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By the Pond

The endless rationalization of profit


This is a nation in which tens of thousands of people, when they pull out of the driveway, won’t leave home without dragging behind them the toilet bowl and a kitchen sink. Waste, thy name is RV.

Don’t bother defending the self-indulgence of operating a vehicle that gets six to eight miles a gallon chugging uphill, in order to lug for thousands of miles, past hundreds of hotels and motels, a double bed or two, a couple of couches, a shower and kitchen stove.

That said, I toss my teabag into the garbage, rinse the mug, wipe up the mess I’ve made with a paper towel, slip down to the store alone in the seven-seat rented Ford Aerostar for three days of supplies, return and stack them away. I’ve just brought into the house food supplies that are 40 percent packaging, and before leaving had added without blinking three ounces of trash -- paper teabag and towel -- to life’s daily dump. Waste, thy name is I.

What is it we’re wasting?

We all, but especially the manufacturing corporations, are living off natural capital that can no longer support our lifestyles. Natural capital “includes all the familiar resources used by humankind: water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, air and so on. But it also encompasses living systems: grasslands, savannahs, wetlands, estuaries, oceans, coral reefs, riparian corridors, tundras and rainforests.”

That quote’s from just published Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, 416 pages, $26.45). It makes thousands of points, including this: Whether it’s the oblivious RV owner or me or the manufacturing corporations, the main obstacles to warding off ecological catastrophe are “no longer technical or economic but cultural.”

Including -- though the authors never allude to it (a major flaw in the book) -- the culture of capitalism.

The authors are blunt: “While technology keeps ahead of depletion, providing what appear to be ever-cheaper metals, they only appear cheap because the stripped rainforest and the mountains of toxic tailings spilling into rivers, the impoverished villages and eroded indigenous cultures -- all consequences they leave in their wake -- are not factored into the cost of production. Humankind has inherited a 3.8 billion year store of natural capital. There will be little left by the end of the next century.”

These things we think we know. Now where?

The book’s strength and weakness is to see everything in terms of improvements in “manufacturing systems,” technological turnarounds and scientific innovation. Not seen or apparently understood is that manufacturing systems are not free agents. They operate at the behest of and under the control of capitalism. It is the overarching capitalist system that impels everything forward.

The authors provide a balanced and penetrating investigation into industry and its related systems. Get those systems under control, make industry’s starting point the same point from which natural capitalism operates (renewable resources), and all will be better, possibly beautiful.

After Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce was published, these three decided what was needed was a framework within which the entrepreneurial talent of business could be applied to solving the world’s deepest environmental and social problems. The authors “imagine” a clean green world as “labor leaders, business leaders, government and environmentalists” create a “just transition” to phase out coal, nuclear energy and oil.

What follow are 15 highly detailed chapters that describe an industrial world where everything is leased. The manufacturers are responsible for creating and for disposal -- through remanufacture. Waste is banished. Use all resources more effectively -- illustrations provided -- and planetary destruction can actually be reversed.

The closest the authors get to tackling the corporate/government arm lock is saying that Washington’s 150,000 lawyers and lobbyists will have to stand aside as corporations “forgo corporate welfare.” That’s naivety.

The authors have a brave new bioworld, too. “Growing competitive pressures to save resources open up exciting frontiers for chemists, physicists, process engineers and industrial designers.” Pharmaceutical companies become microbial ranchers, managing herds of enzymes. Biological farmers manage soil ecosystems.

To the authors, we’ll be “protecting the climate at a profit” by weaving all this and more into the new natural capitalism tapestry.

Fine vision, fine words.

But capitalism is business to make money. Now. Rarely will it forgo that money for the future. This puts the authors up against the quarterly report. And on the basis of current practice, they are not going to win, just gain some improvements at the manufacturing margins.

The authors are too reliant on market forces to redeem us from environmental perdition, and through such reliance they re-arm the system they are trying to pacify and redirect. Yet they’re right about one thing. Given the current antigovernment sentiment in America, if the environment can’t be saved at a profit, it won’t be saved at all.

I had earlier invited readers to take part in this ecology/capitalism debate. Donald Cudihee makes a point that’s appropriate here: “Many of us believed in business. It made our world go round. Our beliefs were supported by good experiences, fair treatment, responsible owners plus a myriad of myths handed down at the supper table and in the classroom. … Business was and still is equated with what we do as Americans in a post-agricultural society. However, for longer than any of us really know, business and capitalism have been undergoing metamorphosis. … Capitalism is an ideology that holds that everything must be reduced to terms of money-based value. The confusion comes when we expect something human from the practice of capitalism and it doesn’t seem to happen.”

One place where it doesn’t happen unless the public pushes extremely hard -- and this despite the authors’ great hopes -- is in the chemical world. Large chemical corporations, writes reader Rebecca S. Biefeld, fight against the public’s knowing the toxicity of their products.

Research librarian Biefeld was diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy from air conditioning leaks of ethylene glycol. She suspects that prenatal solvent exposure predisposed her son Aren Joshua’s immune system to failure when at 5 years old he was exposed to toxic solvents in paints, new carpeting and insulation in a newly remodeled building. After spending several hours a week in the building for three weeks, he became ill and died.

Biefeld uses her research skills to stay atop issues related to solvent fumes and poor building ventilation. Building ventilation is not a current health issue, she said. For example, the state of New York has no law covering the quality of the inside-the-building air people breath.

More damaging, she argues, is the chemical corporations’ war against independent research into the 87,000 chemicals currently on the market that have never been tested for toxicity to humans.

Don’t believe it? She recommends two books: Living Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber, professional biologist and breast cancer survivor, on the role of toxic chemicals -- solvents, pesticides, petroleum products -- in carcinogenesis; and Our Stolen Future, by National Wildlife Federation head scientist Theo Colborn, on toxic chemicals as endocrine disruptors -- putting future generations’ existence at risk through sexual malformations and low sperm counts.

Congress has inquired into “the disproportionate health damage done to children by the toxins that accumulate in their developing bodies [from] pesticide residues in their foods; pesticides tracked onto carpets in their home from lawn care chemicals. Children whose parents use lawn chemicals have a five-times greater chance of developing leukemia.”

Toxins from auto emissions and waste incineration we know about, but the chemical giants the authors trust don’t want us aware of the health risks from “outgassing” fumes from fabric softeners, cleaning products and fragranced household products, she said.

Are the chemical giants rushing to the lab to research these worries and level with the public?

Not according to Biefeld. The corporations “strive through any means at their disposal to prevent the public from knowing the toxicity of the ingredients,” and control the “research grants for the type of study which would demonstrate the health defects” of the relevant products.

As a Monsanto executive once told Forbes magazine, “our job is making money for our shareholders. Chemicals is how we do it.”

Stimulating and important, Natural Capitalism is a book in too small a setting. The authors seriously underestimate man-made capitalism’s many-mouthed abilities -- to talk out of all sides of its mouth to its various audiences simultaneously while pulling in the money any way it can.

Like the American pulling the toilet and kitchen sink behind him as he leaves the driveway, the corporations will rationalize their profitable lifestyle ad infinitum. Ecology be damned, unless they’re forced to comply.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999