again? And then tripled once more?
The effect on industrial societies would be staggering. Since cheap oil is a critical factor in industrial production and distribution of all kinds, the price of almost everything would climb steeply. International trade would slump. Heating oil would become a huge item in family budgets. Many rural Canadians would return to wood heat. Tourism would no longer be the world’s fastest-growing industry. The Cape Breton coal mines might re-open. Gas guzzling 4x4s and motorhomes would become almost unsalable, as they were in the 1970s. The prices of monster houses in outer suburbs would plummet.
On the other hand, local communities would become more self-reliant. Food from California and Florida, for instance, would be much less competitive in Canadian markets, which would be good news for our own farmers and distributors. Greenhouse gas emissions would fall, and urban smog would diminish. Public transit systems would flourish. We would stop paving the world, and we would all spend much less money on disposable junk.
Sooner or later this is bound to happen, and no doubt we will adapt. We will become adept at extracting the last dribbles from the conventional reserves, and more efficient at mining the unconventional sources. And eventually, ingenious animals that we are, we will find other sources of energy hydrogen fuel, nuclear fusion, or whatever. Vancouver is particularly well-positioned for a major role in the hydrogen economy — but the hydrogen economy is still in its infancy, and fusion remains a fantasy. For another generation at least, we will rely mainly on the earth’s shrinking reserves of oil. And we will pay an increasingly high price to get it.
Now you would think that if homo really were sapiens, if we really grasped that oil is a magic material unique, irreplaceable, finite we would be making a strenuous effort right now to husband our reserves, particularly while we were still developing affordable alternative sources of energy. We would also face the fact that the misuse of oil makes a major contribution to climate change, environmental degradation and social inequality.
The misuse of oil is a direct result of its low price, which results in the wasteful stupidity symbolized by the green garbage bag. Using vast amounts of energy, we extract petroleum from the earth, process it into plastic, shape it into garbage bags, wrap the bags in plastic and transport them to the consumer — who buys them for the sole purpose of sending them to the dump. If oil cost $100 a barrel, we would find another way to wrap our garbage.
The oddest thing about the price of oil in our day is the fact that the oil itself is hardly a factor in the price. Greed and opportunism are included in the oil price, of course but otherwise the “cost” of oil is mainly the cost of pumping it out of the ground. The intrinsic value of an irreplaceable resource never enters the calculation. That’s like selling off your house board by board and recording the proceeds as income.
A better energy policy, recognizing oil as a vanishing miracle, would impose very heavy royalties on it. It would also impose carbon taxes on the use of fossil fuels in proportion to the carbon dioxide they emit and it would use the proceeds to support alternative energy, and to cushion the poor by reducing other taxes. This is called tax-shifting, and it is not about raising or lowering taxes. It is about modifying the tax system to achieve public goals taxing energy waste and pollution heavily, for instance, while reducing or removing taxes which penalize conservation, employment and innovation. The British government is already doing this — increasing gasoline prices by 6% annually and using the proceeds for environmental purposes and the BC government has also expressed considerable interest in it.
I can already hear the economists muttering that such a policy means introducing inefficiencies and distortions into the marketplace. Damn right: and not a moment too soon. David Suzuki, one of the great figures from this university, describes economics as a form of brain damage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the propensity of economists to treat efficiency as an end in itself, and economic values as if they were profound human values. Those of us who live in what once were fishing villages have seen first-hand how economic efficiency can ravage a natural resource and the lives of the people who depended on it. The traditional inefficient cod fishery lasted for a millennium. An efficient one cleaned out the cod in half a century. Which do we want?
Nowhere is the revolution in thought more important than in the field of economics. As a tool an instrument for measuring and analyzing economic activity the dismal science has its place. But its practitioners seem to believe that it can eschew values, following the model of the physical sciences. It can’t. Economics deals with human constructs, not natural phenomena. Economics can help us reach our destination; it cannot tell us what that destination should be.
What should our objectives be? The late George Woodcock, another revered member of this university community, described the anarchist ideal in economics as “that sufficiency which allows man to be free.” The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path includes an element known as Right Livelihood, which E.F.Schumacher interpreted to mean that human work has three main functions: to allow people to develop their abilities; to enable them to overcome their preoccupation with self by working with others at a shared task; and (last and least) “to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” To think that work is primarily about production and consumption and money is, from an anarchist or Buddhist point of view, simply primitive.
The Buddhist view of economics, incidentally, is almost instinctive in Maritime culture, which is one of the reasons I love the Maritimes so passionately. Survey after survey shows that Maritimers care more about the quality of their lives than about economic opportunity. They like their communities more or less as they are. (How many people in the industrial world can say as much?) They find it important to be close to their families, to make music with friends, to trust and rely on their neighbours, to work collectively on boats and in workshops and on community projects. If the house and the pick-up are paid for, and your work gives you (in a revealing Maritime phrase) “enough to get by,” what more would a sane person want?
This deeply-rooted Maritime attitude infuriates Upper Canadian pundits and policymakers. It is appropriate, then, that a fascinating intellectual offensive against conventional economic thought is being prosecuted with great vigour in a tiny village on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
Glen Haven, not far from Peggy’s Cove, is the home of a small non-profit research group known as GPI Atlantic, which is supported by Statistics Canada and the Nova Scotia government. GPI’s essential objective is to conquer bogus accounting measurements and tallies which are not only misleading but downright damaging.
Bogus accounting calculates costs or benefits but not both, and often omits important factors altogether. When an arts group obtains a grant, for example, that’s recorded as a “cost” to government. Yet a $10,000 grant to a festival may yield tax revenues income taxes, entertainment taxes, sales taxes so on — of $20,000 or $30,000. The grant is thus a rather brilliant equity investment which returns 200% or 300% to the government within six months. But the income and the expenditure occur in two different accounts, so the true nature of the investment remains invisible.
The worst example of bogus accounting is the Gross Domestic Product, an important factor in our gross domestic problems. The GDP simply tallies up the value of all goods and services exchanged for money. Crime, war, pollution, tobacco smoking, house fires, car accidents they all represent “progress” as defined by the GDP. On the other side of the ledger, a healthy environment, a caring community and stable families literally count for nothing.
GPI Atlantic is constructing an alternative to the GDP. The Genuine Progress Index measures development in terms of sustainability, and incorporates the difficult questions of value which are ignored by the religion of economic growth. The project director, Dr. Ronald Colman, an economist, describes the GPI’s basic approach as “full-cost accounting.” The GPI recognizes four forms of capital: natural, human, social and “produced” capital. It translates social and environmental benefits and costs into monetary terms, and assigns negative value to negative things. Although a crime wave may boost the sales of security systems, crime makes life worse, not better.
The GPI thus deducts the costs of crime and pollution, but includes a good many unrecognized assets — for instance, the intrinsic value of unprocessed natural resources, and the economic value of parenting, housework, and community service. Even the early results are arresting. In a 1998 report, GPI evaluated volunteer work in Nova Scotia at nearly $1.9 billion a year. A year ago, it reported a decline of 7.2% in the province’s volunteer work between 1987 and 1997. It attributed this $60 million loss to growing time pressures resulting from downsizing and cutbacks.
The GPI acknowledges realities which elude traditional economic measurements. California lettuce can be competitively priced in Nova Scotia, Colman notes, only if one ignores “the true costs of transportation, the cost of greenhouse gas and other emissions from refrigerated trucks and warehouses, soil erosion from monoculture growing methods, the health effects of pesticide residues, the loss of local jobs, the loss of potential local inputs into production.” Colman’s list is not exhaustive. For example, it omits the cost of subsidized water in California. But the point is that only through bogus accounting have we been able to ignore those costs. They are recorded not in our economic statistics, but in the degradation of our environment.
The substitution of the GPI for the GDP is the sort of thing I have in mind when I talk about a “revolution in thought.” Another example is a review of the legal rights we confer on purely fictional entities by comparison with the rights we give to the earth. This was one of the most striking ideas I encountered in my research for The Living Beach.
Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California, argues that our legal system should confer legal rights on natural objects. Stone suggests that beaches, mountains, streams and other natural features should have legal standing in the courts. They should be “jural persons” entitled to institute legal action on their own initiative, to have injuries to them taken into account in determining legal relief, and to benefit from that relief. Since natural objects cannot exercise these rights for themselves, individuals or groups should be able to apply to the courts for legal guardianship. The guardians would then have the right to litigate on behalf of the natural object.
The idea is startling, because we tend to think that some things naturally have rights and others don’t — but in fact the boundary between the two is simply the expression of a social consensus. The extension of rights to an ever-widening circle of entities is a long-standing trend in the history of western law. In Roman law, a father was entitled to deny his paternity and even put his children to death. Blacks, Jews, natives, Chinese, women and animals have all been considered property at various times; as recently as 1858, for example, a US court specifically stated that “a slave is not a person, but a thing.” And, on the other hand, we already recognize many “jural persons” which are not persons at all churches, trusts, estates and nations, not to mention corporations. In some situations, even ships are recognized as legal persons, with rights and obligations.
For me, it’s the current situation which is absurd. Suppose an industrial corporation pollutes a river, fouling the water supply of a town downstream. The town has a right to sue the corporation, and can be compensated for its loss by receiving, say, enough money to build a purification plant. The lawsuit ends there but the injury to the river remains.
The town and the corporation are both are imaginary entities. They exist only because of a social convention that they exist. Yet both have legal rights. The river, on the other hand, and the fish in it, the animals which drink from it, the vegetation which grows along its shores — these are real, tangible, physical entities, but they have no rights, and the injury to them persists. How can it make sense to give legal rights to figments of our collective imagination, at the expense of living things in the real world?
Conversely, it’s time we peeled away some legal rights from corporations. “Focus on the Corporation” is a weekly column, distributed on the Internet and co-authored by Robert Weissman, editor of Multinational Monitor magazine, and Russell Mokhiber, editor of Corporate Crime Reporter. The two recently reminded their readers that corporations were originally created by the citizenry, in order ” to do the public’s work — build a canal or a road — and then go out of business.” The state extended limited liability to corporate shareholders simply to preserve them from huge personal liabilities for corporate errors, failures or even crimes. “This limited liability corporation is the bedrock of the market economy,” note Mokhiber and Weissman. “The markets would deflate like a punctured balloon if corporations were stripped of limited liability for shareholders.”
But corporations lobbied for and obtained the same status in law as actual persons. In fact they are nothing like persons. They cannot be imprisoned, they have no emotions or consciences or loyalties, and they are immortal. Their single intrinsic motive is unadulterated self-interest. They are a device for the reduction of all values to monetary value. Even the cost of committing a crime is just one more entry in the expenditure statement.
When they talk about criminal corporations, incidentally, Mokhiber and Weissman are not indulging in hyperbole. They are talking about corporations which have been taken to court on criminal charges, and have been convicted. Their list of the top 100 corporate criminals of the 1990s includes such blue-chip names as Ortho Pharmaceuticals, Eastman Kodak, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Coors and General Electric.
In 1996, for instance, Archer Daniels Midland, sponsors of all those earth-friendly ads on television, pleaded guilty and paid a $100 million criminal fine for conspiring to fix prices, eliminate competition and allocate sales. In 1949, General Motors, Standard Oil of California and Firestone were convicted of criminal conspiracy in Chicago. The three corporations had purchased and dismantled the companies which ran scores of clean, quiet, efficient inner-city electric rail systems, thus forcing commuters to use automobiles and diesel busses. The three companies were fined $5,000 each. They paid it, shrugged, and went on their merry way.
For a detailed account of one particularly damaging corporate conspiracy, pick up the current issue of The Nation and read “The Secret History of Lead,” by New York lawyer Jamie Lincoln Kitman. Lead is a deadly poison whose effects were known to the Greeks and Romans. Severe lead poisoning results in insanity, blindness, brain damage, kidney disease and cancer.Lower levels of chronic lead poisoning cause systemic and neurological damage in children as well as hypertension, heart attacks and strokes in adults. From 1923 to 1986, a consortium including General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey, through and with the Ethyl Corporation which was originally a joint venture between GM and Standard Oil, conspired to market tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive for the prevention of engine knock — knowing full well that there were non-toxic alternatives. Over a period of 60 years, about 7 million tons of lead were dispersed into the air from car exhausts in the United States alone.
During that time, numerous workers in lead-producing plants were seriously affected or killed by it. It even poisoned Thomas Midgley of General Motors, who discovered its anti-knock properties. In 1983 a British Royal Commission remarked that “it is doubtful whether any part of the earth’s surface or any form of life remains uncontaminated” by lead pollution. In 1986, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated that as many as 5000 Americans were dying every year of heart disease due to the effects of lead, and estimated the total public health costs from airborne lead at billions of dollars annually.
The promoters of lead always maintained that there was no alternative to its use. They were lying, and they knew it. Thomas Midgley himself applied for a patent on a blended gasoline-ethanol fuel in 1920, well before he came up with tetraethyl lead. Ethanol was renewable, non-toxic and effecitve — and it could be made from surplus crops, among other things. But ethanol had two great disadvantages. First, any fool could produce ethanol, whereas the production of tetraethyl lead required the services of industrial-grade fools. Second, ethanol was well-known and couldn’t be patented — but tetraethyl lead could be patented as a gasoline additive, and General Motors patented it. For most of this century, the price of almost all the world’s gasoline included a royalty payment to GM. And most of the gasoline sold outside North America and Western Europe still contains lead, despite the overwhelming evidence of its dangers.
I draw three morals from this appalling saga. First, like the purveyors of asbestos, pesticides, coal, nuclear power and tobacco, the lead industry always maintained that there was no proof that its gasoline additive was damaging, casting the onus on the public to prove, once again, that lead was poisonous. The biotechnology industry is taking the same stance today, recklessly releasing novel organisms into the biosphere after the barest minimum of short-term testing and defying the rest of us to prove actual damage. This is perfect insanity, the exact opposite of the precautionary principle, which holds that you don’t adopt a possibly-damaging technology unless you are all but certain it is benign.
Second, the lead-loving corporations got away with decades of obfuscation and mendacity partly because they could point to university science to bolster their case. In 1966, the Director of the Kettering Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati spoke to a US Senate committee. He said, correctly, that the only real source of information on occupational and public health standards relating to the industrial use of lead was his own lab. His name was Robert Kehoe, and he moonlighted as chief medical consultant of the Ethyl Corporation. His lab was founded by a gift from GM, DuPont and Ethyl, and for 50 years his salary was paid by the lead industry.
This is a cautionary fable for Canadian universities today, when government has abdicated its responsibility to fund research, leaving desperate universities scrambling for corporate partners to support their research programs. But the acceptance of corporate funding is a Faustian compact. Over the long term, such funding steadily erodes the intellectual authority of the university itself.
The third moral from the story of lead is that certain contemporary political fantasies may possibly be explained as the result of brain malfunctions caused by lead poisoning. The jug-headed notion that government is the enemy and that the private sector best serves the public interest — this thesis is pure birdlime. But when the media are largely owned by the corporate interests who stand to benefit from disinformation, we can hardly be surprised that intellectual pollution is widespread. As A.J. Liebling once remarked, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to the man who owns one.
To recapitulate: we have to change our behaviour radically and before we can revolutionize our behaviour, we have to deepen our understanding and up-end our established modes of thought. But thought should be the parent of action. Which brings us to two final issues: what can be done, and who will do it?
I think it was Gandhi who said we must be the change we want to see. As environmental issues impinge increasingly on my consciousness, I find myself taking them into account in all the little decisions of daily life. Do I need to drive the car on this occasion? Do I really need this groovy new product? I live in a recycled Victorian house, I drove to this event in a 19-year-old car, and for the past 15 years I have sailed an engineless sailboat. Of course I am a cheapskate by nature, so for me this lifestyle is no great strain. As the old Scottish proverb says, money is flat, and is meant to be piled up. All the same, frugality generates a pleasant sensation of virtue.
Frugality is a political action as well. Economic growth is alluring partly because it offers hope to the poor. In a stable, sustainable world, however, the only possible relief for the poor is the redistribution of wealth. And so it follows inexorably that comfortable people in the developed world need to consume less not only to relieve the strain on the earth, but also to allow more for others. And this, it seems to me, is where the heritage of the left will re-assert itself.
The governing metaphor of the last two decades has been a kind of brutish social Darwinism which holds that Nature’s only law is ruthless competition and the survival of the fittest — the law of the jungle, “Nature red in tooth and claw.” But nature has other equally powerful laws rooted in symbiosis, mutual aid and co-operation. The wolf does not hunt alone. The geese fly in V- formation to conserve the energy of each for the benefit of all. A fascinating study from the provincial forestry lab in Kamloops shows that the very trees of the BC forest trade carbon among themselves through connected networks of root fungi, so that all the trees may thrive together.
If predation is the central metaphor of the right, symbiosis is the natural metaphor of the left. The moral mission of the left as valid today as it ever was rests on its insistence that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, that our achievements as social animals are not simply our own personal achievements. The earth is a heritage which belongs to all of us, and the wealth we generate together should accrue, more or less, to everyone. Today, this means asserting the primacy of democratic governance over corporate self-interest. It requires that we resist the corporate program of unrestricted free trade, de-regulation, privatization and commodification.
The promoters of that familiar corporate agenda like to portray their opponents as Luddite bumpkins, romantic defenders of outmoded structures and values. On the contrary, the people who defeated the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and who derailed the World Trade Organization’s meetings Seattle last November organized their resistance openly and globally, by means of the Internet. Many of them would vigorously agree that we need a proper political and legal framework for the emerging global society — including global trading rules, since trade is an essential and normal part of our lives as social beings. But they strongly disgree that trade agreements can be given priority over social, health and environmental considerations.
No nation benefits from these agreements. Only corporations do. Trade agreements forbid the Europeans to exclude North American beef because of hormone treatments. The United States has been forced to over-rule its own Clean Air Act and accept dirty gasoline from Venezuela, and is not allowed to ban imported shrimp caught with techniques which kill endangered sea turtles. Canada itself is using the WTO to prevent France from prohibiting the use of asbestos.
Take a deep breath and remember our old friend the Ethyl Corporation. Ethyl now produces a manganese-based gasoline additive known as MMT, which has been banned in Europe and in California because of its possible risks to human health and the environment. In 1996, the government of Canada passed a bill to ban MMT here too.
The Ethyl Corporation then sued the government under NAFTA, demanding compensation for $347 million in lost sales because of the ban, claiming that MMT had no proven ill effects on human health. That’s exactly the same as its stance on tetraethyl lead: you prove the dangers, and then we’ll withdraw the poison. Notice that under NAFTA, this American company is allowed to sue Canada, but not California. Remember, too, that these were not real losses. Ethyl was suing for the loss of potential profits. And the case would be heard not by the courts of either democracy. Instead, it would go to a NAFTA trade tribunal, meeting in secret. In the end, Canada abrogated its own law and paid Ethyl $20 million in damages.
So you and I will pay extra taxes and breathe this crap because our formerly sovereign government no longer has the power to set our health above the profits of a foreign corporation. Given Ethyl’s corporate record, how does that make you feel?
The Multilateral Agreement on Investment would have extended rules like these to the whole developed world. Now that the MAI has been scuttled, the same corporate interests are seeking the same objectives through the World Trade Organization. Governments seem unable to resist. Our own government, despite having been neutered by NAFTA, is one of the world’s great cheerleaders for free trade.
Fortunately, the old instruments of the left are still available to us mass movements, public education, democratic pressure, non-violent protest. The Battle of Seattle demonstrated that they still work, and we will see more of them in the future. The next major confrontation may involve genetically-modified foods, or Frankenfoods, over which the European Union seems determined to stare down the United States, strongly supported by its consumers and citizens.
These developments give importance an Internet-based conference, just concluded, entitled Big Body Heuristics: Are Corporations Really Alive? (And are they now our dominant species?) The conference participants included Ralph Nader, Fritjof Capra, Hazel Henderson, Noam Chomsky and Frances Lappe, among others. One of the texts they were debating comes from a book called The Living Company, written by Arie de Geuss, a long-serving executive with Royal Dutch Shell. Here is the quote:
The living company does not exist solely to provide customers with goods, or to return investment to shareholders… From the point of view of the organization itself, all of these purposes are secondary… Like all organisms, the living company exists primarily for its own survival and improvement: to fulfill its potential and to become as great as it can be.
Earlier, syndicated columnist Jim Hightower set forth the theme of the conference — and of the emerging conflict — in these words:
Practically every progressive struggle — campaign finance reform, sweatshops, family farms, fair trade, health care for all, unionization, military spending, tax reform, alternative energy, healthy food, media access, hazardous waste dumps, redlining, alternative medicine, you name it — is being fought against one cluster of corporations or another. But it is not that corporation over there or this one over here that is the enemy. It is not one industry’s contamination of our drinking water or another’s perversion of the lawmaking process that is the problem — rather it is the corporation itself that must be addressed if we are to be a free people…
This conference, and other indicators, suggest that we are beginning to ask some hard questions about the legitimacy of corporations. I am heartened to see such considerable minds discussing what may be the most important social and political issue of this young century. It has become a matter of biological necessity to bring these organizations to heel. If we are to survive, we must compel democratic governments to re-assert control over the corporations they created, and we will have to extend the global reach of our governments. We will also have to undertake profound changes in the way we live our lives. We may still fail if we do this. But if we do not do it, we will certainly fail.
Overall, the protests in Seattle and elsewhere lead me to believe that we are seeing the emergence of a new social movement. This new movement descends from the left-wing tradition both in its techniques and its values, but it draws on new constituencies and it is dedicated to environmental sustainability as well as to social equity.
Ultimately, however, I hope that we will find a new vitality in the left’s all-but-forgotten perception of the magnificent possibilities of human life itself — perhaps even something as inspiring as the society envisioned by that towering and tragic figure Leon Trotsky. Trotsky saw the future not as an endless collective farm or state factory, but as an open and sunlit place — and there, he wrote, the human spirit would soar, free at last, “with science as the beating of its wings and art as its song.”
Somehow that image still seems to evoke a more worthy aspiration for the future of our species than the efficient, low-cost, worldwide production and distribution … of green garbage bags.