reply to jared diamond: "we think we are the doctors. we are the disease."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I love the work of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. GGS changed the way I look at the world, and was one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Collapse was a still-brilliant, but more accessible, continuation of the same ideas, and a book I recommend to everyone.

So it was with great dismay that I read the title of Diamond's most recent Op-Ed in the New York Times: "Will Big Business Save the Earth?" I know Diamond to be an intelligent, nuanced thinker, seemingly without a partisan agenda, and a scrupulous researcher. I certainly owe it to him to get past a headline. After all, headlines are meant to grab attention, and often misrepresent a story.

I read the story, and was just as dismayed.

In "Will Big Business Save the Earth?," Diamond profiles three companies that have adopted more sustainable business practices, and that are (he says) committed to even greener targets within the next few years: Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Chevron.

The hardest for me to swallow is Coca-Cola. Diamond writes:
The key ingredient in Coke products is water. The company produces its beverages in about 200 countries through local franchises, all of which require a reliable local supply of clean fresh water.

But water supplies are under severe pressure around the world, with most already allocated for human use. The little remaining unallocated fresh water is in remote areas unsuitable for beverage factories, like Arctic Russia and northwestern Australia.

Coca-Cola can't meet its water needs just by desalinizing seawater, because that requires energy, which is also increasingly expensive. Global climate change is making water scarcer, especially in the densely populated temperate-zone countries, like the United States, that are Coca-Cola's main customers. Most competing water use around the world is for agriculture, which presents sustainability problems of its own.

Hence Coca-Cola's survival compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture. One company goal is to make its plants water-neutral, returning to the environment water in quantities equal to the amount used in beverages and their production. Another goal is to work on the conservation of seven of the world's river basins, including the Rio Grande, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube — all of them sites of major environmental concerns besides supplying water for Coca-Cola.

These long-term goals are in addition to Coca-Cola's short-term cost-saving environmental practices, like recycling plastic bottles, replacing petroleum-based plastic in bottles with organic material, reducing energy consumption and increasing sales volume while decreasing water use.

Now let's step back.

Coke takes a precious public resource, adds extremely inexpensive ingredients containing no nutritional value, packages the result in plastic, then markets and sells it back to the public at an enormous profit margin. Its product is a human-made creation that serves no useful purpose or need, unless we consider its boon to dentists, the diet industry and the advertising world. Coke products are laden with empty calories, or in the non-caloric versions, potentially harmful chemicals. They create or increase humans' addiction to artificially sweet, non-nutritive products, which has been proven to perpetuate a cycle of further unhealthy eating. In other words, the products are addictive. After the product is consumed, it litters the world with plastic, which in most areas of the world will never be recycled.

Savers of the Earth? Hardly.

This may seem strange, but I find it easier to accept Diamond's defense of Chevron than his plaudits for Coca-Cola. We all know the dangers of petroleum, and we understand the need to reduce our consumption of it. But in the world we live in right now, we need oil. We need it to heat our homes and we need it for transportation, including public transit. If Chevron can become a model for less environmentally destructive oil extraction practices, that's a good step (although insufficient). What value does Coca-Cola provide?

Then there's Wal-Mart. The behemoth is adopting greener practices for two reasons: to save money and to counter its well-deserved negative public image. Diamond writes:
Obviously, a business can save money by finding ways to spend less while maintaining sales. This is what Wal-Mart did with fuel costs, which the company reduced by $26 million per year simply by changing the way it managed its enormous truck fleet. Instead of running a truck's engine all night to heat or cool the cab during mandatory 10-hour rest stops, the company installed small auxiliary power units to do the job. In addition to lowering fuel costs, the move eliminated the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 18,300 passenger vehicles off the road.

Wal-Mart is also working to double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet by 2015, thereby saving more than $200 million a year at the pump. Among the efficient prototypes now being tested are trucks that burn biofuels generated from waste grease at Wal-Mart's delis. Similarly, as the country's biggest private user of electricity, Wal-Mart is saving money by decreasing store energy use.

Another Wal-Mart example involves lowering costs associated with packaging materials. Wal-Mart now sells only concentrated liquid laundry detergents in North America, which has reduced the size of packaging by up to 50 percent. Wal-Mart stores also have machines called bailers that recycle plastics that once would have been discarded. Wal-Mart's eventual goal is to end up with no packaging waste.

One last Wal-Mart example shows how a company can save money in the long run by buying from sustainably managed sources. Because most wild fisheries are managed unsustainably, prices for Chilean sea bass and Atlantic tuna have been soaring. To my pleasant astonishment, in 2006 Wal-Mart decided to switch, within five years, all its purchases of wild-caught seafood to fisheries certified as sustainable.

What doesn't Diamond mention? Wal-Mart's growth far outstrips its planned energy savings. It has abandoned more than 300 buildings as retail outlets move to even bigger superstores. It contributes to untold water pollution with parking lots often three times the size of its stores. Its business model has led to a dramatic increase in the distances USians drive to shop: an increase of about 40% since 1990. All over the US, Wal-Mart faces fines for environmental violations: air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste dumping. (Details on all this and more are available from this Wal-Mart Watch environmental fact sheet (pdf).)

Wal-Mart also does a number of other things to save money. It pays poverty-level wages. It forces its employees to work "off the clock" (that is, without pay). It doesn't cover most employees' health benefits. Fires employees when they reach a pay ceiling - if you can consider $11/hour a ceiling; more like a crawl space. Busts unions. Violates basic labour laws. Forces workers to skip breaks. And on and on.

Hailing Wal-Mart's cost-cutting practices when they help the environment but turning a blind eye to its destructive labour practices (also aimed at cost-cutting) pretends we can separate people from the environment. But we can't. It's all connected. Wal-Mart workers who live in poverty also live in the degraded environment Wal-Mart creates. They have to eat cheap, industrially produced food, because that's all they can afford. They buy cheap, disposable goods shipped at great fuel cost from the other side of the globe, and can barely afford those. They turn to the military to provide health benefits and education that their Wal-Mart jobs can't afford, and thus become part of the global military-industrial complex that continues to ravage the earth.

In Collapse, Diamond shows what a difference sustainable business models can make. One story that sticks in my mind is of Home Depot's decision to purchase lumber made from sustainable forestry practices. Diamond chronicles the complex, labour-intensive process of ensuring that forestry actually is sustainable, the fragility of that process through the entire supply chain, and ultimately the great difference responsible buying practices can make. It's impressive. But it was also cautionary. These practices are difficult to create and take real commitment to maintain. And it's all voluntary. A new CEO, a less responsive board of directors, a slacking-off of public pressure, great economic pressures to lower prices - many factors can combine to whittle away those sustainable practices.

Any time any organization - private company, non-profit, government - adopts more environmentally friendly practices, it's a positive step. But capitalism will never be - can never be - the answer to environmental problems, because it is the cause.

Chris Hedges spoke to environmental activist and author Derrick Jensen. Hedges quotes Jensen:
"If all we do is reform work, this culture will grind away. This work is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to use whatever means are necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet. We need to target and take down the industrial infrastructure that is systematically dismembering the planet. Industrial civilization is functionally incompatible with life on the planet, and is murdering the planet. We need to do whatever is necessary to stop this."

The oil and natural gas industry, the coal industry, arms and weapons manufacturers, industrial farms, deforestation industries, the automotive industry and chemical plants will not willingly accept their own extinction. They are indifferent to the looming human catastrophe. We will not significantly reduce carbon emissions by drying our laundry in the backyard and naively trusting the power elite. The corporations will continue to cannibalize the planet for the sake of money. They must be halted by organized and militant forms of resistance. The crisis of global heating is a social problem. It requires a social response.

. . .

We can save groves of trees, protect endangered species and clean up rivers, all of which is good, but to leave the corporations unchallenged would mean our efforts would be wasted. These personal adjustments and environmental crusades can too easily become a badge of moral purity, an excuse for inaction. They can absolve us from the harder task of confronting the power of corporations.

The damage to the environment by human households is minuscule next to the damage done by corporations. Municipalities and individuals use 10 percent of the nation's water while the other 90 percent is consumed by agriculture and industry. Individual consumption of energy accounts for about a quarter of all energy consumption; the other 75 percent is consumed by corporations. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States. We can, and should, live more simply, but it will not be enough if we do not radically transform the economic structure of the industrial world.

"If your food comes from the grocery store and your water from a tap you will defend to the death the system that brings these to you because your life depends on it," said Jensen, who is holding workshops around the country called Deep Green Resistance to build a militant resistance movement. "If your food comes from a land base and if your water comes from a river you will defend to the death these systems. In any abusive system, whether we are talking about an abusive man against his partner or the larger abusive system, you force your victims to become dependent upon you. . . ."

Those who run our corporate state have fought environmental regulation as tenaciously as they have fought financial regulation. They are responsible for our personal impoverishment as well as the impoverishment of our ecosystem.

. . .

"We need to separate ourselves from the corporate government that is killing the planet," Jensen said. "We need to get really serious. We are talking about life on the planet. We need to shut down the oil infrastructure. I don't care, and the trees don't care, if we do this through lawsuits, mass boycotts or sabotage."

. . .

The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement. It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits. We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of personal choice when actually there is a need for profound social and economic reform. We are left powerless.

Alexander Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of Russian anarchists working to topple the czar, reminded his followers that they were not there to rescue the system.

"We think we are the doctors," Herzen said. "We are the disease."

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