Environmental Research Foundation, 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 prisons.

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, period.[10]

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 capital.[15a]

(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 disbled.

(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 March.[18]

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 ways.

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 zeal.

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 regulations.[26]

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 fact.

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 developed.[33]

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 0-521-45679-7.

[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 1-85649-566-3.

[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: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=200

[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 g/lib/06/patzek_on_ethanol_thermodynamics.041101.pdf

[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. http://www.precaution.org/lib/05/u.s._infrastructure_eroding.050310.ht m

[18a] William Rivers Pitt, "The Thing We Don't Talk About," Truthout.org June 23, 2005; available at http://www.precaution.org/lib/06/we_need_wars.050623.htm

[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 oks_swa2004_main.cfm

[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 http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/

[27] For example, Donald C. Lord, Dubya: The Toxic Texan : George W. Bush and Environmental Degradation (N.Y.: iUniverse, 2005); ISBN 0595351034.

[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 (www.rachel.org).

[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, 2004.

[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, 2005.

[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: http://www.precaution.org/lib/06/taking_stock_of_the_forever_war.05091 1.htm

[36] See, for example, Peter Montague, "Why We Can't Prevent Cancer," Rachel's Democracy & Health News #829 (October 27, 2005); available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=546

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