Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Corporations are Loving Us All to Death

Much of the power of corporations comes from their ability to convince us we cannot live without the products or services they provide.  As if the disappearance of any one of them might immediately result in humanity being transported back to the dark ages (which, by the way, may be where we are all headed in the not too distant future, thanks to corporations).  Through the magical wonder of advertising, the pixie dust of corporate propaganda is used to sell us everything from sports cars to sunglasses.   By exploiting the inner void that a consumer driven society helps to create in each of us - what Victor Frankl referred to as the “existential vacuum” - the billion dollar marketing industry pours into our longings the promise that they, through a dazzling array of the most fashionable products available, can give us a life of love, meaning, fulfillment, and happiness.  None of this is true, of course, because advertising is designed to play us all like a flute. It is as easy as lying, because it is lying. It’s just lying that happens to be, as H.G. Wells pointed out, legal.  

Thankfully, however, those lies, and the billions of dollars spent annually to manufacture them, have not been entirely wasted on people like David Mamet.  Mamet, who has only recently been converted to the fold, admitted the error of his ways when he began to question his hatred for "the Corporations.”  As he put it, he questioned “the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live."  Christmas shoppers in Long Island in 2008 would certainly agree.  They agreed so much with Mamet's sentiments, in fact, that they trampled to death the Wal-Mart employee who tried to satisfy their “hunger for those goods and services” by merely opening the store. No doubt the crowd was driven into their frenzy by the same siren song of consumer-corporatism that has made Mamet such a true believer of late in all the blessings that corporate benevolence can bestow. 

Mamet explains further that his change of heart came when he realized that corporations are simply “legal persons” with as much "lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals as people but none of the constraints.” Some of these "legal persons" who have succeeded in seducing Mr. Mamet are more like vampires than actual people.  DuPont, for example, was born in 1802, Colgate in 1806, and Citibank has been around since the War of 1812.  And where real people have a diffusion of appetites that ebb and flow and often wane with age, corporations have basically one appetite that grows exponentially by what it feeds on. They're like Terminators, in other words, programed to chase forever the Sarah Connor of their own self-interest.  And they’ll destroy everything and anyone to get what they want. 

 In addition to virtual immortality, the corporate "person" that Mamet is so enamored with has all the personality traits of a psychopath.  According to the World Health Organizations Manual of Mental Disorders, a corporation has "a callous unconcern for the feelings of others; an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; an incapacity to experience guilt; failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors; and a reckless disregard for the safety of others."  Indeed, if corporations are like the people Mamet knows, he is either hanging out with serial killers or living in the Twilight movies.

What Mamet has altogether missed while playing his lyre at the knee of the corporate 'overmen,' is that many of the very "goods and services" that he thinks people can't live without are producing a world that people are finding increasingly impossible to live with. In fact, corporations are forever finding new ways - with true American grit, determination, and know-how - to maximize their profits by poisoning everyone and everything on the planet, from the biological to the global. 

On the biological level, corporate overuses of antibiotics in farming and livestock have contributed to the rise of super-resistant bacteria strains that are becoming impervious to antibiotics. These new super-strains threaten to make things as harmless as a scraped knee or common cold a struggle between life and death.  Corporations use such antibiotics, “to varying degrees depending on” the “size and age” of animals such as “cattle, pigs, and chickens — and, in other countries, fish and shrimp.”  These animals “receive regular doses to speed their growth, increase their weight, and protect them from disease. Out of all the antibiotics sold in the United States each year, 80 percent by weight are used in agriculture, primarily to fatten animals and protect them from the conditions in which they are raised.[i]  Protecting an investment in animals by overusing antibiotics, however, is increasingly undermining our ability to protect ourselves.  Of course, animals are corporate assets that affect a company's bottom line, while people, on the other hand, are expendable. 

Luckily for Mamet and his conservative minions, attempts to prevent such overuse of antibiotics - which would cut into their sacred earnings - have been regularly thwarted by the agriculture and veterinary pharmaceutical industries who claim that these antibiotics have no demonstrable effect on human health.” Ultimately, protecting the value of its animal assets is a necessary thing for corporations to do in order to maximize their share prices, even if all the shareholders may eventually die as a result. What such a myopic view of the bottom line has led few to ask, however, is “what multi-drug–resistant bacteria might mean for farm animals” or the people who eat them. Instead, corporate executives were so busy watching their incomes float like a butterfly, they didn't really care about how their actions were impacting the bee.

Apparently no one bothered to explain the birds and the bees to corporate America, especially the part about the bees. As a result, today the world suffers from Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, otherwise know as "the  vanishing of the bees." While scientists are still trying to determine the root causes of that problem, researchers have discovered that pesticides and fungicides being produced by corporations are contributing to the collapse. According to the study in PLOS One, for example, healthy bees that ate the fungicides – which were supposedly harmless to bees – were actually three times more likely to become infected with a parasite that's known to cause CCD. Since 2007, more than 10 million beehives in North America have collapsed, putting more than $30 billion in U.S. food crops at risk. In Japan and China, the effect of CCD has necessarily led fruit farmers to pollinate their crops by hand.  Without bees, pretty soon we’ll all be running around like Oliver Twist and his bowl of gruel: “Please  Corporate Sir, I want some more.”

As Beth Hoffman explained, “At the center of the debate is the pesticide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s “Round Up.” Rather than decreasing the amount of this pesticide, as Monsanto claimed it would, the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.”[ii]  Just imagine that summer corn on the cob, steaming hot, and lathered with melting butter and glyphosate. Now we just need a couple billion dollars to wash it all down.

Of course, that's just what these businesses have gotten. Such pesticides and herbicides have produced huge profits for the agribusinesses that develop them   Seed revenues, which have been genetically engineered to contain such herbicides and pesticides, have septupled (increased seven fold) since 1998, increasing profits from 0.1 billion in 1998 to close to $15 billion in 2012. Who needs bees when you're making billions?! [iii]

Moving up the scale from the biological to our own backyards, we find thousands of “Superfund Sites” mushrooming around the country.  A Superfund Site is just one way corporations pass off the costs of the environmental damage they produce – what they refer to as “externalities” – straight to their customers in the discomfort of their own homes.  

Corporations like GE use Superfund sites as dumping grounds for their toxic waste, and are designated areas “contaminated with hazardous substances,” and other "pollutants or contaminants."  The term “Superfund” is itself the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).  CERCLA was established with broad cleanup authority, to clean up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or welfare or the (natural) environment. This authority was given primarily to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states in reaction to the Love Canal Disaster and what would come to be called the Valley of the Drums.

The Love Canal Disaster
In the mid-1970s, “Love Canal became the subject of national and international attention after it was revealed in the press that the site had formerly been used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation).”  In 1976, two reporters for the Niagara Falls Gazette, David Pollak and David Russell, tested several sump-pumps near Love Canal and found toxic chemicals in them. Michael Brown, “who then investigated potential health effects by carrying forth an informal door-to-door survey in early 1978,” found “birth defects and many anomalies such as enlarged feet, heads, hands, and legs.” According to the EPA in 1979, “residents exhibited a "disturbingly high rate of miscarriages.” The EPA also found that “Love Canal can now be added to a growing list of environmental disasters involving toxics, ranging from industrial workers stricken by nervous disorders and cancers to the discovery of toxic materials in the milk of nursing mothers." Oh joy!

The Valley of the Drums, on the other hand, is a 23 acre (9.3 hectare) toxic waste site in northern Bullitt County, Kentucky, near Louisville, that was “named after the waste-containing drums strewn across the area. It is known as one of the primary motivations for the passage” of the CERCLA, or Superfund Act of 1980. There, the EPA announced an emergency cleanup of more than 17,000 drums that [where] allowed to be scattered there and of chemicals that had been dumped in open pits.[iv]

The way that CERCLA is supposed to work in such situations is that the EPA “may identify parties responsible for hazardous substances released into the environment and compel those parties to clean up the sites, or it may cleanup” those sites “itself using the Superfund (a trust fund) and cost recover from responsible parties by referring such matters to the U.S. Department of Justice.” Identifying the “parties responsible” is part of the “Polluter Pays Principle,” which is the principle that says, if you’re the polluter, you should pay – obviously. 

The problem is that the U.S. EPA has observed that this “polluter pays principle” has typically not been fully implemented in U.S. laws and programs.  During the 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration's laissez-faire policies made the implementation of such a principle largely ineffective.  During Reagan's two terms, only “16 of the 799 Superfund sites were cleaned up,” and only “$40 million of $700 million in recoverable funds from responsible parties were collected.” Today, on the other hand, the problem is complicated by the fact that drinking water and sewage treatment services are subsidized, and there are limited mechanisms in place to fully assess polluters for treatment costs. 

Since 1980, the EPA has put 1,600 sites on its priority list. Nationally, however, the EPA has identified some 47,000 hazardous waste sites in the United States.  As Superfund approached its 30-year anniversary, it was struggling to maintain funding, as it has since 1995, when its dedicated tax expired. The fund's balance shrank from $4.7billion in 1997 to $173million in 2007, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in July.[v] The effect of that reduction amounts to an increase in taxes on everyone else, since it is their tax dollars that must now be stretched further to cover the reduction. This is like reducing the number of trash collectors while increasing the amount of trash to be collected.  

Nor is such dumping limited to America.  Corporations are equal opportunity destroyers of environments and echo systems both at home and abroad.  On the other side of the globe, for example, we can see how increasingly impossible it is becoming for people in the Niger Delta to live in the world corporations are helping to shape. This is because the Niger Delta in Nigeria has become an environmental disaster zone after fifty years of oil exploitation. By some estimates, "one and a half million tons of crude oil have been spilled into the creeks, farms and forests" there while "the natural gas contained in the crude oil is burnt off in gas flares" thereby emitting as much greenhouse gases as 18 million cars." Such gas flares end up "releasing toxic substances into densely populated areas."[vi] According to a recent Greenpeace report, "although Shell operates in more than 100 countries, 40 percent of all its oil spills happen in Nigeria.  With the government of Nigeria content to look the other way, Shell reported double its 2007 number of oil spills in the country in 2008, and double the 2008 number in 2009. One estimate stated that "some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since Oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years"[vii]
All of this corporate destruction, however, pales in comparison to the worst of all – the destruction of the planet itself. That destruction has long been coupled with the drum beat of denial that echoes with the regularity of minting money.  The global warming deniers have lobbied hard to keep corporate earnings higher by putting every living thing on the planet at higher risk. The Kyoto Protocols, for example, which were designed to decrease the emission of carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, were successfully blocked by American corporate interests as soon as Clinton signed the agreement in 1997. The US Senate refused to ratify the Protocols because of the "potential damage to the US economy" that compliance might produce. Never mind the "potential damage to the" planet and everything on it that noncompliance may produce. 

The Senate also failed to ratify because the agreement excluded countries like India and China from having to comply with its emissions standards (so much for being a world “leader," America).  Likewise, the Bush administration objected to signing the protocol for similar reasons, as George W. Bush "claimed that the cost of following the Protocols requirements will stress the economy." And since Bush was busy lying to America so he could flatten two whole countries in order to find one man and dethrone another, there was no time or money left to clean up the planet.  All that Bush cared about instead was playing war and pushing through tax cuts for his buddies, tax cuts even his own economic advisers called “a terrible idea.”[viii]

Between the diabetes and the cancer, and the bankruptcies and the bailouts, I’m having a hard time determining which "goods and services" Mamet is referring to exactly, that he thinks we "can't live without." If you're not getting trampled to death trying to buy those "goods and services" or poisoned to death by the environmental pollution that results from making and shipping them to Wal-Mart, the items themselves might kill you. One pharmaceutical company, for example, reportedly paid $80 thousand in fines for knowingly releasing to the public a drug it knew was deadly.  Sugar, tobacco, alcohol and high fructose corn syrup, for that matter, are certainly not items people add to their diet in order to improve their figures or their health. On the other hand, an ever growing array of anti-depressants are now marketed to improve our mental health by increasing our suicidal tendencies. I feel happier already.

 As time marches forward, and humanity marches off a cliff of its own making, the question is not whether people can live without the goods and services that many corporations provide, as Mamet contends, but whether there is anything on the planet that can survive the process by which those corporations provide such goods and services. Indeed, people applaud the rise of their investment portfolios even as the world is falling to pieces all around them as a result.  The reckless pursuit of economic "growth" has led humanity to construct for itself an environmental guillotine,  and chasing the holy grail of the former is only helping to ensure the latter will come crashing down on all of our heads soon enough.

[iii] Id.
[vi] See the Documentary Poison Fire: Oil and Gas Abuse in Nigeria
[vii] Power, Inc, by David Rothkopf page 321

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Christianity teaches people to believe that the best in life comes only after you die.