Environmental Research Foundation  [Printer-friendly version]
February 1, 2006


Peter Montague (peter@rachel.org)

[The latest draft of this paper can be found online at
http://www.precaution.org/lib/06/context.060103.htm ]

Summary statement:

1) Trend #1. Increasing entropy world-wide, tied to increasing energy
use that accompanies "economic growth." By "economic growth" I mean
growth in the throughput of stuff. The global economy is presently
doubling in size every 23 to 35 years, at least quadrupling during one
human lifetime.

2) Trend #2: The rate of economic growth has slowed throughout the
"developed" world and "the system" has responded in many ways, all of
which are intended to move money from the public treasury, and from
the pockets of the poor and middle class, into the pockets of the
investor class. As I see it, system responses to slowed growth create
most of what passes for "the news" each day.

3) Trend #3: Growing corporate power. This is so obvious that we
often overlook it. But corporations now govern us -- meanwhile we
still focus our attention on "the government" as if it retained its
traditional role. The regulatory system has demonstrably failed to
check corporate power or to keep the harms of technology within
acceptable limits. Is a workable regulatory system even imaginable
under present conditions? We should think carefully about this
question, because if the answer is "No," then most of us are working
on the wrong problem.

4) Trend #4. Rapid technical innovation.

Partly in hopes of speeding up economic growth, we are seeing an ever-
greater push to deploy new technical innovations as rapidly as
possible. By definition, rapid innovation is ill-considered
innovation. Rapid innovation guarantees that the future will be filled
with harm, disasters, and even catastrophes -- but large parts of "the
system" thrive under these conditions (see discussion of Trend #5,
below). Rapid innovation also tends to absolve corporations of
liability -- "It all happened so fast, no one could have known it
would turn out this way."

5) Trend #5. The prevention philosophy is advancing slowly and
fitfully, but huge stumbling blocks remain that we have not yet
figured a way around. We are trying to change Euro-American culture in
fundamental ways but we are up against economic and political forces
that thrive on catastrophe and harm. Many firms have figured out that
they can make money causing harm, and then make money providing
remedies. Prevention does not serve their interests.

So here is some discussion of each of these five trends:

1) Trend #1. Increasing entropy world-wide.

Entropy is a measure of the disorder that accompanies all human
activities. The global economy is growing at somewhere between 2% and
3% per year,[1,2,3,4,5,6] doubling in size every 23 to 35 years,
thus at least quadrupling in one human lifetime. Economic growth
requires something to be grown or dug up, transported, processed,
transported, sold, transported, used, transported, and discarded. Try
to imagine the earth with four times as much economic activity
(throughput of stuff) as we have now -- four times as many cities,
farms, factories, suburbs, highways, airplanes, parking lots, and

According to Vitousek,[7] humans presently appropriate roughly 40% of
terrestrial net primary producivity (products of photosynthesis) --
and this was a 1986 estimate. Even allowing for a large margin of
error in this estimate, the human footprint[8] is very large and
growing. If the whole world tried to live at a U.S. standard, we
would need four planet Earth's to sustain us.[8]

In sum, the biosphere is being chewed up as the human footprint grows
larger each year, squeezing out non-human creatures. The engine
driving this is (a) economy growth in the "developed" world, and (b)
lack of economic growth in the "undeveloped world" where producing
children is the only form of old-age insurance available to most
people. The "undeveloped" world needs economic growth to make possible
the social safety net that can replace children as old-age insurance,
thus allowing population to stabilize.[9] On the other hand, the
"developed" world needs growth to decline to zero or even go negative,
to make room for needed growth in the third world.

I believe a good proxy for entropy is energy-use. The greater the
energy use per capita, or per hectare, the greater the entropy. So we
need to stabilize energy use.[10, 11] With that, economic throughput
of "stuff" is likely to stabilize as well. This needs to go beyond
merely tweaking efficiency (doing more with less energy). The history
of human technological change shows a steady increase in efficiency
accompanied by a steady increase in total energy use, so merely
increasing efficiency does not get to the heart of the problem.[12]

The present great focus on carbon-containing fuels is misplaced, I
believe, in that is misses the larger issue. The problem isn't merely
too much use of fossil fuels. The problem is too much use of energy,

Sooner or later endless growth in entropy will "cause some basic
part(s) of the biosphere to collapse to lower levels of productivity
and stay there, as the North Sea herring and North Atlantic cod
populations have done. Quite apart from the immorality of it, the
consequences for human populations will be severe to put it mildly.
Desperate people reach for desperate solutions without regard for long
term consequences, so the effect will likely be increased pressure on
the biosphere, not less, making the situation worse. The bacteria and
the insects will survive but in the process there will be large die
offs" of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.[13]

So stabilizing the production of entropy, globally, should be our goal
and that will require reduced energy use in the developed world. This
will require more than mere "efficiency" tweaks (doing more with
less). It will mean doing less with less.

2) Trend #2: The Rate of Economic Growth has Slowed

Unfortunately, we are presently getting a preview of how "the system"
will respond to slowing growth. Economic growth (measured as GDP) has
been slowing for the past 35 years, and "the system's" response has
not been pretty.[2,3,4,5,6] Without going into a lot of detail, I
believe many phenomena that constitute "the news" each day can best be
explained as "system responses" to slowed growth.

For the 100 years spanning 1870 to 1970, the U.S. economy (measured by
gross domestic product, or GDP) grew at an average annual rate of 3.4%
per year. Since 1970, the U.S. economy has grown just 2.3% per
year.[5,pg.5] This may seem like a small difference, but it really
isn't because the effects are cumulative, year after year. The
difference between two percent and three percent isn't one percent --
it's fifty percent.[5,pg.7]

Here's another way to look at it: if the U.S. economy had grown at
3.4% per year since 1973, instead of 2.3%, the additional wealth
created during the two decades 1973-1993 would have added up to an
extra $12 trillion (adjusted for inflation) -- enough to replace every
factory in the U.S., including all capital equipment, with a modern
new factory; or enough to pay off the entire government debt plus all
home mortgage debt plus all credit card debt.[5,pg. 5]

If economic growth had maintained its historical level since 1970, the
average family in 1993 would have had an additional $5,500 to spend
each year. Over the 20 years, 1973-1993, the average family would have
had at least an additional $50,000 of income -- enough for a young
couple to buy a first home, a low-income family to maintain health
insurance, or for someone to go to college. State and local
governments would have collected an additional $900 billion in taxes
during the 20 years -- to support schools, libraries, parks, public
transit, emergency services, police and fire protection, affordable
housing, local economic development, and so on. [5,pgs.10-11]

The U.S. is not unique. The trend of declining growth-rates can be
seen in all the wealthy nations of the world, the 29 members of the
OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. During
each passing decade since 1970, growth in OECD countries has declined,
compared to the previous decade.[6, pg. 38] The trend of slowing
growth doesn't affect just the average family. Even more importantly,
it affects the super rich -- in the U.S., the one percent of us who
own 50% of all private wealth, or, more broadly, the 5% of us who own
2/3rds of all private wealth.[14]

Understandably, the wealthiest few expect a decent return when they
invest their capital, and slow growth makes decent returns hard to
find. (Note: When I use the terms "invest" or "investment" or
"investors" I'm not talking about the stock market; I'm talking about
money invested in productive assets like farms, factories, power
plants, ports, new technologies, and so forth.)

What is a decent return on investment? Here's one way to answer that
question. When the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
considers a new regulation (for example, to control mercury emitted by
power plants) the agency asks whether the benefits justify the costs.
They say to themselves, "This regulation will cost industry X dollars
per year. How much wealth could those dollars create if they were
invested with a return of Y percent per year? In that equation, OMB
now sets Y equal to 7 percent. OMB assumes a typical business
investment should yield a 7% annual return.[15]

Of course in recent years, many investors have been looking for 20%
annual returns so 7% may seem puny by comparison. Still, 7% is twice
the long-term historical rate of return on investment (measured as
growth of GDP) and three times the average rate of return since 1973.
So modern owners of capital expect decent returns that far exceed
historical averages. Therefore they are likely to be unhappy if their
return merely meets the historical average, and doubly dissatisfied
with returns 30% below the historical average (e.g., 2.3% instead of
3.4%). They naturally believe they deserve better -- America deserves
better -- the world deserves better -- and they believe government
should help boost their returns one way or another. After all,
capitalism as we know it would stop working if capitalists stopped
investing, so providers of capital deserve a decent rate of return,
they might argue, and they would have a point.

According to the hypothesis I'm outlining here, five features of
modern life have caused the downturn in economic growth in the U.S.
(and in the rest of the industrialized world):

(1) saturation of effective consumer demand; those who can afford to
buy stuff already have about as much stuff as they need or can afford;

(2) a reduced demand for fixed investment (such as factories) and
working capital (money to meet business expenses and expand
operations).[3; 6,pgs.37-39]: it's getting harder to find safe,
productive places to put capital to work these days, partly because of
saturated consumer demand and partly because there's a glut of

(3) the proportion of people in the labor force can't increase much
beyond where it is today;[3] all the able-bodied are pretty much
already working or looking for work; the rest are children, elderly or

(4) the rate of growth of productivity of workers (the rate at which
output per hour grows) has slowed in recent decades;[6]

(5) some ecological limits have come into view -- for example, toxic
industrial chemicals are now found everywhere on earth, from the tops
of the tallest mountains to the bottoms of the deepest oceans and
everywhere in between, including human breast milk. We can no longer
convincingly argue that we can throw away unwanted industrial
byproducts without affecting living things, so our byproducts must now
be managed at considerable expense. [7, 16]

System response No. 1: Easing Credit

No need to belabor this. Credit card debt and home mortgage debt have
skyrocketed in the past 2 decades.[17]

System response No. 2: Promoting International Capital Flow

This is what "globalization" is about -- maing it easier for people
with money to invest in cutting down the rain forests in Indonesia or
setting up tee-shirt factories in China to supply Wal-Mart.

System response No. 3: Reduced Restrictions on Financial Firms

Banks, savings and loans, and brokerage firms used to be rigidly
segmented by law; now all their functions have been legally merged.
The savings and loan bailout in the '80s was the first result; the
"dot.com" bubble of the late '90s was the second; the Enron-Worldcom-
etc. debacle was the third. There is no end in sight.[6]

System response No. 5: Disinvest in Public Infrastructure (roads,
bridges, runnels, airports, wastewater treatment plants.

"Our infrastructure is sliding toward failure and the prospect for any
real improvement is grim," says William Henry, president of the
American Society of Civil Engineers, releasing the society's 2005
Report Card for America's Infrastructure at a news conference in

System response No. 6: Expand the Defense Budget

Defense is the only national industrial policy that almost everyone
will agree to, or at least acquiesce to, perhaps for fear of being
labeled unpatriotic. Foreign enemies are the ultimate consumers of our
military preparations, so in the face of flagging demand for toasters
and SUVs our economy now arguably requires a growing supply of foreign
enemies.[18a] As the President himself said shortly after he
committed the U.S. to a perpetual war against evil-doers world-wide,
"Bring 'em on."

System response No. 7: Cut Taxes for the Wealthy

Cut incomes taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and corporate
taxes to benefit the wealthiest Americans, shifting more of the tax
burden onto the middle class and the working poor.[19]

System response No. 8: Tax Evasion and Tax Cheating.

Both are now rampant and have been the subject of several recent books
offering abundant detail. Meanwhile federal authorities turn a blind
eye.[20, 21]

System response No. 9: Creation of New Industries:

Space exploration, laser-weapons-in-space, casino gambling, the
pornography industry, the recreational drug industry (and its
conjoined twin, the prison industry) -- all demonstrate America's "can
do" entrepreneurial spirit in the face of slowed growth.

System response No. 10: Diminishing Social Investments

Slowed growth requires that the economic pie be divvied up in new

Therefore, all social investments have been put on the chopping block
-- veterans' benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education
loans, Head Start, public lands, water and air quality, charity
hospitals, Amtrak, the infrastructure of roads, tunnels, bridges, and
entire government agencies (the Internal Revenue Service, the
Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services,
among others) and so on and so forth. There is no end to the proposed
cuts. Nothing is sacred except of course Defense (and more recently
its domestic twin, Homeland Security) where the bipartisan sense of
entitlement to insider gains has developed over decades of exemplary
military-industrial cooperation.

Cutting the social safety net has the salutary effect of disciplining
the workforce to accept lower wages, longer hours without overtime
pay, increased workload on the job, reduced vacations, diminished
health, elimination of pensions, and so on. (See System Response No.
12, below.)

As a result of these changes, the main historical difference between
the two political parties disappeared at least two decades ago. The
Democrats now find, for the first time in living memory, that they
have no political agenda of their own. As a result, voter disaffection
has risen to historic proportions. Cynicism spreads like kudzu.
Political apathy then cements the status quo in place.

System response No. 11: Expanding and Discrediting Government

Given the need to distribute the economic pie in new ways,
discrediting government has become a necessary political goal because
government traditionally has intervened on behalf of "the little
people" against "the big people."

Traditionally, government has made modest attempts to level the
playing field for everyone, in keeping with the slogan, "With liberty
and justice for all." Without basic economic security for families and
individuals, neither liberty nor justice is possible.

To his credit, George W. Bush has provided real innovation here.
Previous Republican theorists wanted to shrink government so small you
could drown it in a bathtub. Mr. Bush recognized that a large inept
government was far more useful that a small government, from the
viewpoint of those aiming as a matter of high principle and national
necessity to transfer a larger portion of the pie from working people
and the middle class to the super rich.

The federal response to Katrina was perfect -- a huge bureaucracy that
utterly failed. What better way make people think that government is
hopeless, that taxes are a waste? Who wants more of a corrupt,
bungling bureaucracy that is indifferent to human suffering? Drowning
such a creature in a bathtub seems too kind.

Meanwhile, insiders who know how to work the system -- for example,
Halliburton, Raytheon, and Boeing -- are earning record returns, and
two important public purposes are thereby fulfilled: rates of return
on invested capital are pushed upward, at least for a well-connected
few, at the same time government is disgraced and discredited. Voters,
dismayed, stay home in droves, so the status quo is doubly secured.

Thanks to this President's extraordinary vision and firm leadership,
it may take decades to restore confidence in government as the leveler
of playing fields, if it can be done at all.

System response No. 12: Cut wages for workers.

Over the past 30 years, this has been accomplished in the U.S. by a
variety of creative techniques, and it must be considered the
centerpiece of the ongoing effort to redistribute the pie, to maintain
investors' portions at fair, historical levels or better.[14]

Techniques for cutting wages now include:

a. As labor productivity has increased in recent decades (meaning,
more output per person-hour of work), modern owners have simply
refused to pass the increased income on to workers in the form of wage
increases. This is a new trend of the past 30 years, but unmistakable.
Productivity has continued to rise during the past 3 decades (though
more slowly than historical average rates), but wages have stagnated
and in many cases declined. The owners are simply keeping more for
themselves.[22] This approach has both simplicity and transparency to
commend it.

b. Keep the minimum wage low, rising at a rate that fails to keep up
with inflation. The minimum wage sets the floor beneath all wages, so
if it fails to rise with inflation, all wages will tend to stagnate or
decline. This has been accomplished through exemplary bipartisan
consensus. Congress last raised the minimum wage in 1997 (to $5.15 an
hour, an annual income of $10,300).

c. Eliminate existing labor unions and prevent the formation of new
unions. Unionized workers earn, on average, 21% more per hour than
non-unioned workers. Perhaps more importantly, organized workers have
come to expect safe and modestly healthful working conditions, a
modicum of medical benefits, overtime pay, 2-week paid vacations,
perhaps, in extreme cases, even retirement benefits. When growth is
slow and owners are feeling that their return on investment is
unfairly pinched, unions are seen as standing in the way of efforts to
redistribute the pie upward. So unions must go. It's gotten so
blatant that Human Rights Watch issued a stinging report in 2000
accusing the U.S. of repeated intentional violation of the
internationally-recognized human rights of its workers.[23]

d. Eliminate defined benefit pensions, and, in an increasing number of
instances, eliminate pensions entirely, as was done recently at United
Airlines with the good help of a Reagan-appointed federal judge.
Efforts to eliminate pensions entirely are gathering steam, as one
would expect if my hypothesis about the bipartisan response to slow
growth is correct.[24]

With the average age of the population rising, the reduction or
elimination of retirement benefits (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social
Security, and private pensions) may at first blush seem like a
political powder keg.[24] Perhaps the thinking among the leaders of
both parties is that an elderly, destitute population will remain so
frightened and disoriented that it cannot effectively make its
political will felt. In any case, efforts to eliminate retirement
benefits seem to be proceeding apace and working well. As the man who
jumped off the skyscraper said as he fell past the 20th floor, "So far
so good."

e. Increasingly, the U.S. workforce has been put into direct
competition with low-wage workers in Third World countries. Without
strict oversight and enforcement of a kind never yet seen anywhere in
the world, this sort of competition inevitably creates a "race to the
bottom" for wages, working conditions, and environmental standards
simultaneously -- all of which are ways to "externalize" costs of
production and thus to move a larger, fairer portion of the pie into
the domain of the owners.

f. Reduce the availablity of health insurance. In 2003, 45 million
Americans had no health insurance, up 1.4 million from the year before
and up 5.1 million from the year 2000.[25]

System response No. 13: Promote rapid technical innovation

Business and government together are constantly searching for "the
next big thing," hoping to induce rapid technical innovation. It's the
star wars missile defense shield; no, it's biotechnology; no, it's
nanotechnology; no, it's really "synthetic biology" -- the creation of
entirely new life forms never previously known on planet earth. Of
course, by definition, rapid innovation and deployment are
incompatible with thoughtful consideration of likely consequences
prior to deployment. However, ill-considered deployment has been the
norm for 180 years, so it is now thought to be "business as usual" and
is easily justified as the price of progess. Rapid innovation churns
the economy and creates manifold opportunities for decent return on
investment -- particularly during the early stages of a new product or
process. It is only later that trouble becomes apparent and profits
decline, at which point government typically steps in to pick up the
pieces and shield investors from the consequences of their impetuous

Despite official protestations to the contrary, U.S. government
policies generally encourage industrial enterprises to "externalize"
the costs of their damage to nature and human health, and this trend
has accelerated in recent years as economic growth has slowed. The
truth is, many industrial operations simply cannot afford to
internalize their costs and at the same time provide a decent return,
so they MUST externalize their costs. They don't really have a choice,
given the pressing need for decent return on investment.

System response No. 14: Relax environmental standards

As growth slows, environmental standards are being relaxed on the
assumption that they retard economic growth. This is the main force
driving the current move to extinguish all environmental

For reasons that escape me, environmentalists want to see
environmental regulations as a partisan issue. Angry books have been
written about the way the George W. Bush administration has relaxed
environmental standards,[27] so I won't go into it here. But let's not
forget to examine the Clinton/Gore administration's fudging and
waffling on environmental controls in the name of stimulating economic
growth. And let's not forget that it was Richard Nixon who created the
EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Both parties have an
identical interest in returning the economy to historical rates of
growth, and to the extent that protecting nature is seem as an
impediment to growth, to that extent regulations to protect nature
will be ignored, repudiated, reinterpreted or placed within the
purview of a "regulatory" system the main purpose of which is to keep
the public at bay and leave corporations free to do what they need to
do to make the economy grow.[28]

Most importantly, let's ask ourselves whether the nation's labyrinth
of environmental laws and regulations -- some 12,000 pages of fine
print in the Federal Register -- is adequate to solve the problems it
was intended to remedy. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that the
regulations are hopelessly inadequate. An overwhelming body of
scientific and medical evidence -- much of it available to every
reader of a daily newspaper -- demonstrates that damage to nature and
human health is steadily increasing.[29]

System response No. 15: A Social Insecurity Program

The cumulative effect of the previous 14 system responses has been to
stabilize and regularize American society by making middle- and
working-class Americans more insecure, and at the same time busier,
each passing year.

Insecure people do not start revolutions or even ask too many
questions. They assume that change will be for the worse. As Eric
Hoffer has observed, "Fear of the future causes us to lean against and
cling to the present..."[30, pg. 19] And: "In a modern society, people
can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by
incessant hustling."[30, pg. 24] In sum, keeping people insecure and
ever busier keeps them in line, holds them in thrall.

As a result of slow economic growth -- and the 14 system responses
described above -- Americans are working longer hours for the same or
less pay. They are traveling further in worsening traffic to find a
good job. They are borrowing more -- a lot more -- and taking extra
work to pay off their loans. They are not sure they will have a job
next year; they are not even sure their employer will exist next year,
perhaps the victim of a hositle takeover, perhaps simply moved to
Mexico where labor is cheap and rules are few. For the U.S. workforce,
benefits like retirement and health insurance getting scarcer.
Overtime pay is under attack.

We are constantly reminded that food and water are laced with cancer-
causing chemicals that are "completely safe" (wink, wink). Everyone
knows someone who has had, or now has, cancer. The cost of college
tuition rises each year, at the same time we are told surviving in the
"information age" will require a college degree. With libraries
closing and most schools overcrowded and many downright dangerous, how
will the kids survive in a world of unbridled competititon? It's
enough to keep you awake at night -- which may be the point.

In sum, the net result of the past 30 years is a huge increase in
anxiety and insecurity. People are escaping into addictions (drugs,
alcohol, TV), and apocalyptic visions of a divine end to earthly
distress. In late 2004, a Newsweek poll found that one out of every
six Americans -- some 51 million people -- now expect the world to end
during their lifetime.[31]

Everyone knows the system is rigged against the little person. The
people who run the system no longer even try very hard to hide that

A public official who works overtime to uphold the law and punish the
guilty without fear or favor -- such as New York Attorney General
Eliot Spitzer -- seems somewhat out of place in modern America because
he takes his government responsibilities, his committment to "justice
for all," so seriously. An odd duck, to say the least.

The response of most people in the face of widespread corruption and
cronyism is to withdraw into weariness, resignation, cynicism -- and
flashes of anger.[32]

There's now a whole industry devoted to deflecting that anger away
from the status quo and onto "welfare queens" (shorthand for poor
black single mothers and, by association, all black women); "Willie
Horton" (shorthand for black male criminals, and, by association, all
black men); physicians who perform abortions; homosexuals; so-called
"liberal elites," and other scapegoats, now including most recently
Muslims and foreigners. The science of scapegoating is now highly

System response No. 16: Divide and Rule

As noted above, five percent of the population owns 2/3rds of all
private wealth in the U.S., and the other 95% of the population makes
do sharing the remaining third of the nation's private wealth.
Naturally this astonishing inequality in wealth gives rise to enormous
disparities in income, quality of life (employment, health, education,
leisure time), and overall opportunities in life. Each year these
economic inequalities grow greater as the 5% become a little wealthier
and the 95% a little less so. You can think of the U.S. economy now as
a kind of Rube Goldberg conveyor belt system, trundling money out of
the pockets of the middle class and the working poor into the pockets
of the super rich. Lights flash, whistles shriek, gizmos pop and spin,
conveyor belts carry weights and buckets of liquid to and fro -- all
highly amusing and distracting, as all Rube Goldberg inventions have
always been. But beneath it all runs that steady conveyor belt,
relentlessly moving money from the have-lesses to the have-mores. The
first thing we notice here is that the super rich five percent are
outnumbered 19 to 1 -- yet each year that tiny minority manages to
retain (and even strengthen) social and economic policies that keep
that conveyor belt chugging along, steadily transferring booty upward.

Since the 95% could readily outvote the 5%, the only ESSENTIAL
strategy for the 5% is divide and rule. If 54% of the 95% ever got
together, rule by the 5% would end. Indeed, divide and rule, or divide
and conquer, is really the ONLY thing the 5% have going for them. It
is their lifeline, and therefore their major vulnerability.

To maintain the status quo, the 5% must divide the 95% (or convince
them that voting will not change anything and is therefore useless).
This is the essential function of "social issues" like abortion
rights, gun control, prayer in school, women's liberation, "liberal
elites," "pointy-headed intellectuals" (as Spiro Agnew liked to call
his adversaries), the "Eastern establishment," godless communists,
Muslim evil-doers, street crime, bunny huggers, labor bosses,
homosexuals, welfare queens -- name your favorite pariah. The reason
your favorite pariah has surfaced is to keep the pot boiling, to goad
48% of the 95% into voting with the 5% (or staying home on election
day), so the 5% can continue to have their way with us all.

The divide and rule strategy has a noble lineage. The British
discovered in 1610 that they could divide Ireland and thus finally
bring it under British rule after 250 years of failed effort. King
James I finally realized that he could split northen Ireland along
Protestant-Catholic lines and thus allow a foreign power to dominate
both Protestants AND Catholics who could never combine forces to
confront their common enemy.

The Brits went on to use "divide and rule" to subjugate India, Africa,
and the Middle East. By pitting one group of subjects against another
group (offering one group special privileges, for example) and
constantly whipping up ethnic, religious and class or caste
animosities, tiny numbers of Brits were able to dominate enormous
numbers of colonials for 400 years, exacting tribute for the mother
country all the while. The threat of violence by the British military
always lay in the background during these colonial adventures but it
was generally not needed. The Brits used a combination of carrots and
sticks -- plus leadership jealousies, religious fractures, tribal
disputes, regional differences, and cultural animosities -- to get
half a population to help them subjugate the other half. I am reminded
of the strategic advice given by U.S. financier and railroad
businessman, Jay Gould: "I can hire one half of the working class to
kill the other half."

3) Trend #3: Growing corporate power.

Nothing new here, but it's such a constant that we tend to overlook
it. Each year corporations grow more powerful, regardless of whether
Democrats or Republicans are in office. If we manage to change the
political party in power, we may change some of the public rhetoric
about our issues, but little substantive change seems possible without
curbing the power of corporations in some way.

As noted above, the 15 "system responses" to slowing growth all have
the effect (directly or indirectly) of shoveling money from the public
treasury into the pockets of a corporate elite. And given the
reliance of all political candidates on funding by the corporate elite
to get re-elected, the corporate elite wins every election.

4) Trend #4. Rapid (and therefore by definition ill-considered)
technical innovation.

This has been a feature of European culture since the early 19th
century, but, as noted above, slowing economic growth puts added
emphasis on the need for rapid technical innovation -- trying to
create "the next big thing" for investors.

The regulatory system has failed for pesticides, industrial chemicals,
and nuclear technologies. It is not at all clear that a functioning
regulatory system is possible, given the size and reach of the modern
corporation, which dwarfs most (perhaps all) government agencies in
terms of scientific, legal and political expertise combined with the
inability of the justice system to adequately punish corporate
criminal behavior. Compared to expensive, large-scale technologies
like petrochemicals and nuclear, biotech, nanotech, and synthetic
biology are even less likely to be controllable by governments because
they are much more easily manipulable by individuals and small groups.
(Bill Joy warned us about this.[34]) Strong prevention seems the only
hope. But strong prevention would only be possible of people had
accepted the goal of a steady-state economy and, with it, the
recognition that rapid innovation is inherently harmful.

5) Trend #5. The prevention philosophy is advancing slowly and
fitfully, but huge stumbling blocks remain that we have not yet
figured a way around.

We live in a culture that has always prided itself in taking risks. It
seems possible that humans have evolved as risk-takers, so we may be
hard-wired to take risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let the
devil take the hindmost. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! These
are manly sentiments. ("Girly" sentiments, as the Governor of
California might say, are better safe than sorry, an ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a stitch in time saves nine.)

Given that the world we now inhabit (a full world) is quite different
from the world in which we avolved (an empty world), how do we adjust
to new conditions rapidly enough to avoid catastrophe?

One hard question we face is how to spread a prevention philosophy
into a culture that thinks of prevention as wimpy, sissy, chicken --
not only unnecessary but undesirable because it is unmanly.

Perhaps even more importantly, there are important members of society
who definitely don't want problems prevented because those members
thrive on crisis and catastrophe.

For example, 9/11 made Bush a War President and created huge
opportunities for advancing an anti-democratic (pro-corporate-elite),
agenda, rolling back civil liberties, chilling free speech, and
financing the military-industrial complex (which or course provides
kickbacks to Congress and the President at election time), plus
cementing the Commander-in-Chief in office (don't change horses in
mid-stream and all that).

Furthermore, 9/11 became the basis for declaring a global war-without-
end against an ill-defined human activity called "terrorism," and now
Mr. Bush is talking of a new "cold war" against the cultures that have
learned to hate us.[35] One of the main benefits of any war (from the
viewpoint of the status quo) is that it stifles dissent, so an endless
war could chill dissent for the foreseeable future. (During the 50-
year British movement to abolish slavery, war with France always
forced abolitionists into quietude and their organizations would lapse
and have to be rebuilt once peace returned.)

In December 2005, the 9/11 Commision complained bitterly that few of
its recommendations had been adopted. Those recommendations were
largely preventive in nature and thus may not be welcome in a
political culture that knows how to advance itself and its agenda best
during periods of crisis.

Likewise, Katrina offered opportunities to roll back environmental
rules, and eliminate wage and race requirements for federal
contractors. Katrina created enormous patronage and pork barrel
opportunities. The press used Katrina to keep everyone's mind on the
catastrophe while Congress went about its business of cutting taxes
for the rich and eliminating social programs for the downtrodden.
Katrina sopped up huge quantities of private charitable funds, some of
which might otherwise have been available for social-change work. The
federal promise to borrow $200 billion to rebuild the gulf coast is an
enomous windfall for bankers who -- especially these days when capital
is in overabundant supply -- always need secure investments with
decent return. And so on. Catastrophe pays. Prevention does not.

Both 9/11 and Katrina were foreseeable, but no one took steps to avoid
them, probably because some elements in society benefit so handsomely
from catastrophes.

Managing problems can be very lucrative, but preventing them provides
few rewards, if any.[36] You usually can't even take credit for
preventing something that didn't happen, so prevention is the business
of unsung heroes.

Even low-level emergencies like the growth of childhood cancer,
diabetes, ADHD, and all the other environment-and-health problems we
worry about -- these, too, play into the hands of our adversaries.
These problems keep communities and families broke, distressed,
fearful, angry, confused. They give our adversaries endless
opportunities to blame us for relying on "junk science" as we struggle
to figure out what's true and what's not. (Our adversaries don't have
to struggle so hard to figure it out; in many cases, their ideology
tells them what's true and what's not. We are constrained by facts and
the truth to a much greater degree than our adversaries -- why is
that?) Low-level emergencies sop up enormous quantities of resources
that could otherwise be used for genuinely improving quality of life.
They strike fear into people, making people feel insecure about basic
commodities like air and water, thus shaking people's faith in the
foundations of reality. They make some people lose faith in government
and become cynical and disaffected. Others become resigned to their
fate -- perhaps they will say to themselves "It's God's will" -- and
such people may become super-loyal to the powers-that-be, a civilian
version of the Stockholm syndrome.[37]

A huge "remediation" industry (consisting of scientists, engineers,
lawyers, financiers, insurance firms, publicists, real estate
developers, and so on) has grown up, along with a "brownfields
development" industry, plus a professional "environmental movement"
that has some very well-paid staffs. Is it possible that none of these
has a real, driving interest in getting at root causes of these
problems? Could this be why Band-Aid solutions are all that we hear
proposed and discussed?

The U.S. is now exporting its environmental remediation industry along
with new environmentally-destructive technologies. This may be what is
known as a "win-win" arrangement. One hand tears down, and other
repairs -- is this the modern economic paradigm?

Global warming seems like it will produce an endless stream of
catastrophes and crises for the next 50 years. Why would the "fixers"
of this world -- people such as George Bush but many others besides
the President -- want to avert such crises? They wouldn't. Prevention
is their real enemy, not catastrophe. They thrive on catastrophes.
They NEED catastrophes.


[1] As I am using the term, "economic growth" means increase in
throughput of material goods ("stuff"); for improvements in quality of
life (greater sense of connectedness to one's community, more free
time, etc.), I use the term "development."

[2] Bernstein, Michael A., and David E. Adler. Understanding American
Economic Decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN

[3] Bjork, Gordon C. The Way It Worked and Why It Won't; Structural
Change and the Slowdown of U.S. Economic Growth. Westport, Conn.:
Praeger, 1999. ISBN 0-275-96532-5.

[4] Cohen, Richard and Peter A. Wilson. Superpowers in Economic
Decline; U.S. Strategy in the Transcentury Era. N.Y.: Taylor and
Francis, 1990. ISBN 0-8448-1625-6.

[5] Mardick, Jeffrey. The End of Affluence; The Causes and
Consequences of America's Economic Dilemma. N.Y.: Random House, 1995.
ISBN 0-679-43623-5.

[6] Shutt, Harry. The Trouble with Capitalism; An Enquiry into the
Causes of Global Economic Failure. London: Zed Books, 1998. ISBN

[7] Peter M. Vitousek, and others. "Human Appropriation of the
Products of Photosynthesis," Bioscience Vol. 36 No. 6 (June, 1986),
pgs. 368- 373. Available here:

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_footprint

[9] See, for example, Jim Jong Kim and others, Dying for Growth;
Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999); ISBN 1-56751-160-0.

[10] See, for example, in Tad W. Patzek, "Thermodynamics of the Corn-
Ethanol Biofuel Cycle," Critical reviews in Plant Sciences Vol. 26,
No. 6 (2004), pgs. 519-567. Available at http://www.precaution.or

[11] Jack Hokikian, The Science of Disorder; Understanding the
Complexity, Uncertainty, and Pollution in Our World (Los Angeles,
Calif.: Los Feliz Publishing, 2002); ISBN 0-9708953-2-1.

[12] Arnulf Grubler, Technology and Global Change (Cambridge, England:
Cambridge University Press, 1998; paperback, 2003; ISBN 0 521 54332 0.

[13] Quoted and paraphrased from email to PM from a Rachel's reader,
Mike Hollinshead.

[14] Data on our growing inequalities of wealth are available from
several sources, but my current favorite is Gar Alperovitz, America
Beyond Capitalism; Reclaiming Our wealth, Our Liberty and Our
Democracy (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005); see pgs.
204-206. See also 6] Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel, Economic
Apartheid in America (New York: New Press, 2000) with revised and
corrected data available at
http://www.ufenet.org/research/Economic_Apartheid_Data.html#p55 See
also, for example, Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy; the Increasing
Inequality of Wealth in American and What Can Be Done About It (New
York: The New Press, 2002). Another really good book is Michael
Zweig's, The Working Class Majority; America's Best Kept Secret
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); ISBN 0-8014-3637-0.

[15] "EPA Revises Regulatory Reviews To Discount Long-Term Benefits,"
Inside EPA, October 8, 2004.

[15a] Floyd Norris, "Too Much Capital: Why It Is Getting Harder to Find
a Good Investment," New York Times March 26, 2005, pg. C1.

[16] Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Domination of Earth's
Ecosystems," Science Vol. 277 (July 25, 1997), pgs. 494-499; available
at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=200 And see Jane
Lubchenco, "Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social
Contract for Science," Science Vol. 279 (Jan. 23, 1998), pgs. 491-497,
available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=203

[17] Gretchen Morgenson, "After the Debt Feast Comes the Heartburn,"
New York Times Nov. 27, 2005, pg. 3-1.

[18] "Crumbling Infrastructure Erodes Quality of Life in U.S.,"
Environment News Service March 10, 2005.

[18a] William Rivers Pitt, "The Thing We Don't Talk About,"
Truthout.org June 23, 2005; available at

[19] Robert Johnson, "Little Dogs Don't Pay Taxes," New York Times,
August 1, 2004, Sunday Business Section, pg. 2.

[20] Donald Barlett and James B. Steele, America: Who really Pays the
Taxes? (New York: Touchstone, 1994; ISBN 0-671-87157-9).

[21] Donald Barlett and James B. Steele, The Great American Tax Dodge;
How Spiraling Fraud and Avoidance Are Killing Fairness, Destroying the
Income Tax, and Costing You (Berkeley, Calif: University of California
Press, 2002; ISBN 0520236106).

[22] Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America
2004/2005, September 5, 2004. http://www.epinet.org/static/bo

[23] Lance Compa, Unfair Advantage; Workers' Freedom of Association in
the United States Under International Human Rights Standards (New
York: Human Rights Watch, August 2000). ISBN 1-56432-251-3.

[24] See, for example, Eduardo Porter and Mary Williams Walsh,
"Benefits Go the Way of Pensions," New York Times February 9, 2006;
and see Mary Williams Walsh, "The Nation: When Your Pension is
Frozen," New New York Times January 22, 2006; and Mary Williams Walsh,
"Whoops! There Goes Another Pension Plan" New York Times, September
18, 2005, pg. 3-1; and Mary Williams Walsh, "How Wall Street Wrecked
United's Pension," New York Times July 31, 2005, pg. 3-1.

[25] Robert Pear, "Health Leaders Seek Consensus Over Uninsured," New
York Times May 29, 2005, pg. A1.

[26] Richard W. Stevenson, "The 2004 Campaign: The Issues: President
Has Aggressively Pursued 'Pro-Growth' Ideas Nurtured in the Texas Oil
Fields," New York Times Oct. 8, 2004, pg. A20. And see

[27] For example, Donald C. Lord, Dubya: The Toxic Texan : George W.
Bush and Environmental Degradation (N.Y.: iUniverse, 2005); ISBN

[28] Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism; A Reinterpretation of
American History, 1900-1916. NY: The Free Press, 1963, describes the
historical development of the regulatory system as a necessary adjunct
to the growth of corporate influence over the nation's political,
commercial, and cultural life.

[29] I have been documenting this since 1986 in Rachel's News

[30] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer; Thoughts on the Nature of Mass
Movements. NY: Harper and Row, 1951. Edition cited here is Mentor
paperback published by New American Library, 1958.

[31] According to a Newsweek poll, 17 percent of Americans (one in
every six) expect the world to end in their lifetime. Cited in Frank
Rich "Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush," New York Times Oct. 3,

[32] Kate Zernike, "Violent Crime Rising Sharply in Some Cities," New
York Times February 12, 2006, pg. A1, reports, "Milwaukee -- One woman
here killed a friend after they argued over a brown silk dress. A man
killed a neighbor whose 10-year-old son had mistakenly used his dish
soap. Two men argued over a cellphone, and pulling out their guns, the
police say, killed a 13-year-old girl in the crossfire.

"While violent crime has been at historic lows nationwide and in
cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, it is rising sharply here
and in many other places across the country.

"And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over
gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has
been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly
seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire"

[33] In his book, What's the Matter With Kansas (NY: Henry Holt, 2004;
paperback 2005; ISBN 0-8050-7774X), Thomas Frank "reveals how the
political right continues to win elections, despite the fact that its
economic policies hurt the vast majority of ordinary people, by
portraying itself as the defender of mainstream values against a
malevolent cultural elite. The right 'mobilizes voters with explosive
social issues, summoning public outrage which it then marries to pro-
business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve
economic ends." This is showmanship at its best. Politicians talk
about 'traditional values," but their true loyalty is to economic
policies intended to primarily benefit the wealthiest 5%: 'Vote to
stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to
stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security
privatization." It may seem far-fetched, but so far it's working."
writes Paul Krugman, "Kansas on My Mind," New York Times Feb. 25,

[34] Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired April, 2000;
available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html .

[35] Mark Danner, "Taking Stock of the Forever War," New York Times
September 11, 2005. Available here:

[36] See, for example, Peter Montague, "Why We Can't Prevent Cancer,"
Rachel's Democracy & Health News #829 (October 27, 2005); available at

[37] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome