Plant geneticist Stan Cox, senior research scientist at the Kansas-based Land Institute, explains in his brilliant book “Sick Planet” how two industries that are supposed to give life, agribusiness and the health sector, are doing the exact opposite: they destroy the environment, poison our bodies and turn disasters of their own making into opportunities for profit and growth to boot.
Cox shows numerous specific instances of the social and ecological wreckage inflicted all over the world by corporations like GlaxoSmithkline, Tyson, Walmart and Monsanto: the toxic pollution spewed by pharmaceutical factories in India, the horrors of industrial cattle and poultry operations, and how the health industry afflicts us not only with unaffordable health care but also with an endless stream of unnecessary drugs and treatments, among many other wrongs.
The author is not the first to warn of the dangers and threats presented by these two industries (Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan and Michael Moore, among others, preceded him). “Sick Planet”‘s main merit is its profound and serious contribution to the debate and reflection on solutions.
Cox does not dedicate the bulk of his outrage to the depredations of capitalists but to the false solutions proposed by certain environmentalist sectors which he views as naive and delusional, and are doing more harm than good. Parting from a solid Marxist base, he establishes that the political and economic changes necessary to get us out of the ecological debacle will have to be much more radical than the technocratic, eco-capitalist proposals that are bandied about in these days.
“The planet’s current predicament is not necessarily the work of evil, scheming tycoons bent on personal enrichment”, says Cox. “It is the natural product of a system that rewards the industrious capitalist… Just as we can’t blame the current global predicament on ‘bad’ corporate executives, we can’t expect the ‘good’ ones to come to the rescue. When corporate owners and managers claim they can’t operate in greener ways without sacrificing essential profits, they aren’t just being stubborn and greedy; they are acknowledging material reality.” (From the preface)
The author sees no merit in green capitalism proposals, which advocate “win-win” scenarios, as he considers that these part from an awesome and outrageous naivete. But neither does he take refuge in the triumphalistic vanity of some leftist sectors that hold that capitalism will self destruct due to its own internal contradictions. He warns, quoting James Bellamy Foster, that capitalism has a practically unlimited ability to transform itself when facing crises, and even profit from them.
Cox also advises us to reject another triumphalist notion treasured by some left-leaning enviros: that the ravages of global warming will make the citizenry conscious of the evils of capitalism. If the horrendous things that capitalism has done in the last few centuries have not “created awareness”, neither will global warming, argues the author.
Apart from Marx, Cox also draws from the observations of other- less well known- thinkers. One is the Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994), author of “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” (1971). Combining physics and biology with classical economic theory, Georgescu-Roegen applied the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) to economic activities and he arrived at a terrifying conclusion: no matter what we do, the world is headed to the depletion of all its natural resources, meaning total entropy. The sum total of all economic activity only accelerates this inevitable decline. All economic activity, no matter how abstract and electronic, is founded ultimately on physical exploitation of natural resources. Therefore, the more economic growth there is, the faster we are headed to the fateful day of oblivion.
Based on the ideas of Georgescu Roegen, Cox reasons that, “provided our species survives, there lies somewhere in its future another Stone Age, and the faster our economic growth, the steeper the decline will be. The next Stone Age will be more resource-poor and probably more toxic than the last, and there will be no shot at a comeback.” (p. 159-160)
Not surprisingly, the ideas of this prophet of doom were relegated to the Orwellian memory hole, but throughout the 1970’s several visionary ecological thinkers welcomed his thesis. Two of these were Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard, who in 1980 co-wrote “Entropy: A New World View”, whose afterword is written by Georgescu-Roegen himself. Rifkin and Howard hold that an understanding of the law of entropy is a fundamental requisite for a profound and revolutionary ecological wisdom.
Cox makes reference to another ahead-of-the-curve scholar that gave serious consideration to Georgescu-Roegen’s ideas: economist Herman Daly. From being a World Bank economist he went on to become one of the leading lights in the budding field of ecological economics, and has dedicated a good part of his intellectual energy to finding ways to postone the next Stone Age to the unforeseeably far future. The alternative that Daly proposes includes among its main elements a reduction in the use of natural resources down to sustainable levels and reducing the income gap between social classes. Daly presents this thesis in his books “Steady State Economics” (1977) and “For the Common Good” (1989), the latter co-authored with John Cobb. In 2004 he published, with co-author Joshua Farley,”Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications”, an economics tex book in which they propose the modification of existing institutions to rescue the environment.
“While recognizing that inequality breeds insupportable growth, most ecological economists reject direct expropriation of wealth and property from those who have the most, preferring instead to put a limit on the human economy’s overall physical ‘throughput’ and have the capitalist class pay the costs of its resource use and ecological destruction”, says Cox (p. 160). “But is capitalism the kind of creature that can survive in captivity? The small, powerful class of people who today reap its economic benefits can be counted upon to rush headlong into ecological catastrophe rather than to permit the creation of institutions like those proposed by Daly and Farley… Manufacturers would simply refuse to slash their use of resources, production of goods, and discard of wastes. And, most crucially, the investing class would never agree to limit its accumulation of wealth in favor of the world’s impoverished majority.” (p. 161)
No wonder then that so many entrepreneurs and politicians, even the ones who fancy themselves green, support economic growth. Advocating growth is more simpatico and “kumba-ya” and less controversial and taking up the unpleasant subject of wealth redistribution.
Faced with this ineludible dilemma, advocates of green capitalism and technological optimism seek refuge in the efficiency mantra. On first sight, efficiency is universally good and devoid of controversy. ¿Who can object to efficiency? Both business people and environmentalists agree on this point. The idea of using technological innovation so that economic activity uses less materials and energy and generates less waste is an apolitical proposal that gives the impression that we can save the planet without stopping economic growth and without acknowledging the conflict between social classes.
But Cox cuts off our escape to that easy exit, using as a reference another little-known thinker: British economist William Stanley Jevons. In his book “The Coal Question” (1865), Jevons presents the results of his thourough study of mid-nineteenth century coal mining, which took a particularly close look at technological innovations that made it possible to extract more coal at a lesser cost. His study’s conclusions were unsettling, as unsettling as Georgescu-Roegen’s thesis: the increase in efficiency does not lead to conservation of the resource in question, BUT RATHER THE OPPOSITE. Increases in efficiency lead to increases in consumption, thus accelerating the resource’s depletion, concluded Jevons.
From the point of view of capitalist economics this makes plenty of sense. If a capitalist finds a way to reduce costs, the savings will not result in a reduction in the exploitation of labor and natural resources. No way, what a capitalist would do is take those savings and reinvest them in his operation in order to increase his profit margin (You really think a capitalist would do otherwise?). In other words, production will increase. And in ecological terms this means more plunder and exploitation of natural resources.
But Cox does not end there. For him it is not enough to smash any illusion that the reader might have about reconciling capitalism with ecological sustainability. He delivers his coup de grace with his refusal to end the book with a hopeful chapter filled with solutions to the crisis. It is very premature, presumptuous and frivolous to do such a thing at this moment, argues Cox.
The author concludes that one cannot conceive- much less build- an ecological society without there being a broad consensus that the current economic system, founded on never ending growth, cannot be part of a new society. We must understand that all economic growth is destructive and that therefore we cannot have both capitalism and a habitable planet, says Cox. He goes on to warn that if we do not achieve such an understanding, any proposal or solution to the ecological crisis will be a pretentious and futile exercise, with a high entertainment value but with absolutely no usefulness in the real world.
In conclusion, “Sick Planet” is a very modest book, for it simply invites the reader to question the inevitability and desirability of capitalism in a sick and shrinking planet.
(This review was originally published in Spanish in the Puerto Rican weekly Claridad on November 28 2008)
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, a self-described renaissance hack and impractical humanist, is a Puerto Rican journalist, environmental educator and author. He is as Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a Fellow of the Oakland Institute, and directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/). Whenever he is not writing or working at a call center, he distributes farm produce for something that resembles a CSA. Ruiz-Marrero, a compulsive blogger, blogs away at: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/