Rachel's Democracy & Health News #992
Thursday, January 1, 2009

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #992 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
January 1, 2009


[Rachel's introduction: This short story by Kate Davies is not intended to alarm anyone. It describes a day in the life of two fictional characters, Polly Klorinate and her partner Al Kyle.]

By Kate Davies


This tale describes a day in the lives of two fictional characters - Polly Klorinate and her partner Al Kyle.[1] It tells the story of their exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products, food items, cleaning supplies, pesticides, children's toys and art materials, as well as their concerns about other types of exposure. Although Polly and Al are not real people, exposures and concerns like theirs are common. Virtually all North Americans have toxic chemical residues in their bodies.[2] Exposure is ubiquitous and involves many different substances.

Exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment can cause many different health problems, including acute effects such as burns to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, nausea, vomiting and chronic effects such as cancer, neurobehavioral problems and reproductive and developmental disorders. Or there may be no health consequences at all. The type and severity of any effects depends on many different factors, including the type of chemical and its toxicity, the exposure pathway, the duration and timing of exposure, the dose received and any genetic predisposition. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly one-quarter of the global burden of disease is caused by environmental risk factors,[3] including toxic chemicals.

This story is not intended to alarm anyone. Rather, I hope it will make readers more aware of their exposure to toxic chemicals.

The Story

Polly woke from sleep feeling restless. She was always tired and anxious these days. Her life was so busy and hectic, she never seemed to have enough time to slow down. With a sigh, she realized it was Saturday and she could relax. She didn't have to go to work today. Standing on her feet six days a week, selling glitzy fashion jewelry at the mall was the only work she could get after her factory job had been outsourced to China. Still, she'd read an article about high levels of lead in cheap jewelry,[4] and she worried about how that might affect the children and teenagers who are most of the store's customers. She didn't want to sell anything that wasn't safe.

Polly got up quietly, leaving Al snoring gently in bed. She went into the bathroom and peered into the shower. Last week, she'd bought a new automatic shower cleaner which promised to "eliminate the build up of tough soap scum and mold and mildew stains" but the fumes made Al's asthma worse and she wanted to know what was in it. I'll just look at the label, she thought, I'm sure it will tell me the contents. But the label didn't tell her what was in the cleaner at all. In fact, it only increased her concern. In very small print, the label said: "WARNING: Eye irritant. Avoid breathing spray mist. Do not get in eyes, on skin or clothes. Keep out of reach of children." Now she was really worried. Why would the manufacturer not want to give consumers as much information as possible about what was in it? Besides, the government should make them disclose the contents. She was puzzled.

With a sigh, she turned on the shower, stepped into the warm water and lathered herself all over with antibacterial soap.[5] She hoped it would kill germs and bacteria and help her stay healthy. A quick shampoo[6] followed.

After drying off, she brushed her teeth with toothpaste,[7] swished with mouthwash[8] and put on her antiperspirant.[9] She got dressed and turned her attention to her hair and makeup. Looking in the mirror, Polly noticed that she was beginning to go a little grey. Then she asked the question most women ask themselves at some time in their lives: Should I color my hair? But she remembered a friend had told her hair dye[10] contained chemicals, so she decided not to -- at least for now. After brushing her hair and using a little hair spray,[11] she put on some makeup. She didn't need much today -- just a little lipstick and mascara.[12] She hoped they didn't contain anything toxic.

Ready to face the day, Polly went downstairs for breakfast. First, she made coffee, adding a little artificial sweetener.[13] Polly was watching her weight, so she didn't want to use real sugar. After making some toast, she spread it with margarine -- the one that says it tastes "just like butter." She was so glad it didn't contain any of those awful trans fats[14] anymore. That meant it had fewer calories, right?

Hearing footsteps, she turned and saw Al coming downstairs. With a grunt, he joined her in the kitchen to make his favorite Saturday morning breakfast of frozen waffles, corn syrup and fake bacon strips.[15] Real bacon contained a lot of fat. Like Polly, Al was watching his weight. But never mind about the corn syrup -- everyone needs a little treat!

After breakfast, it was Al's turn to do the grocery shopping, so he hopped in the car and drove to the nearby supermarket. After buying enough frozen dinners to last the week, he stocked up on soda and chips. He and Polly often enjoyed a snack before going to bed. Realizing fruit might be healthier, Al headed over to the fresh produce aisle. Everything looked so perfect -- big red apples, luscious-looking grapes and pink fuzzy peaches. Then he remembered a recent news story about how fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides.[16] He was worried pesticide residues might make Polly or him sick. He glanced at the organic produce section. Organic produce probably contained lower levels of pesticides,[17] but it was all so expensive. Reluctantly, he chose non-organic apples, bananas and pears.

Meanwhile at home, Polly decided to clean the house. First, she vacuumed the carpets and washed the linoleum floors. Then she dusted the furniture using a lemon-scented spray. Curious if the manufacturer said what was in it, she glanced at the label on the spray can. No, there was no information about the ingredients, but one sentence read: "DOES NOT CONTAIN CFCS." Well, that's a relief, thought Polly, at least it doesn't destroy the ozone layer.[18]

Turning her attention to the kitchen, Polly wiped down the countertop with an all-purpose cleaner. She liked the ones with bleach[19] because they promised to kill germs. Then she opened the oven door and peered inside. It was filthy. She decided to clean it. The oven cleaner[20] was so convenient to use. All you had to do was spray it on, heat up the oven for awhile, then wipe off the foam -- so much easier than hours of scrubbing. Polly followed the instructions on the aerosol can but as soon as began to use the spray, she started to cough and sputter. The fumes were so strong, she could hardly breathe. The kitchen fan didn't seem to help much, either. Then her skin began to itch and her eyes started to water. Forced to leave the kitchen, Polly retreated to clean the bathroom, remembering to turn the oven on just before she closed the kitchen door behind her.

After wiping the bathroom sink and countertop with the same all- purpose bleach cleaner she used in the kitchen, Polly remembered the drain was running very slowly. It must be clogged with hair, she thought. They kept the drain cleaner[21] under the sink, so Polly reached down and poured a generous amount into the sink. But as she poured the thick liquid down the drain, she splashed some on her skin. It stung, so she quickly rinsed her hand under running water, probably washing all the cleaner down the drain before it could do its job. Then she looked at the toilet. It was almost spotless. She hardly ever cleaned it now because she used one of those toilet cleaner tablets[22] with bleach that you just left in the tank.

Finally, Polly cleaned the bathroom faucets and the mirror with a glass cleaner[23] that contained extra ammonia. To wipe the blue liquid off the chrome and glass, she picked up the nearest cloth, not realizing it was the same one she'd used to clean the sink and countertops. Within a few seconds, Polly was coughing again. Little did she know the ammonia in the glass cleaner had reacted with the bleach in the all-purpose one to form chloramine and chlorine gas.[24]

After two hours of hard work, Polly was done -- in more ways than one. Yes, the cleaning was finished, but so was she. Polly's body ached from coughing, her skin itched, her eyes stung and were all red and teary. Using chemical products to clean the house just isn't worth it, she thought. Perhaps she'd buy some nontoxic cleaners or even make her own.

After loading the plastic shopping bags into the car, Al called Polly on his cell phone. They arranged to meet for lunch at the local McDonald's -- it would save time and the effort of making lunch at home. But as he put the cell phone back in his pocket, Al wondered if it was really safe to use. He used his cell phone a lot and he'd heard that cell phones may cause brain cancer. And then there was the recent news story about the head of a cancer research institute warning the staff not to use their cell phones too much.[25] What should he do? Al felt confused and uncertain.

After meeting Polly and sharing a lunch of Big Macs, French Fries and Coke, they drove home. As they approached the house, Polly and Al noticed the garden needed some attention. With the shopping unpacked and put away, Al decided it was time to get outside to do some yardwork.

It was a hot day, so he decided to take a drink of water with him. Al went to the kitchen cupboard and pulled out a large plastic water bottle. He'd heard some environmentalist say polycarbonate plastic contained something called bisphenol A[26] that could leach out and cause cancer and reproductive problems but it was probably safe - right? He filled the bottle and headed outside.

Al tackled the lawn first. As he cut the lawn with his gas-powered mower, he noticed a new crop of weeds had sprouted in the green, well watered grass. Wherever did they come from so fast? It was only a few weeks since he'd sprayed the entire lawn with weed killer and the weeds were back already.

Not wanting to be defeated by Mother Nature, Al got out the jug of weed killer with an automatic sprayer attached and doused the whole lawn -- twice for good measure. That should do it! Just as he was putting the weed killer back in the garage, their neighbor, Dave, came outside and Al stopped to chat. Dave told him about his family's pet terrier, who had recently died of bladder cancer. Dave's two children were heartbroken. The vet had said something about a link between pesticides and cancer in dogs.[27] Al was horrified. His weed killer couldn't possibly have caused Max's cancer, could it?

While Al was outside, Polly put in a load of laundry. She was careful to use a phosphorus-free detergent because she'd heard that too much phosphorus wasn't good for the environment. After the washing machine stopped, she put the wet clothes in the dryer and added plenty of fabric softener.[28] She liked the smell and the product names were so enticing -- Downy, Comfort and Snuggle, for instance. Polly wondered what was in the fabric softener that made the clothes smell so good, but the label on the bottle didn't tell her anything. Once again, she was frustrated by the lack of information about a product's contents.

Once the clothes were in the dryer, Polly decided to go to the mall to buy some toys for her friend Betty's two year old. As a single mom, Betty couldn't afford to buy many playthings for the little girl, so Polly thought it would be fun to surprise her with a few small gifts. At the mall, Polly went straight to the toy store. Perhaps she'd get a doll or some bath toys. But before she bought anything, Polly wanted to know if the toys contained phthalates.[29] She didn't really know what phthalates were, but she knew they weren't good for children. A local TV channel had done a consumer feature about toxic chemicals in children's toys and reported phthalates could leach out of children's plastic toys and cause health problems. So Polly asked the assistant behind the counter. She told Polly there was nothing to worry about because Congress had just passed a law making children's toys safer.[30] Polly felt relieved, then began to wonder if the toys already on the store shelves were safe. Deciding not to take a chance, she went over to look at the children's art supplies. There were brightly colored paints and markers, glues[31] with sparkles and lots of different sorts of paper. She started to question all the chemicals the art supplies might contain. Better safe than sorry, Polly thought, and left the store empty-handed. Perhaps she'd buy a nice handmade wooden toy instead.

On her way out of the mall, Polly stopped to get a quick manicure. A small personal indulgence, she liked having perfectly shaped, polished nails. At the nail salon, Polly's favorite manicurist, Tien, put her fingers to soak in warm soapy water. As she did this, Polly noticed Tien had a red, unpleasant looking rash on her arms and face. She said it was from all the toxic chemicals in the nail products.[32] Polly was horrified. Didn't the salon owner know what the chemicals were doing to Tien's health? The shy, rather petite Vietnamese woman looked embarrassed and asked Polly not to say anything. Tien didn't want to be a focus of attention because she was worried that she might lose her job.

After she got home from the mall, Polly cooked dinner. She made a large tuna casserole and slid the dish into the clean oven. It still smelled of that awful oven cleaner a bit. Then, just as she closed the oven door, Polly remembered tuna could contain high levels of mercury.[33] I'll go to the government's website, she thought, they'll tell me if it's safe to eat tuna. The Food and Drug Administration's website[34] said she could eat "up to six ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna a week" and more of canned light tuna, so she went ahead and cooked the casserole. After all, it was one of Al's favorite dishes. To go with the casserole, Polly decided to fry some tomatoes and mushrooms. They'd complement the tuna nicely, she thought. So she got out the new Teflon-coated fry pan[35] and cooked them, trying not to breathe in the chemical fumes that wafted toward her nostrils from the hot pan.

Relaxing after dinner, Polly and Al watched TV together. The movie Erin Brockovich was on. They both liked the actress Julia Roberts and settled in to watch the real-life story about a single mom who almost single-handedly brought down a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply with chromium.

After the movie, they went to bed. Polly took her contraceptive pill,[36] and used the toilet at the same time. As she swallowed the pill, she wondered what happened to all the chemical hormones in it? Did her body break them down or did they end up in her urine? If they stayed in her urine and got into the sewage system, did they pollute the river downstream from the treatment plant? She flushed the toilet and tried not to think about it.

In bed at last, Polly turned to Al and sighed.

"That movie was scary. What if our water contained chromium and made us sick? What would we do?"

"We're exposed to chemicals in lots of other ways, too," said Al. "Maybe we should go on the Internet and find out what we can do to reduce our risks."

"Good idea," said Polly. "I'm really worried. Let's try not to buy or use products with toxics in them anymore."

"It's worth it, even if it costs a bit more," said Al, turning off the bedside light. "I don't want us to get sick from a bunch of chemicals."

"But even if we don't buy things that contain toxics, they're still all around us," said Polly, "and most people don't know about the risks. The government should do a better job protecting us."

"Maybe we should do our bit to lobby the government to do more," said Al. "We can write to the newspaper, at least, and to our Congressman. We could join an environmental group."

As she fell asleep, Polly grunted her approval.


Some twenty years later, Polly vomited into a bucket beside the bed. After she was done, she lowered her bald head back on to the pillow and relaxed. Polly was just finishing her third round of chemo. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer[37] several years earlier and had already had a mastectomy and two rounds of chemo. But after three years' remission, the cancer was back with a vengeance. She couldn't understand it. Why had she gotten breast cancer in the first place? No-one in her family had had the disease before. It all seemed so unfair. So many of her friends had cancer too.[38]

Meanwhile, Al lay beside her, gasping for air. He reached for his asthma inhalers -- again. In the past few years, he'd had to go to the Emergency Room on several occasions because he couldn't breathe. Now, his asthma[39] seemed to be getting worse.

As they lay on the bed together, Polly reached for Al's hand. Even though they had done what they could to safeguard their health, they still got sick. But on the bright side, in the years since they had decided to stop using toxic chemicals and become politically active, a lot had changed. Consumer boycotts had reduced the demand for products containing toxics to almost zero, and people who still wanted to buy them could easily find out the contents. Moreover, the government has passed stringent new legislation requiring manufacturers to show that chemicals were safe before they could be sold to the public or put into products. Polly sighed. It was probably too late for her and Al, but at least they still had each other.



[1] These names are derived from two real life groups of chemicals - polychlorinated substances, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and alkylated substances, like alkyl lead.

[2] The U.S. Centers for Disease Control monitors levels of environmental chemicals in human tissues.

[3] In 2006, the World Health Organization published a report on "Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: Towards an Estimate of the Environmental Burden of Disease"

[4] There are no federally enforceable limits on the amount of lead in jewelry intended for children or teenagers. In 2007, California enacted the Lead-Containing Jewelry Law to limit the amount of lead in jewelry, including children's jewelry and body piercing jewelry.

[5] A scientific study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2007 found that washing with antimicrobial soap is no more effective at reducing levels of bacteria or preventing illness than washing with ordinary soap. Moreover, the soaps, most of which contain the antimicrobial triclosan, produced antibiotic cross-resistance among different species of bacteria. Triclosan is a chlorinated aromatic substance, with a chemical structure similar to dioxins and PCBs.

[6] Many shampoos contain methylisothiazoline (MIT), a toxic chemical that causes nervous system damage in laboratory animals.

[7] Some toothpastes contain fluoride and triclosan. High doses of fluoride can cause dental fluorosis or tooth mottling. Fluoride has also been associated with an increase in hip fractures and there is equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity.

[8] Mouthwash can contain alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, fluoride, cetylpyridinium chloride, sodium saccharin, and parabens. These chemicals can cause a variety of adverse effects. For instance, parabens can disrupt the endocrine hormone system.

[9] Antiperspirants and other cosmetic products contain parabens.

[10] Hair dyes contain toxic chemicals such as p-phenlyendamine, phenlymethylpyrazolene, m-aminophenol, N,N-bis, 4-Amino-2- hydroxytoluene, and toluene-2.5-diamine. All of these chemicals are skin sensitizers and irritants. Some have been associated with cancer.

[11] Hairspray contains chemical polymers such as polyvinylpyrrolidine, polydimethylsiloxane and vinyl acetate.

[12] Lipsticks can contain lead and mascara can contain mercury.

[13] There are five high intensity artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes approved for use in the U.S: Saccaharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame and acesulfame potassium. There is evidence that they may cause health effects, such as headache, depression, cancer, dizziness, vomiting and nausea.

[14] Trans fats increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad cholesterol," which increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

[15] Heavily processed foods like these contain many chemical additives, including preservatives, colorants, "flavor enhancers," stabilizers and artificial sweeteners. More than 6,000 synthetic chemicals have been approved for use in the processed food industry.

[16] Many fruits and vegetables contain residues of pesticides. Fruits tend to be more contaminated than vegetables.

[17] Organically grown food contains about one-third as many pesticide residues as conventionally grown foods.

[18] Some of the replacements for CFCs, such as HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) are ozone depleters, although to a much less extent than CFCs.

[19] Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is corrosive, causes skin and eye burns and is a skin irritant. It is also harmful by ingestion and inhalation. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), there are almost 3,500 accidents a year in the UK involving bleach where the victims need hospital treatment. The number of accidents involving bleach in the U.S. is unknown.

[20] Oven cleaners contain ethers, ethylene glycol, sodium and potassium hydroxide (lye), methylene chloride, petroleum distillates and pine oil. The most toxic of these is probably lye. Lye can irritate skin and cause skin burns and eye damage, including blindness. When inhaled, it can irritate and burn the respiratory tract.

[21] Drain cleaners contain chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (bleach), sodium and potassium hydroxide (lye) in concentrations up to 40%.

[22] Toilet bowl cleaners contain sodium hypochlorite (bleach).

[23] The basic chemical components of window cleaner are ammonia and isopropanol.

[24] These gases cause respiratory tract irritation and burns, tearing and nausea.

[25] There is some evidence of an association between cell phone use and brain cancer, although more research is needed. In July 2008, the head of a cancer research institute in Pittsburgh warned the faculty and staff to limit their use of cell phones because of the possible risk of cancer.

[26] Studies have shown that bisphenol A may cause developmental toxicity, cancer and neurotoxic effects. In April 2008, Canada became the first country to conclude that bisphenol A is a toxic substance.

[27] Exposure to lawns and gardens treated with weed killer increases the risk of lymphoma in dogs. A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association in 2004 found that weed killer can increase the risk of bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers by four to seven times.

[28] Fabric softeners contain chemicals including benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, ethanol, limonene, A-terpineol, ethyl acetate, camphor, chloroform, linalool and pentane.

[29] Phthalates disrupt the endocrine hormone system and can cause developmental effects. There is some evidence they are carcinogenic.

[30] In August 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which limits levels of some phthalates in children's toys. It also limits levels of lead and cadmium.

[31] Children's paints can contain methyl alcohol, toluene and turpentine; markers can contain xylene, toluene, ketone and alcohol; and glues can contain hexane, heptane, toluene and trichloroethane.

[32] Nail products contain a variety of toxic chemicals including toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate and methylacrylates. Health hazards associated with these substances include skin rashes and irritation, headaches, respiratory problems, asthma, central nervous system disorders and kidney and liver damage.

[33] Mercury is a common contaminant in tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and some shellfish. Mercury can cause neurological and developmental effects.

[34] In March 2004, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory on mercury in fish and shellfish, including tuna. See: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html

[35] One of the constituents of Teflon is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA can cause cancer, liver damage and birth defects and it is present in the blood of most Americans as well as in wildlife. PFOA is one of the most persistent synthetic chemicals known.

[36] Hormones from birth control pills are often found in rivers and streams, having been excreted in urine that enters municipal sewer systems. These contaminants disrupt the ratio of male to female fish, resulting in lower fertility rates.

[37] Breast cancer now strikes more women in the world than any other type of cancer except skin cancer. Today, a woman's lifetime risk of the disease is one in eight in the U.S. Genetic factors account for 10 percent, at most, of all breast cancer. Other risk factors have been identified, including toxic chemicals. Over 200 chemicals have been identified as mammary carcinogens.

[38] According to the World Health Organization, about 19 percent of all cancers globally are due to environmental exposures, resulting in 1.3 million deaths a year.

[39] About 44 percent of all asthma is due to poor air quality, according to the World Health Organization.


From: The Times (London, U.K.) ...........................[This story printer-friendly]
December 27, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: As we enter the new year, an astonishing new social phenomenon has emerged: amateur genetic engineers are working at home to "improve" various forms of life via genetic engineering. They call themselves "biohackers" and they acknowledge the danger of unleashing a genetically altered Frankenstein's monster on the public, but they argue that it was DIYers [do it yourselfers] who brought about America's other great technological revolution: that of the personal computer.]

By Chris Ayres in New York

At a loss for things to do this woozy post-Christmas weekend? Well, if you have access to a garage or basement -- or even just some extra room on your dining table -- you could always take up a hobby that is exploding in popularity across the Atlantic: genetic engineering. Or, to use the more fashionable term, "biohacking".

Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of Americans now spend their free time consulting the internet, jerry-rigging laboratory equipment, and tinkering with the very foundations of life on Earth as we know it.

Rewiring DNA at home for fun and profit Meredith Patterson is trying to rewire the DNA of yoghurt bacteria in her living room so that they will glow green to signal the presence of melamine

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," says Meredith Patterson, 31, a computer programmer by day turned biohacker by night.

In her San Francisco dining room Ms Patterson is currently attempting to rewire the DNA of yoghurt bacteria so that they will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that infamously turned Chinese-made baby milk formula into poison.

Ms Patterson says that she picked up the basics of genetic engineering from scientific papers and Google.

All she needed for her project was a jar of yoghurt, some jellyfish DNA -- purchased online for less than $100 (65 pounds sterling) from a biological supply company -- and a few pieces of lab equipment (including a DNA analyser), which she constructed herself for less than $25. Eventually, say experts, such equipment could be sold in kits: a kind of My Little Genetically-Altered Lifeform playset for adults.

While acknowledging the potential risk of unleashing a genetically altered Frankenstein's monster on the public, biohackers argue that it was DIYers [do it yourselfers] who brought about America's other great technological revolution: that of the personal computer.

Indeed, Apple and Google were created in hobbyists' garages, and have since gone on to change millions of lives for the better while contributing billions of dollars to the global economy.

Regardless, the growth in popularity of biohacking seems unstoppable. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, an organisation named DIYbio is busy setting up a community lab where people can use specialist equipment such as a freezer capable of storing bacteria at minus 62C.

The group's co-founder, Mackenzie Cowell, 24, who studied biology at university, predicts that some biohackers are likely to make breakthroughs in everything from vaccines to super-efficient fuels. Others will simply fool around, he says: for example, using squid genes to make tattoos glow in the dark.

All of which he believes will ultimately benefit humanity. "We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game," he says.

Alas, not everyone agrees. Jim Thomas, of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog group, says that synthetic organisms could ultimately escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage. "Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal locations, there's no safety processes in place," he says, adding that terrorists could be inspired by amateur genetic tinkering to launch a devastating bioattack on America.

Mrs Patterson shrugs at such arguments, however. "A terrorist doesn't need to go to the DIYbio community," she says. "They can just enrol in their local college."

Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.


From: NewsReview.com (Sacramento, Calif.) ................[This story printer-friendly]
December 20, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: "Coal comes from injustice," says Mattie Reitman.... We're in a crisis, and I'm excited that my generation has the opportunity to take that on." Reitman is helping organize the big "Powershift '09" protest gathering in Washington, D.C. Feb. 27-Mar 2.]

By Sena Christian senac@newsreview.com

Mattie Reitman Mattie Reitman moved to Ohio to be at the epicenter of the coal resistance movement. He is helping organize the big "Powershift '09" protest gathering in Washington, D.C. Feb. 27-Mar 2.

[For more information on Mountain Justice, check out www.mountain justicesummer.org and www.mjsb.org]

Mattie Reitman went to the coal fields of West Virginia two years ago to listen to the experiences and concerns of residents living in the heart of coal country. There, in Appalachia, with the help of an approach called "deep listening," Reitman dug into the issue of coal mining and mountaintop removal, and what he found was a source of human exploitation and ecological devastation.

"Coal comes from injustice," he explained. "It's stripped from indigenous lands and burned there and then shipped away."

Born in Sacramento, Reitman, 25, moved when he was only 4 years old, living in Colorado, Florida, then New York, where he majored in women's studies and sociology at Syracuse University. He returns to Sacramento every so often to visit family, most recently this past November, but he now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. That's where he moved to be at the epicenter of the coal industry -- the state has one of the highest concentrations of proposed coal-fired power plants in the country. Reitman felt there, in particular, he could make a difference as a community organizer.

People have lost their way, Reitman said. "We're off track and we've lost our ability to work together for common solutions. To me, that's what community organizers do."

He started the statewide Ohio Student Environmental Coalition and volunteers with Mountain Justice, a group of grassroots activists who combat destructive coal-mining practices in the United States.

Appalachia, an area rich in biodiversity, boasts the second oldest mountain range in the world and stretches from New England to Alabama. The region also contains plentiful coal deposits. The Mountain Justice movement began four years ago in response to a boy in Virginia crushed by a boulder dislodged by mountaintop removal, a practice that involves clear-cutting forests, then blasting hundreds of feet off mountaintops with explosives. Leftover soil fills adjacent valleys and pollutes nearby streams.

Grassroots activists conduct listening projects by going door to door in Appalachian communities to understand the concerns of residents directly impacted by the coal industry.

"Deep listening is not something we practice in our society," Reitman said. "People want to have good lives and control over their own lives. They want access to good air and water and health care."

Although the majority of Appalachians hadn't heard of clean energy, he said, they all agreed that if given an opportunity for a good-paying job in that industry, they'd take it. Mountain Justice's holistic approach connects poverty alleviation with the development of a green- collar workforce.

"The thing that makes [Mountain Justice] different is it's very people-oriented," Reitman said. "It's not just an environmental project, but more of a social-justice project."

Mountain Justice takes on the corporations and governments largely responsible for global warming. This past summer, activists held a vigil at a surface coal-mining site on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee and trespassed over property lines. Last year, activists occupied the governor's office of West Virginia to protest plans to build a coal silo adjacent to an elementary school, which resulted in 14 arrests. Reitman thinks it was unfortunate timing that he'd had to stay behind in the basement of a friend's house, sick with the flu. He's currently preparing for Mountain Justice Spring Break, which will take place in eastern Tennessee in March of next year.

The action follows another big event: Power Shift 2009, during which 10,000 young people are expected to fight the climate crisis, 1,000 of whom will hold politicians accountable by demonstrating at the coal- fired power plant that supplies the U.S. capital building in Washington, D.C.

"So many people, especially young people, are dying to work on real solutions," Reitman said. "We are desperate for something new. If you look at the history of social movements... we help to expand the scope of what's possible. And we are fearless about it."

Former Vice President Al Gore and famed NASA climate scientist James Hansen both explicitly called for America's youth to engage in acts of civil disobedience and direct action to stop coal-fired power plants. Young people, Reitman said, have been rising to the call again and again.

"We're in a crisis," he said. "And I'm excited that my generation has the opportunity to take that on."

Copyright 2008 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.


From: Financial Times (London, U.K.) .....................[This story printer-friendly]
December 30, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: The re-insurance company Munich Re reports that weather-related catastrophes helped push losses to $200 billion in 2008, compared with $82 billion in 2007.]

By James Wilson in Frankfurt and Andrea Felsted in London

Financial damage and loss of life caused by natural disasters made 2008 one of the most devastating years on record and showed the impact of climate change, one of the world's biggest reinsurers said yesterday.

Munich Re said weather-related catastrophes helped push losses to $200bn compared with $82bn in 2007.

Insured losses of $45bn were 50 per cent more than in the previous year.

This made 2008 the third most expensive year to the industry for catastrophe damage, continuing a long-term trend, the group said.

"Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes," said Torsten Jeworrek, a member of Munich Re's executive board.

Insurance companies are concerned by the impact of climate change on risk modelling and hence on financial performance.

Munich Re said the next UN climate summit, scheduled for late next year in Copenhagen, needed to "quite clearly fix the route" to halve output of greenhouse gases by 2050.

More than 220,000 people are estimated to have been killed by natural catastrophes during the year, including 135,000 in Burma during cyclone Nargis, where deforestation allowed a storm surge to reach further inland, said Munich Re.

Hurricane Ike was the year's most expensive event for insurers, with $15bn of insured losses.

The year was the fourth-worst hurricane season since reliable data have been compiled, while the US tornado season was "unusually severe", Munich Re said. It was also the planet's 10th-warmest recorded year. All have occurred in the past 12 years.

"The loss statistics for 2008 fit the pattern that the calculations of climate models lead us to expect," said Peter Hoppe, the reinsurer's head of geo-risks research.

Atmospheric warming meant "the weather machine runs in top gear".

But the number of "loss-producing events" fell compared with 2007, Munich Re said.

The year's death toll included 70,000 in the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan province in May.

Munich's figures echo those of Swiss Re, which put insured losses from natural catastrophes at $43bn, of which Ike accounted for $20bn.

But Swiss Re estimates that there was another $7bn of insured losses from man-made disasters, taking total insured losses to over $50bn.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008


From: CBS News ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 22, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: The giant military contractor, KBR, stands accused of causing lung cancer in American troops in Iraq by knowingly exposing them to cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.]

By Armen Keteyian

The controversial military contractor firm KBR is being accused of putting U.S. soldiers at risk from inhaling a chemical at their facilities in Iraq. Watch video clip.

The military contractor Kellogg Brown and Root, known as KBR, has won more than $28 billion in U.S. military contracts since the beginning of the Iraq war. KBR may be facing a new scandal. First, accusations its then-parent company Halliburton was given the lucrative contract. And later, allegations of shoddy construction oversight that resulted in Americans getting electrocuted. Now, some other American soldiers say the company knowingly put their lives at risk, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian and investigative producer Laura Strickler exclusively report.

In April of 2003, James Gentry of the Indiana National Guard arrived in Southern Iraq to take command of more than 600 other guardsmen. Their job: protect KBR contractors working at a local water plant.

"We didn't question what we were doing, we just knew we had to provide a security service for the KBR," said Battalion Cmdr. Gentry.

Today James Gentry is dying from rare form of lung cancer. The result, he believes, of months of inhaling hexavalent chromium -- an orange dust that's part of a toxic chemical found all over the plant.

At least one other Indiana guardsman has already died from lung cancer, and others are said to be suffering from tumors and rashes consistent with exposure to the deadly toxin.

"I'm a nonsmoker. I believe that I received this cancer from the southern oil fields in Iraq," he said.

Now CBS News has obtained information that indicates KBR knew about the danger months before the soldiers were ever informed.

Depositions from KBR employees detailed concerns about the toxin in one part of the plant as early as May of 2003. And KBR minutes, from a later meeting state "that 60 percent of the people... exhibit symptoms of exposure," including bloody noses and rashes.

Gentry says it wasn't until the last day of August in 2003 -- after four long months at the facility -- that he was told the plant was contaminated.

"We would never have been there if we would have known," Gentry said.

A new internal Army investigation obtained exclusively by CBS News says the Army's medical response was "prompt and effective."

Read the report on the internal Army investigation.

Read an Indiana court complaint against KBR, including evidence and images.

But even after a briefing Monday, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh says that KBR has a lot to answer for.

"Look, I think the burden of proof at this point is on the company," Bayh said. "To come forward and very forthrightly explain what happened, why we should trust them, and why the health and well-being of our soldiers should continue to be in their hands."

In a statement, the company told CBS News: "We deny the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition."

The company says it notified the Army as soon as it identified the toxin.

Still, some Indiana guardsmen say they only just learned of the risk.

"I didn't know I was exposed to a deadly carcinogen until five years later when I received a letter," said Indiana National Guardsman Jody Aistrop.

This is far from the first time the multi-billion dollar contractor has been accused of questionable conduct at Iraq. In addition to convictions for bribery, it's alleged KBR provided contaminated water to troops. The company denies all charges.

"It's going to cost American lives, I'm afraid," Gentry said. "I love them. I love my men so much."

So much so Gentry says he will urge each and every one of them get tested for the cancer that he fears is taking his life.

If any Indiana National Guardsmen want more information on whether or not they were exposed in Southern Iraq to sodium dichromate, they should call this Indiana National Guard hotline: 1-800-237-2850, ext. 3128.

Copyright MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc.


From: Daily Breeze (Los Angeles, Calif.) .................[This story printer-friendly]
December 11, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: A yearlong study shows that your zip code is one of the best predictors of health conditions. Here we can see environmental injustice and white privilege embedded in land-use patterns.]

By Melissa Evans, Staff Writer

The results of a yearlong study [2.3 Mbytes PDF] released Dec. 10, 2008 found exhaustive evidence that one of the biggest predictors of good health is your ZIP code.

Health advocates say that if you live on the west side of Los Angeles County, chances are you have access to bike paths, grocery stores, good schools, hospitals and health clinics.

If you live on the south side, including Hawthorne and Inglewood, chances are you are surrounded by fast-food restaurants, liquor stores and concrete; crime is likely high, and your rates of diabetes, liver disease, obesity and other health problems are well above average.

"I'm not surprised there are disparities, (I'm surprised by) the starkness of the level of scarcity of resources," said Gwen Flynn, a health advocate for Community Health Councils, one of the groups that conducted the study. "It's stunning to me. This confirms what we believe, that health status is not just a matter of personal behavior."

The results, condensed in a 100-page "South LA Health Equity Scorecard," compares the west and the south regions of Los Angeles on 50 different environmental factors that impact health.

The study also shows, in raw numbers, that the southern region does not share equally in overall resources, said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of the health council, a nonprofit that represents public health clinics.

Some of the findings show:

** In the south, there are 11 pediatricians for every 100,000 children; in the west (which includes Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica, Malibu and parts of Los Angeles) there are 193 pediatricians per 100,000.

** In the south, 30 percent of residents are uninsured, compared with 12 percent in the west.

** South Los Angeles has 8.5 liquor stores per square mile compared with 1.97 in the west.

** In the south, 64 percent of schools are classified as insufficiently staffed and funded, while 8 percent of schools on the west side fall below state standards.

Those factors contribute to extremely poor health: 28 percent of south side residents suffer from high blood pressure compared with 16.8 percent in the west; the rate of sexually transmitted disease is 20 percent in the south and 7 percent in the west; and about twice as many people are obese in the south as they are in the west.

Jim Mangia of St. John's Well Child and Family Center, which has clinics in south Los Angeles, said more than half of children who come from the south have lead poisoning, which can cause brain damage.

The report, he said, for the first time attaches numbers to a problem that most health workers already knew existed.

"I am both outraged and hopeful," he said during a panel discussion about the results. "We can now begin to fight back against these conditions."

County administrators and politicians, including newly-elected county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Inglewood City Councilman Daniel Tabor, also weighed in with promises to find solutions.

Public-private health partnerships and mandates for cities to include health assessments when making zoning decisions were some of the ideas floated.

Ridley-Thomas said the fact that the country is in a recession is not an excuse for delay.

"Now is the time to step up and make a difference," he said.



From: Synthesis/Regeneration (Fall 2008) ..................[This story printer-friendly]
November 9, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Perpetual growth of the human economy on a finite planet is impossible. We need to develop a steady-state economy -- one in which the use of energy and materials is constant (or declining), not continually growing. One such proposal has been described by David Schweickart of Loyola University in Chicago.]

By David Schweickart

[Rachel's introduction: Growth of the human enterprise is wrecking the planet, so we must develop a steady-state economy -- one in which the use of energy and materials remains constant (or declines) instead of always growing. Unfortunately, we have very few concrete proposals for such an economy. David Schweickart of Loyola University in Chicago has proposed an economy that could grow, but does not have to grow, based on competitive markets plus public ownership of productive facilities (factories, farms), renting them to producer co-ops, with investment capital raised by a flat tax on productive assets and distributed each year to all regions of the nation on a per-capita basis. It is time to give these ideas a proper hearing. Schweickart's short book After Capitlism is must reading.--P.M.]

The subtitle of Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature (Zed Books, 2007) states his thesis bluntly: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Kovel thinks we need a revolution -- although he is fully cognizant as to how remote that prospect seems.

Growing numbers of people are beginning to realize that capitalism is the uncontrollable force driving our ecological crisis, only to become frozen in their tracks by the awesome implications of this insight. (p. xi)

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins also think we need a revolution, but of a different sort than the one envisaged by Kovel. Natural Capitalism (Little, Brown, 1999) is subtitled Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. President Clinton is reported to have called it one of the five most important books in the world today.

Hawken and the Lovinses agree with Kovel that the current model of capitalism is problematic. "Capitalism, as practiced, is a financially profitable, non-sustainable aberration in human development" (p. 5). But they do not see the problem as residing in capitalism itself. They distinguish among four kinds of capital, all necessary for production: human capital, financial capital, manufactured capital and natural capital. The problem with the current form of capitalism, they argue, is its radical mispricing of these factors. Current market prices woefully undervalue -- and often do not value at all -- the fourth factor: the natural resources and ecological systems "that make life possible and worth living on this planet."

All economists recognize that market transactions can involve "externalities" -- costs (or benefits) that are not paid for by the transacting parties. All agree that there is a role for governments to play in rectifying these defects. The standard remedies tend to be taxation (for negative externalities) and subsidies (for positive externalities). More recently, "cap and trade" schemes for carbon emissions have been added to the list.

Hawken and the Lovinses argue that these remedies -- properly applied - can work. The first step, they say, is to eliminate the perverse incentives now in place. They document the massive subsidies that governments currently provide for ecologically destructive behavior, e.g. highway construction and repair that encourages suburban sprawl and the shift away from more efficient modes of transportation, agricultural subsidies that encourage soil degradation and wasteful use of water, etc.

Second step: impose resource and pollution taxes so as to reflect the true costs of "natural capital." Sweeten the pie by phasing out all taxes on labor: the payroll tax, which increases unemployment, and income taxes as well. The point is to level the playing field so that more sustainable energy technologies and more energy efficient processes can compete fairly with the destructive practices of "industrial capitalism." We might even want to go further and subsidize, at least initially, the technologies that reduce the negative environmental impact of our production and consumption choices.

Natural Capitalism is chock full of examples of the shocking waste in our current production and consumption and of the existing technologies and procedures that can reduce our impact on the environment to a fraction of what it is now. Many of these changes are already underway. Many more will follow if appropriate government policies are adopted. Hawken and the Lovinses envisage a bright future. Such a future will come about if we harness the creative energy of capitalism and let the markets work.

Let us examine these two contrasting perspectives. In essence there are two fundamental differences between the "ecosocialism" of Kovel and the "natural capitalism" of Hawken-Lovins.

1. Kovel is deeply distrustful of the profit motive. He does not think greed can serve the good. Hawken-Lovins think that the profit motive can be harnessed so as to provide powerful incentives to develop sustainable sources of energy and to eliminate the energy waste so rampant today.

2. Kovel is convinced that "grow or die" is an imperative of capitalism that renders "sustainable capitalism" impossible. Hawken and the Lovinses do not confront this argument directly, but appear to believe either (a) capitalism is compatible with a steady-state, non- growing economy or (b) an economy can grow indefinitely without consuming more energy and natural resources than it can sustainably reproduce.

Let us examine this second issue first: Capitalism, Grow or Die? Anti- capitalist ecologists always say this. But is this true? It would seem not to be. Capitalism has survived prolonged depressions (the Great One of 1929 lasted a decade). Periods of stagnation have been even more common -- witness Japan throughout the 1990s. To be sure, capitalism incentivizes growth, but it is not at all clear that thwarted growth leads to death. We can point to many counterexamples.

It is not true either that the various ecological crises we are facing will bring about "the end of the world." Consider the recently released Stern Review. If nothing is done, we risk "major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and economic depression of the first half of the 20th century."[1]

This is serious. Some 60 million people died in World War II. The Stern Review estimates as many as 200 million people could be permanently displaced by rising sea levels and drought. But this is not "the end of the world." Even if the effects are far, far worse, resulting in billions of deaths -- a highly unlikely scenario -- there would still be lots of us left. If three-quarters of the present population perished, that would still leave us with 1.6 billion people -- the population of the planet in 1900. Not the end of the world.

I say this not to minimize the potentially horrific impact of relentless environmental destruction, but to caution against exaggeration. We are not talking about thermonuclear war -- which could have extinguished us as a species. (It still might.)

We may not be facing the end of the world -- but still, Kovel has a point. From an ecological point of view there is something crazy about capitalism. An ecological worldview emphasizes harmony, sustainability, moderation -- rather like that of the ancient Greeks, for whom a constant striving for more was regarded as a mark of an unbalanced, deranged soul. Yet every capitalist enterprise is motivated to grow, and to grow without limit.

The root problem with capitalism is not that individual firms are incentivized to grow, but that the economy as a whole must grow, not to survive, but to remain healthy. Why should it be the case that a capitalist economy must grow to be healthy? The answer to this question is rather peculiar -- and very important. A capitalist economy must grow to be healthy because capitalism relies on private investors for its investment funds. These investors are free to invest or not as they see fit. (It is, after all, their money.)

But this makes economic health dependent on "investor confidence," on, as John Maynard Keynes put it, "the animal spirits" of the investors. If investors do not foresee a healthy return on their investments, commensurate with the risks they are taking, then they won't invest -- at least not domestically. But if they don't invest, their pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The lack of investment translates into layoffs -- first in the construction industry and those industries dependent on orders for capital goods, and then, since layoffs lead to a decline in consumer-goods consumption, in other sectors as well. Aggregate demand drops further; the economy slides toward recession.

As we all know, a slumping economy is not just bad for capitalist investors. It is bad for almost everyone. Unemployment rises. Government revenues fall. Indeed, public funds for environmental programs are jeopardized -- as mainstream economists are quick to point out, impatient as they are with "anti-growth" ecologists.

So we see: a healthy capitalism requires a steady expansion of consumption. If sales decline, investors lose confidence -- as well they should. So, sales must be kept up. Which means that a healthy capitalism requires what would doubtless strike a visitor from another planet (or from a pre-capitalist society) as exceedingly strange -- a massive, privately-financed effort to persuade people to consume what they might otherwise find unnecessary.

Government also has a key role to play. Governments must be prepared to go into debt to stimulate the economy when an economy slows down. "Fiscal responsibility" goes out the window, no matter how conservative the government, when people stop buying -- as well it should. Those checks we are all getting in the mail, courtesy of President Bush and a Democratic congress, should remind us all how vitally a capitalist economy depends on what so many environmentalists and other social critics deride as "consumerism."

The problem is not simply "growth." A healthy capitalism depends, not simply on ever-increasing consumption, but on a steady rate of growth. When the growth rate declines, investors pull back. But a steady rate of growth, so essential to healthy capitalism, implies exponential growth, and exponential growth, to anyone with mathematical sensibilities, is deeply disturbing. If an economy grows 3%/year -- the US average growth rate during the 20th century -- consumption doubles every 24 years -- which translates into a 16-fold increase in consumption over the course of a century. Needless to say, exponential growth tends to stress the environment. Even a much lower growth rate, say the 1.2%/year that the Stern Report assumes, entails a doubling of global consumption ever 60 years. As Kenneth Boulding (himself an economist) has noted, "Only a madman or an economist thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world."[2]

We don't have to imagine "forever." Simply note that if our economy were to continue to grow at 3%/year throughout the 21st century, we will be consuming 16 times more in 2100 than we are now. Not sixteen percent more. Sixteen times more. Are there rational beings who find this plausible?

There is an important counter-argument we need to consider. Growth need not add to resource depletion or pollution. GDP is a quantitative figure that doesn't pretend to correlate with general well-being. (An oil spill that puts lots of people to work cleaning it up enhances GDP; when harried couples eat out more often, no longer having time to cook at home, GDP goes up.) By the same logic, if unemployed people are put to work planting trees, GDP will go up. So it is possible to imagine a world in which GDP keeps going up while environmental quality steadily improves. Isn't it?

How should we evaluate this rejoinder? You will recall that in evaluating the Hawken-Lovins case for "natural capitalism, I pointed out that they do not confront the "grow or die" argument directly, but that they must believe that either (a) capitalism is compatible with a steady-state, non-growing economy or (b) an economy can grow indefinitely without consuming more energy and natural resources than it can sustainably reproduce. My argument thus far has been directed at (a). The rejoinder claims (b).

Now I can't prove to you that (b) is false. But it should be noted that we are no longer talking economic science anymore. We're talking about faith -- the economists' faith that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world.

Can exponential growth go on forever? We can be almost certain it won't make us happier -- at least not those of us who are doing most of the consuming and polluting right now. We know that increased consumption, once we get beyond a certain point, does not translate into increased happiness. Bill McKibben cites some of the evidence:

"Compared to 1950, the average American family now owns twice as many cars, uses 21 times as much plastic, and travels 25 times farther by air. Gross Domestic Product has tripled since 1950 in the US. We obviously eat more calories. And yet -- the satisfaction meter seems not to have budged. More Americans say their marriages are unhappy, their jobs are hideous, and they don't like the place where they live. The number who, all things considered, say they are 'very happy' with their lives has slid steadily over that period.... In the United Kingdom per capita gross domestic product grew 66% between 1973 and 2001, and yet people's satisfaction with their lives changed not a whit. Nor did it budge in Japan, despite a fivefold increase in income in the postwar years."[3]

There is a deep assumption built into the argument. If there is no alternative to capitalism, then we might as well assume that growth can go on forever in a finite world. A belief that allows for hope is surely better than one that counsels despair.

Can we conceive of an economic alternative to capitalism that is (a) economically viable, (b) not dependent on growth for its stability, yet (c) conducive to the entrepreneurial innovation we will need to get though the current crisis? The answer, I would argue, is clearly yes. In my view theoretical analysis, well supported by empirical evidence, strongly supports the thesis that a truly democratic economy could satisfy the above criteria. Needless to say, I can't do justice to this claim in the space of a short article, but let me at least sketch the basic institutions of an alternative model.[4]

The term "market economy" is often used as a synonym for capitalism -- by both proponents and critics -- but this is wrong. Capitalism should be thought of as an amalgam of three distinct kinds of markets: markets for commodities, for labor and for capital. That is to say, there are markets for goods and services, there are labor markets, and there are those mysterious financial markets.

Suppose we keep our markets for goods and services, but democratize the other two. Suppose we democratize labor -- have our businesses run democratically. Suppose businesses are communities, not legal entities that can be bought or sold. Management is appointed by a worker council elected by the workforce, one-person, one-vote. These enterprises compete with one another in the market.

Such enterprises can be expected to be efficient. Workers do not receive wages but a specified share of the firm's profit. Hence everyone has a direct, tangible financial stake in the company's performing well. Everyone is motivated, not only to work efficiently, but to monitor co-workers -- thus reducing the need for external supervision. It is not surprising, then, that empirical studies that compare democratic firms to comparable capitalist firms consistently find the former performing at least as well as the latter, and often better.

But here is something interesting. Although democratic and capitalist firms are both motivated to produce efficiently and to satisfy consumer desires, they are strikingly different in their orientation toward growth. Under conditions of constant returns to scale, capitalist firms expand; democratic firms do not. For capitalist firms aim at maximizing total profits, whereas democratic firms aim at maximizing profit per worker. That is to say, if the owners of a capitalist firm can make $X under present conditions, they can make $2X by doubling the size of their operation. But if a democratic firm doubles its size, it doubles its workforce, leaving its per-capita income unchanged.

This is an enormously important structural difference, with implications that go well beyond environmental concerns. But let us focus on those that do bear on the question at hand.

One implication: democratic competition is less cut-throat. Firms compete for market share, but not for market dominance. This means that democratic firms -- when competing with other democratic firms -- do not face the same "grow or die" imperative that capitalist firms face.

Neither greed nor fear works the same way. However greedy workers may be, they cannot increase their incomes by expanding unless economies of scale are significant. At the same time, they don't have to worry so much about being driven out of business by a more innovative or efficient rival. They have more time to adjust, to copy whatever successful innovations their rival has introduced. (Non-profit institutions are similar to democratic firms in this regard. Successful universities, for example, do not keep expanding. They compete for students, but they do not drive their competitors out of business so as to grab their market share. When educational innovations occur, they tend to spread, administrators being under pressure to adopt "best practices.")

A second implication: When innovation brings about a productivity gain, workers are free to opt for leisure instead of higher consumption. This option is virtually non-existent in a capitalist firm. Owners do not increase their profits by allowing their employees to work less. But if excess consumption (consumerism) is a serious environmental threat, and if market competition is essential to an efficiently functioning economy, then it is vital to have a system that offers non-consumption incentives to its businesses.

The second key change involves democratizing investment. Space limitations preclude a detailed treatment. Suffice it to say that it no longer makes sense to depend on the "animal spirits" of private investors -- and the incredibly opaque financial instruments they've created to maintain economic stability. Alternatives are really not so hard to imagine, although these possibilities are not discussed in polite company. In a couple of words: generate our investment funds by taxing enterprises (a flat-rate capital-assets tax is optimal), then return the proceeds to regions on a per-capita basis to be reinvested in the local economy.

Some consequences of this structural change: investors no longer need to be kept happy for fear of recession; no need to worry about capital flight. Regions do not compete for capital; regions get their fair share every year. Investment funds can be channeled into projects consistent with the wishes of the citizenry.

To summarize: I've argued that Hawken-Lovins are right that ecological sustainability is possible in a market economy, but that Kovel is also right: we need to get beyond capitalism. It is irrational to rely on an economic system that must continually grow to remain healthy. This truth is becoming ever more difficult to deny. Here's a quote from a recent Nobel laureate in economics.

"The solutions to these problems -- inequality (especially that of grinding poverty in a world of unprecedented prosperity) and of public goods (that is, goods people share together, such as the environment) will almost certainly call for institutions that take us beyond the capitalist market economy."

That's Amartya Sen, from his 1999 book, Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, p. 267).[5] I think we are in position now to see what those institutions might be.



1. Sir Nicolas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. ii.

2. Quoted in Mancur Olsen and Hans-Martin Landsberg (eds), The No Growth Society (Norton, 1973), p. 97.

3. Bill McKibben, "Happiness Is..." The Ecologist, (January 2, 2007), p. 36.

4. For a detailed presentation, see my After Capitalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002). For a more technical treatment, see my Against Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

5. For additional confirmation that the thesis defended here is becoming more mainstream, see James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (Yale University Press, 2008). Speth is currently Dean of Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He has served as President Jimmy Carter's White House environmental advisor and as head of the UN's largest agency for international development. He is, in the words of Time magazine , the "ultimate insider." He doesn't spell out an alternative and he doesn't want to call the future "socialist," but his book "is, however, anti- capitalist in the sense that it argues that society and governments should no longer cede special significance to the objectives or moral claims of the owners of capital" (p. 190). He has become convinced, reluctantly he says, that capitalism as we know it is unsustainable.


This article is based on a talk David Schweickart gave June 29, 2008 at the Surviving Climate Change roundtable in St. Louis. He is author of Against Capitalism and After Capitalism along with numerous articles in social and political philosophy. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University.


Rachel's Democracy & Health News highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How DO the few control the many, and what might be done about it?"

Rachel's Democracy and Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Democracy & Health News send a blank Email to: rachel-subscribe@pplist.net

In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that you want to subscribe.


Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903