Resource and Civilization Sustainability
The pandemic and political upheavals demonstrate how brittle our culture and economy are. This is not unusual in the history of humans. Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction pointed out the rapid extinction of large mammals when humans first showed up and the continued extermination of animals large and small—then there was every other hominid species. In Collapse, Jared Diamond described the historic ability of human cultures to collapse, and Mark Bittman in Animal, Vegetable, Junk how humans can turn seemingly unlimited resources into wastelands, while overproducing cereals with monoculture, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. In total, these three books spend over a thousand pages to make the claim that humans are short-sighted opportunists (that is, the ones making the important decisions) that almost guarantee long-term failure. The key point now is seemingly every major area of human development is unsustainable—simultaneously and seemingly all components can collapse quickly. Humans throughout history have shown resilience. It’s not clear how this will continue.
While I was writing this blog, Texas was inundated with storms and frigid weather; what is routine for most states was a disaster for Texas. Five days plus of freezing meant the electric grid failed and millions of people were without power for days. Water mains broke and the state’s water system was compromised. The governor and Republicans (and right-wing media) blamed AOC and the green new deal, which categorically was not the problem. They took no responsibility for the disaster, but masterfully passed the buck. The two obvious things that have to happen are the need for fixing climate change and infrastructure, two big things on my list. Given the Texas Republican propensity to both lie and blame others, I suspect neither of those two things will happen in Texas. Consequently, I’ll add the need for bipartisanship as needed for sustainability.
An interesting aside is AOC raised $5 million for Texas relief using Act Blue (a Democratic fundraising tool)—she also volunteered at a Houston food bank; Beto O’Rourke raised $1.4 million; and Ted Cruz fled to Cancun. The Cruz trip to Cancun was a good metaphor for Republican response to crises. Cruz joking about the Cancun trip in Orlando also shows the blatant disregard and questionable humor.
The number one problem, it seems to me, is the capitalist power players (plus related kleptocrats and political dictators around the world) bear no costs for the externalities they generate, aided by political accomplices; simultaneously, no concern for those they hurt. Bittman’s book quoted Barry Commoner’s “Four Laws of Capitalism”: “The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus. Every relationship is about money. … Producers will always ignore the damages caused by production. … The self-regulating market knows best. … It doesn’t matter what you sell as long as it’s profitable. Nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner. … Capitalists believe that nature exists to be exploited by humans, a tenet perfectly in tune with Western religion. … Capitalists may understand that resources are finite, but they choose to ignore that fact” (p. 222-3).
The fix can only happen with regulation (the concept of empathy seems completely foreign to the profit-above-all capitalist mindset). There have been regulations, but the powers-that-be work hard to avoid them, pervert them to their own advantage, or get them reversed. Regulatory agencies seem to be captured regularly by the various industries. Massive political contributions and lobbying will do that. Lots of people, politicians, nonprofits and institutions are raising alarms, but few are considering comprehensive perspectives. If there are, say, 25 non-sustainable practices each with the capacity to cause massive harm, comparable relief effects are needed. Severe damage to date is obvious; comprehensive damage (starvation for millions, massive disruption of all ecosystems) looks more and more inevitable.
The Covid-19 pandemic was caused by humans accidently—simultaneously, categorically expected given human-animal interfaces. Pandemics happen with regularity. What shouldn’t happen is countries’ poor responses, with Trump’s America as likely one of the worst—but with competition for last place. Pandemics are expected and the world has the expertise and resources to handle them responsibly. Many countries did, most just not enough. China was the epicenter, but chose to take no responsibility, hide key information, and claim it was someone else. Trump gave mixed signals throughout. Granted, it has been a learning process even for the experts. Trump’s initial decisions were not bad, while the CDC made big errors especially in testing. The CDC got better (“good” is not the right word), while Trump’s responses turned worse and often horrendous. He even sponsored super-spreader events (which were illegal at the White House according to the Hatch Act) that likely killed people. Three cheers to the National Institutes of Health under Dr. Francis Collins and chief spokesperson Dr. Anthony Fauci.
After the initial disaster, China apparently did well in the response—seemingly much easier in a police state. Other Asian states (closer to ground zero) did well, probably because of pragmatic leadership and obedience to rules is stronger. Countries like New Zealand, South Korea and Australia showed an appropriate response is possible. As a relative moderate, Biden’s pragmatism and attempts at bipartisanship should work better. Given the super-partisan Washington politics, partisan states and corrupt power players, this is still iffy.
Bittman quoted philosopher Max Roser: “Three things are true at the same time. The world is much better; the world is awful; and the world can be much better” (quoted on p. 299). This is the right amount of optimism/pessimism.
I’ve preferred calling it global warming, but severe cold weather in Texas in February 2021 shows it’s global weirding (in this case caused by an unstable polar vortex). There are major culprits from energy companies to transportation, factory agriculture, and virtually all of us are culpable. (I, for one, am not using solar power, exclusively riding my bike, driving an electric car, or growing my own food.) Many of the other unsustainable practices described have climate change components.
Before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 leveled fluctuated between 150 and 300 parts per million for thousands of years—and the climate fluctuated between hot and cold. In May 2020, despite the drop in CO2 usage because of the pandemic, the level hit an all-time high of 417.1. The levels are cumulative, meaning that CO2 emissions could drop to zero and cumulative CO2 would remain the same. An erratic polar vortex continues, as do massive fires, drought, flood, more severe hurricanes, and all the rest. The Paris Accords would not get us anywhere near zero. Erasing global warming requires reducing CO2 levels. In other words, what’s needed is massive cuts—this would require rebuilding much of the world’s infrastructure—plus mitigation strategies. This might require massive walls around Florida, the Netherlands and just about any city on almost any coast, plus salvaging what’s possible in Louisiana.
People are on the case. Bill Gates is emphatic and investing billions in research and multiple mitigation strategies. John Kerry is the Envoy for Climate. Al Gore has been an environmental activist for decades. However, there are industries and activists that are effectively anti-environmentalists with oil and gas interests prominently the most active. Plus, active political global warming deniers. It turns out, climate change deniers are not that large a percent of the population (about 10%) according to Adam Grant (2021), while people that are alarmed about it are at 30%. As the snow in Texas illustrates, it looks like in the future mitigation will be our best hope—likely bad news for coastal cities, areas where floods, drought and fires are common and (puzzling, except for politics), all of Texas.
Destroying Major Ecosystems
The Great American Plains was a stable ecosystem with buffalo grass and millions of bison. Now there are a few thousand bison, thanks to human intervention (both destruction and preservation). I suppose buffalo grass and other indigenous plants still exist in a relatively small percent of the area. In their place are giant monoculture farms and cattle ranches. I can’t say to what extent this was the Great American Way illustrating American exceptionalism or just a catastrophe—from a long-term perspective, let’s say both. Like the whole concept of Manifest Destiny, it made America a great nation while simultaneously doing horrendous things—like destroying most indigenous cultures and ecosystem damage.
This exploiting of ecosystems is part of the story of civilization. Many of them were too successful in that they expanded and faced dire consequences when populations became too large, soils eroded, long-term droughts hit, and raiders attacked their now-rich cities. Archaeologists found hundreds of sites with, say, a dozen layers of abandoned cities to be rebuilt again centuries later (both nature and people are resilient in their own ways).
The Amazon is an example of on-going damage with considerable consequences. The massive rain forest is a deterrent to rising CO2 levels. As populations expand, people burn down parts of the forest to farm the land. The land is not very productive and these farmers quickly move and repeat the cycle. At times, this have been encouraged by the Brazilian government. One of the gorgeous raptor species is the Swainson’s hawk. Over a short period of time, about 90% of the US population was gone. It turns out, the Swainson’s hawk winters in a small part of Argentina. Parts of the Argentinian pampas were converted to monoculture, with massive use of DDT and other pesticides banned in the US. These chemicals killed the hawks. Human intervention saved them from extinction with the limiting of pesticides, but their recovery is slow and not guaranteed. Because bird populations in the US have declined about 25%-30% over the last few decades, ecosystem destruction is disturbing.
This process is continuing, with various forms of evidence. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was, in part, the result of non-sustainable farming practices that eroded the soil and changed climate practices. Destruction continues in the Amazon rainforest and ecosystems around the world. China has gone through the rapid process of industrializing with coal and steel, while being a major producer of sustainable energy like solar. India in undergoing a slower process, but combined, the two countries will soon have three billion people wanting to join the middle class. That puts added pressure on CO2 levels.
Not everyone was on board to farming, let alone factory farming. Yuval Harari claimed that farming was “history’s biggest fraud;” Jared Diamond said it was a catastrophe. There were tradeoffs then between hunting and gathering and farming and farming usually won out. This was bad for nature; it depends on how human success is measured. The farming of 10,000 years ago seemed a real downer, but it proved successful enough. Beyond that: what makes a person successful? A civilization? Humanity? We’re more or less stuck with what we’ve got, but changes can be made—largely reversing really bad long-term decisions.
The evil of factory farming was the major focus of Animal, Plant, Junk, and I wrote an extensive review. Several of the unsustainable practices listed separately below are described by Bittman in detail. I’ll just summarize some major points. Farming shifted from local control of food for the benefit of the farmers and locals to global food monocultures and expanding junk food choices in the name of economic growth—and profit-driven capitalists. “The food system is complicated. Its components are multifaceted. And it’s in rough shape: It’s developed into a profit machine that ignores the way its components interact and depend on one another. It’s not fair, resilient, or sustainable. It doesn’t even do a good job at what should be its primary purpose: providing nourishment” (Bittman, 2021, p. 289-90).
The Irish potato famine is an example of factory farming gone wrong from the 19th century. British landowners used monoculture for maximum profit, mainly raising cattle and corn. Irish sharecroppers were limited to small plots where potatoes were the only option. When potato blight destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s, the sharecroppers were desperate to avoid starvation. British landowners with bumper crops to export had no interest, saying the government was responsible. The government thought the landowners should do it. Of course, the poor Irish were accused of being lazy. Some sharecroppers tried to get arrested to avoid starvation. For a couple million poor Irish, they either starved or migrated to America. “Food security … is a symptom in inequality, of abusive power and wealth” (Bittman, p. 54-5). Ireland was a system with no resilience. Starting in 1847 Britain provided free soup kitchens, actually an effective way to avoid death and disease.
Bittman tells the tales of self-sustaining cultures around the world that were eliminated by Britain and other imperialist European powers. The British East India Company in India, Britain seeking tea in China; Ghana and other West African countries: “farmers grew a dozen different life-sustaining grains, among them millet, teff, sorghum, and fonio, as well as yams and a wide variety of leafy greens. These plants were indigenous, hardy, and tolerant of temperature change, drought, and even infertile soil. … The combination of indigenous crops and a strong regional economy of craftspeople trading iron, pottery, and cloth had created a robust society” (p. 63). In America, only white males could claim land no matter who actually lived on it—before and after independence.
The US became the land of monoculture relatively early as the Midwest opened up to wheat and other grains. Thanks to McCormick, Deere and others, factory tools could be used for factory farming. When land seemed limitless, no attention was paid to conservation; just wear out the soil and move on. The techniques for sustainable farming like planting nitrogen-setting legumes (well-known by native Americans), leaving field fallow and allowing livestock to fertilize the land were often ignored. When nitrogen was produced artificially, chemical fertilizers became the answer. Chemical companies produced hybrid seeds and pesticides. Add railroads, grain elevators, processors, meat packing, and bankers with ready money. Everyone was ready to make a killing (and live the “American dream”)—except the small farmers. When commodity prices were low or crops failed, farm bankruptcies rose. Then the Mid-West Dust Bowl of the 1930s meant failures by the millions. The New Deal helped bail out farmers, and the Department of Agriculture helped with such things as soil erosion, mainly to protect monoculture and factory farming.
With government supports, factory farming expanded. Okay for large farmers, great for the supporting players. Less great for taxpayers subsidizing production beyond needs and eaters. It turns out, super processing of corn and, to a lesser extent, other grains produce cheap processed foods: plenty of calories, not so much nutrition. Marketing works wonders. Do the kids want salads or McDonalds? Healthy foods are available, just at a premium price. Hopefully, markets that sell these products are nearby. Now obesity, not malnutrition, is the big health problem.
Pesticides, chemicals to kill bugs and weeds, is part of factoring farming, as is chemical fertilizers (think crop dusters). There is the small issue of damage to the ecosystem, including killing the flora and fauna, plus damage to water supplies. Despite the obvious harm, some six billion pounds of pesticides (about a pound per person worldwide) is used each year.
Drug companies have always had mixed messaging, from wonder drugs for humanity to snake oil. There has been a combination of absolutely essential and life-saving medicines to drugs that can kill people by the thousands, like opioids—made worse by drug companies marketing them specifically to get people hooked, using similar tactics to tobacco companies. Whatever the benefits or drawbacks of drugs, the marketing practices of the big drug companies has been a disgrace. I’m a collector of “patent medicine” paraphernalia, mainly 19th century trade cards, medicine stamps and so on. This was the era of no regulation and these medicines could have any now-illicit drugs (cocaine comes to mind) and falsely claim they could cure anything. Or they could contain only food coloring and alcohol. The major companies jumped on the propaganda-as-advertising bandwagon early.
With federal drug regulations, two categories of drugs existed. Those that did not require a doctor’s prescription and those that did. Health food stores seem to specialize in the non-doctor, limited regulation category. Good luck with that. Most of us assume that the doctor knows best, has been trained as a scientist, and would only prescribe the most beneficial drugs when absolutely necessary. Turns out, drug companies cater to doctors and salespeople court them to encourage use of the products. That can include almost anything, including “consulting and speaking fees” and other forms of cash payments. It would be expected that the major components of cost of sales would be manufacturing costs and research and development for drug companies. But no. The major category is marketing. One reasons why drug costs are so high is the extra revenue needed to cover advertising costs, not needed R&D.
Perdue Pharma, a major non-public drug company, was renowned for pushing Oxycontin as a remedy for chronic pain beginning in 1995. The company continued the practice of aggressively pushing doctors to prescribe the drug. Sales soared and the company made billions. Oxycontin contained oxycodone, an addictive opiate. The claims of “continued pain control” were not backed by science. Nevertheless, hundreds of “Doctors’ Good Vives” prescribed massive amounts of the addictive drug. Widespread abuse was widespread by 2000; soon the DEA realized that Perdue’s aggressive tactic turned this into an epidemic. Thousands of people were dying of drug overdoses annually, then tens of thousands.
Perdue and the Sackler family that owned most of perdue settled in 2020 for billions: “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet doctors dispensing medication without a legitimate medical purpose.” The company complained that it was the now-addicted ang therefor criminal patients and doctors that were responsible. Perdue declared bankruptcy in 2019, but the Sackler family had withdrawn billions from the company before that.
I try hard not to take drugs, even when doctors are willing or encourage me to do so. My reasoning is they disrupt my body’s natural defenses and have side effects. I will absolutely take drugs when necessary; just prove to me that’s the case. I try hard not to be persuaded by propaganda. That seems to put me in the minority.
The vaccine response by Trump and the federal government was impressive and successful, producing approved effective vaccines in about a year. Hats off to the drug companies responsible, NIH, and other government regulators, plus private contributors. My wife and I have been vaccinated; this is a different category of decision.
What is the role of drug companies? They produce life-saving drugs and are an important part of the effort to make people healthier and live longer. For the most part, they are commercial firms with a profit motive. Once again, the role of regulation is critical to insure all the players are playing by appropriate rules.
It seems clear that public companies have an obligation to put profits first (under the name “duty of loyalty” and the role assigned by economists to maximize profits). The counter arguments to that are “social responsibility” and “stakeholder capitalism.” Corporate groups like the Business Round Table indicate the importance of social responsibility, seemingly for public corporations to put a statement in their annual reports to make that claim without necessarily adopting any of its fundamental principles (e.g., treating employees, local communities, consumers and the public fairly), while much of Europe and other developed countries foster stakeholder capitalism both by government regulation and social philosophies.
For the most part, US corporations generally followed stakeholder principles after World War II, before private equity, lawyers, “libertarian true believers,” and consulting firms demanded profit maximization. To make matters worse, corporate CEO compensation contracts can lead to obscene payoffs, often emphasizing short-term perspectives which can be harmful to even long-term profit maximization goals.
Propaganda as Marketing
When I first wanted to learn about propaganda, I was referred to the book Propaganda by Edward Bernays (“Father of Spin”), published in 1928. This is not a page turner, but the relationship is clear. The degree of manipulation has been growing, regulations against deceptive advertising have been shrinking, and the basic techniques adopted by politicians. Honesty can be the first casualty.
Bernays worked for the Committee on Public Information, which despite its name, was a propaganda machine, using “psychological warfare.” During the peace conference, the Committee was: “to interpret the work of the Peace Conference by keeping up worldwide propaganda to disseminate American accomplishments and ideals.” After the war, he figured out the same tools could be used for public relations.
What is the proper role of marketing? Companies certainly have the right to notify the public of the availability of their products and services. Of course, they praise the products to the hilt and the mission of the company. Making the public aware of their goods and services is reasonable. Nonsense claims, no. The Reagan administration took the teeth out of FTC regulation, requirement action only for “false and deceptive” advertising.
This can be considered a form of socialism, depending how socialism is defined. The standard definition is government owns the means, price and distribution of production. The US is a mixed economy with activity split among government, nonprofits and commercial firms. Scandinavian countries are often considered socialist because government controls and regulates a larger percentage of the economy. However, they do not meet the “strict” definition of socialism. Social Security is run by the federal government, funded by payroll taxes. This is one program that voters generally like (certainly old people, young people, not so much) and faces little opposition because it can be considered socialistic.
The sustainability problem is the lack of future funding based on payroll taxes. People are living longer and family size (number of children) has been falling. When the program started, the average life expectancy was barely over 60. Therefore, the funding required a relatively low tax rate. That rate has been growing over the years, but the system runs out of money soon. The obvious answer is to raise payroll taxes and reduce benefits (e.g., raise the retirement age and/or cut future payment levels). This seems to be the obvious example of the failure of politicians being entirely honest. How many politicians run on the platform of cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes? (The alternative is to use general fund revenue for additional funds.)
This is not necessarily a sustainability issue, but the concept of universal healthcare as an example of a public good. [I can defend the non-sustainability of our current system.] Governments in the US (including all levels) probably pay for half the cost of healthcare: military and veterans (this is socialized medicine), Medicaid, and all health insurance for government workers. A big chunk is paid by Medicare, separate because these costs are financed mainly by payroll taxes. Most of the rest is paid through private health insurance and out-of-pocket payments. Major problems are the millions of uninsured people and the high cost of health care (possibly with worse outcomes when compared to other countries). This is a unique American problem. Virtually every other developed country has some form of universal healthcare, typically at about half the cost per capita of the US. Some, like Britain, have government-run systems (yes, this is socialized medicine); most have some form of government-financed healthcare with the services provided by some combination of nonprofit, commercial, and government health providers (somewhat analogous to Medicare or Medicaid).
Achieving Full Democracy
The US is considered the first continuing democracy; however, the country has dropped to a “flawed democracy” according to the Economist’s Democracy Index. The index is based on 60 indicators. The US is a humiliating 25th with a score of 7.92 (out of 10, Norway scored 9.81). Weaknesses listed include “extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties, deep dysfunction in the functioning of government; increasing threats to freedom of expression, and a degree of societal polarization that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve.” Not surprisingly, Trump was specifically mentioned. The index went down under Trump, but (surprising to me) not that much. The one positive was increased political participation (this measure does not include a mob attacking the Capitol). The report noted that the average democracy scores worldwide have declined.
I think the preferred answer is political funding of elections, so elected officials will not have (and cannot) raise money to get reelected. That could promote increased public policy advocates to run. In lieu of that, the best I can hope for is a successful Biden presidency and a failed Trump-wing of the Republican Party. If Republicans regain power in Congress and Trump is reelected in 2024, any remaining optimism disappears.
Maximize Social Welfare
The purpose of business in America is to maximize profit, period. Taking it to extreme is okay, including causing obvious harm—“externalities.” Maximizing shareholder capitalism and social responsibility are obvious alternatives. Organizations talk about social welfare like it’s important, but little effort has been demonstrated. The movement from stakeholder welfare to profits has been a long one, with many participants including multiple criminals and shady characters. The New Deal, to some extent, slapped down profit-only capitalism, in part by expanded what was illegal, like insider trading. It also required public financial disclosures and shamed high-paid executives. Then war profiteering was investigated and many corporate executives became “dollar-a-year-men” to aid the war effort. This perspective of cooperation continued after World War II, with the result of implied stakeholder capitalism.