Monday, August 13, 2007
The Religion of Global Capitalism
From Colossians Remixed by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh:

Global Capitalism is the most recent (and most virulent) chapter in a story that has its roots in the age of discovery, the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment. This is the story of progress, which proclaims with all the certainty of faith that civilization will blossom, peace will reign, and we will enter into an age of prosperity if we allow human reason to freely investigate the world by means of the scientific method and transform the world through technological power. If we do these things, then we will realize our highest aspiration, economic growth. This belief in the ineluctable progress of autonomous humanity is the underlying faith or religion of Western culture.

Now this grand tale of progress is a myth that requires faith at the best of times, but especially when none of its promises have been realized. International tensions have increased over the last one hundred years, the environment continues to be raped, and the rise of prosperity for the wealthy has been accompanied by increased poverty, starvation, homelessness and misery for the majority of the world's population. There is something wrong with this story.

The story's foundational assumptions themselves require faith. For example, is it self-evidently true that a limited, finite world can sustain unlimited economic growth? Can we provide an empirical justification for the belief that economic prosperity for the controllers of capital will necessarily result in increased prosperity for all? Doesn't it require faith to believe that economic growth is the driving force of history? And on what basis, other than a perversely blind, self-interested faith, can we justify the assumption of global capitalism that it is permissible to ruin one place or culture for the sake of another?

Globalization isn't just an aggressive stage in the history of capitalism. It is a religious movement of previously unheard of proportions. Progress is its underlying myth, unlimited economic growth its foundational faith, the shopping mall (physical or online) its place of worship, consumerism its overriding image, "I'll have a Big Mac and fries" its ritual of initiation, an global domination its ultimate goal.


I was especially struck by this question: "Is it self-evidently true that a limited, finite world can sustain unlimited economic growth?"

I don't see how any sane person can possibly answer in the affirmative. Global capitalism is predicated on continual growth. It must grow to survive. And yet how is it possible to suppose that unending growth is even possible when we are dealing with a finite world of limited resources? At some point our economy will have to stop growing. The capitalistic system will have to come to an end. And as soon as we acknowledge this, we must realize that every minute we prolong the system we have now, we are borrowing against our descendent's future. Unless we figure out how to live sustainably now, we are condemning our children and grandchildren (though perhaps centuries removed) to even greater poverty - leaving it to them to clean up the mess we've made and live off the scraps we've left for them.

So if no sane person can say that unlimited economic growth is possible in a world of limited resources, does that mean that true believers in the religion of global capitalism ought to be institutionalized?

Just kidding... kind of. ;-)

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posted by Mike Clawson at 7:16 PM | Permalink |


19 Comments:


At 8/14/2007 01:57:00 AM, Anonymous Miko

Some interesting questions. Although capitalism and religion actually have little in common.

I was especially struck by this question: "Is it self-evidently true that a limited, finite world can sustain unlimited economic growth?"

I don't see how any sane person can possibly answer in the affirmative.


I'm willing to take that as a challenge. ;-)

First off, no: it's not self-evident. But it is conceivable. The idea that it's not comes from assuming that the goalposts aren't moving, when history teaches us that they are. Poverty is probably the best example: we've had about the same percentage living below the poverty line for as long as we've been collecting statistics on it, but I'd rather be living in what is defined as poverty in America today than in what was defined as upper class one thousand years ago. Let's look at infrastructure: the reason that we can potentially keep the trend going 'forever' is that we can conceivably keep drawing more energy out of less material until we achieve a sustainable model (i.e., solar--the Sun is giving out energy whether we tap it or not and once it's gone 'forever' really ceases to have meaning for us).

Historically, our technological abilities in many areas have been doubling about every eighteen months. Since it takes two parents nine months to make one child (ruling out twins, assuming one-partner-per-person, etc.), it takes at least eighteen months to double the population as well. So unless we hit an insurmountable unforseen technological barrier, we should be able to tread water, so to speak, even if our resources are dwindling.

This then translates directly into economics as well. While supply-and-demand may guide prices, it's not guiding value. Based on what it is made of and how it is made, a DVD selling for 20$, for example, has a value of no more than $1.50 (or perhaps $2.00 if it's an obscure small batch printing), which is where figures claiming that the richest x% control y% of the wealth come from. Even if all three can be converted into units of dollars, it's absurd to compare something like a DVD to a dozen Big Macs or to a sack of rice. Starvation, poor sanitation, and ignorance worldwide are huge problems, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the problem is the x% 'hogging' all of the resources.

While I'm at it, to look at some of the other questions:
Can we provide an empirical justification for the belief that economic prosperity for the controllers of capital will necessarily result in increased prosperity for all?
No, in fact it probably won't, unless closely regulated.

Doesn't it require faith to believe that economic growth is the driving force of history?
No. I'd say it would require some sort of econometrics study. I suspect that very few of the people who claim this would accept faith as a valid epistemic method.

 

At 8/14/2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Garet Pahl

Is it self-evidently true that a limited, finite world can sustain unlimited economic growth?"

Yes. Ideas are the currency of capitalism, not matter. You are presupposing materialism. Can I recommend reading the book of Proverbs repeatedly.

 

At 8/14/2007 04:29:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Garet, until people can eat ideas and run cars on ideas, capitalism still has a lot to do with the material resources we consume.

 

At 8/14/2007 05:31:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Miko, thanks for taking up the gauntlet. :)

You said,
"Although capitalism and religion actually have little in common."

I'd disagree. I think Walsh & Keesmaat do a good job in their book of demonstrating that the ideology of global capitalism bears many of the same sociological markers as religion. Quoting Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld, they note that global capitalism, like religion, makes use of things like icons, image, logos, songs, "churches" (i.e. malls), and ideology. And all this, they point out, is aimed not just at selling products, but at causing individuals and societies to fundamentally redefine what is important and what is of value all over the planet.

And again, as with religion, global capitalism's belief system is based more on ideology and faith than on hard evidence (which is what the section quoted in this post was about).

Anyhow,I don't know about you, but all that seems pretty similar to religion to me.

"The idea that it's not comes from assuming that the goalposts aren't moving, when history teaches us that they are. Poverty is probably the best example: we've had about the same percentage living below the poverty line for as long as we've been collecting statistics on it, but I'd rather be living in what is defined as poverty in America today than in what was defined as upper class one thousand years ago."

But would you be up for being a poor person in a Third World country these days? The goal posts may be moving for a nation like the US, but what about a nation in sub-Saharan Africa? In many ways these people are worse off than they were 1000 years ago. On the global scale resources really are limited, and if some are consuming more, others necessarily will have less.

In other words, it seems obvious to me that we do ultimately live in a zero-sum economy. It may not seem that way now, but that is simply because we've not consumed all non-renewable resources yet. I've heard your argument about solar energy before, and it sounds good in theory, but reality is that even if you have unlimited sunlight, you still have limited land, water, minerals, flora/fauna, etc. You can't just create all of these things out of sunlight alone. Some things really will run out eventually.

Besides which, your scenario still called for "achieving a sustainable model" eventually, which is exactly what I'm saying. Eventually we'll have to figure out how to consume less. Our current system simply cannot go on indefinitely.

"Starvation, poor sanitation, and ignorance worldwide are huge problems, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the problem is the x% 'hogging' all of the resources."

And yet, when you look at the past two century's history of colonialism, international loans, and lopsided trade practices, that is exactly what the problem is. Truthfully, I don't quite understand what you're trying to say about DVD's and Big Macs, but regardless, the actual history of global economics indicates that wealthy nations have become so in part at the expense of the developing world.

"Doesn't it require faith to believe that economic growth is the driving force of history?"
No. I'd say it would require some sort of econometrics study.

I think we're talking about different things. Econometrics could give us data about when periods of economic growth have occurred, why, and what they produced - but saying that economics is the driving force of history has little to do with this sort of data. It's an ideological statement that assumes that human beings are primarily defined by and motivated by their consumption habits. It's a philosophy that reduces individuals to nothing more than consumers. It's a way of interpreting history that says that, in the end, everything boils down to economics.

Of course, economics are one significant part of the larger picture, but to say that they are the "driving force" seems exceptionally reductionistic to me. (Though of course it's nothing new - this was Marx's big mistake too after all.) It does seem to me to be a statement that would have to be taken on faith.

 

At 8/14/2007 06:05:00 PM, Anonymous monkeymind

Good post.

I would agree that global capitalism with its dogmatic faith in market forces has many hallmarks of religion.

It certainly requires human and animal sacrifices. Wendell Berry writes extensively on how the "total economy" requires that we be required to sacrifice entire landscapes, communities, and ways of life in exchange for putative future benefits. As in the term "National Sacrifice Area."

 

At 8/14/2007 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Anyhow,I don't know about you, but all that seems pretty similar to religion to me.

I'll agree with most of those points. I wouldn't call that religion, but I'll defer to your expertise in that area, if you like the term. ;-)

But would you be up for being a poor person in a Third World country these days? The goal posts may be moving for a nation like the US, but what about a nation in sub-Saharan Africa? In many ways these people are worse off than they were 1000 years ago. On the global scale resources really are limited, and if some are consuming more, others necessarily will have less.
No, I wouldn't really care for that sort of poverty at all, which is why I was careful to specify "American." I'll even agree that they're probably worse off for certain reasons (slavery comes to mind). But I don't see how this is inexorably linked to global capitalism.

Resources are limited, but we definitely don't live in a zero-sum world (I think you mean finite-sum, by the way: zero-sum would imply some people are getting less than nothing). The majority of the Earth's surface is uninhabited and we're currently paying people not to sell crops in the U.S. The problem isn't so much the resources as access to the resources. If I decide to skip dinner tonight, it'll do nothing to alleviate hunger in Africa. My point, basically, is that it's not entirely an issue of us using too many resources. We're not importing the crops of African nations. And exporting crops to Africa isn't really a viable long-term solution. These areas lack are starving because they lack infrastucture, which capitalism can help build.

And the goal-posts are moving in the Third World as well. Borlaug's dwarf wheat is crediting with saving a billion lives in Mexico, India, and Pakistan and he is now working to increase production in Africa and Asia. Potrykus' golden rice has saved millions more. (Incidentally, both dwarf wheat and golden rice are fiercely opposed by anti-globalization activists, for reasons I've never understood.) Developments like these clearly show that the problem is not so much insufficient resources as insufficient efficiency in developing and using resources.

And yet, when you look at the past two century's history of colonialism, international loans, and lopsided trade practices, that is exactly what the problem is.
Other than colonialism, I'm not sure why you think these are causing the problems. Can you elaborate?

Of course, economics are one significant part of the larger picture, but to say that they are the "driving force" seems exceptionally reductionistic to me.
Agreed. I am, by the way, undecided on this issue, because I think it's incredibly complex. Saying capitalism is a panacea is definitely oversimplifying, but claiming that it's a cancer out to destroy the world is equally wrong. As an example: child labor in sweatshops is obviously bad. But outlawing child labor in sweatshops leads to children in the streets begging money or food from people who are themselves starving as well, which is worse. As bad as they are, sweatshops have no trouble finding employees because they're typically the best job around. Simple answers are a myth.

 

At 8/15/2007 11:30:00 AM, Anonymous monkeymind

Miko:

A couple of comments on agriculture and the "green revolution."
As you point out, the problem of hunger is way more complex than a simple supply problem. So focusing on solutions that increase dependency on petroleum-based inputs, while de-skilling farmers de-emphasizing local adaptations and appropriate technology solutions, just seems incredibly wrong-headed.

A recent study suggests that organic ag produces comparable yields to conventional in developed countries, and increases yields in the developing world.
Organic IS more labor-intensive, but an influx of ex-farmers into urban areas really benefits no one but sweat shop owners.

In regard to golden rice, is there really proof that it HAS saved millions of lives, or only claims that it WILL. I could only find the latter on Google. Seems like a better way to go would be to provide incentives for veggie cultivation. As Michael Pollan points out, there are problems when we focus on eating nutrients instead of food.

One last misconception:
we're currently paying people not to sell crops in the U.S.
Actually since Earl Butz 86'd the Ever Normal Granary (love the name!) US ag policy has focused on subsidizing maximal production rather than supporting prices by manipulating supply. This benefits agribiz at the expense of family farmers, ensures low-cost supply of raw materials for processed junk food (Pollan had a scientist to a mass spectograph analysis of a McDonalds meal which revealed that it mostly consists of corn, the #1 subsidized crop in the US.) When processed junk food is cheaper than real food, you get an obesity epidemic, which exacerbates our health care crisis... and that's not even going into how many campesinos are forced off the land for every traincar load of cheap corn dumped on the Mexican market. Like the ecologists say, it's impossible to do just one thing when you mess with biotic systems.

 

At 8/15/2007 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Miko, are you familiar with the Jubilee Campaign, or with the term "Fair Trade"? I'm actually rather surprised you aren't aware of these issues already.

Jubilee has to do with canceling the international debts of Third World nations. The reality is that many of the African nations you mention lack infrastructure not because of a lack of capitalism, but precisely because of capitalism gone wrong. These countries cannot afford to build their infrastructure because the vast majority of their national incomes goes towards paying off huge amounts of interest on international loans given to them by wealthy nations during the past century (usually under highly unjust and suspect conditions). So while people starve and children go without healthcare and education, bankers in New York are getting rich off the debts of the poor.

There are too many aspects of this issue for me to describe here, but I'd encourage you to research it for yourself. The Jubilee website linked above is a good place to start.

Regarding Fair Trade, one of the most pervasive myths of the global capitalist ideology is that "free trade" (the opposite of fair trade) is good for all parties involved. However, as we've seen with NAFTA and other free trade agreements, the reality is that unrestricted trade results in a much larger advantage for stronger economies to increase their domination of weaker economies. Unrestricted global capitalism doesn't result in increased prosperity for all, it just gives wealthier nations more freedom to take advantage of nations that don't have as much economic or political clout. (Think of it as the Wal-Mart effect on a global scale.)

For instance, you mentioned exporting food to Africa. I don't know if you realized, but we actually do export food to Africa, and all over the world. This is because America, as a large wealthy nation, can afford to subsidize large cash crops like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans. We keep our prices on these products artificially low, which thereby undercuts farmers in developing countries who do not have these subsidies. The irony is that people in Africa have to buy food from America because it's cheaper than growing their own.

Or regarding sweatshops, yes a bad factory job is better than begging on the streets, but why is it that whenever I get into discussions about this people assume those are the only two possible options? Why not suppose that it would be possible for people to have a good factory job? If we, the consumers, start demanding more non-sweatshop made clothes, that's exactly what we'll have. That would be a good example of using capitalism in a way that actually serves justice rather than undermines it.

At any rate, it's all very complicated. And of course capitalism is the system we've got and it's not going to change overnight, so I'm not opposed to using its good qualities to bring about positive change. However, I think at its most basic level it's a fatally flawed system, precisely because it's dependent on unending growth. We can go back and forth with examples of how capitalism is helping or hurting people in the short term, but all of that is a moot point in the long term if our planet simply does not have the resources to sustain unending growth. By current estimates, it would take something like 11 planet earths for everyone to live at the same level of consumption as the average American. And yet the vision of global capitalism is precisely that everyone would eventually live at this level (or more).

You may have hope that increased technology will eventually make this possible, but I'm a little more skeptical. The evidence of the last century suggests that every technological advance comes with a price, whether to our health or our environment or our cultures or our quality of life. Every problem we solve with technology tends to unleash a whole new round of problems to solve. (For some good thinking on this, I'd check out some essays by Wendell Berry.)

So, for instance, Borlaug's wheat may help fight hunger, but of course it comes at the cost of local economy, environmental sustainability, and social inequalities. It's always a trade off.

Anyhow, we of course need to continue pursuing these kind of solutions, but personally I think we also need to start imagining an entirely different system altogether.

 

At 8/15/2007 05:21:00 PM, Blogger TXatheist

Hope you are all well. The front page of Sunday's newspaper. :)

http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/local/08/12/0812emergent.html

 

At 8/15/2007 05:22:00 PM, Blogger TXatheist

/stories/local/08/12/0812emergent.html

sorry it's didn't wrap.

 

At 8/15/2007 05:26:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for the heads up Mark! I've been to that Mosaic church in Austin. They're good folks and their pastor, Don Vanderslice is really nice (and intelligent) guy. Very socially progressive and creative in their worship as well.

You should do a "Church Rater" survey of them sometime!

 

At 8/17/2007 08:23:00 AM, Blogger TXatheist

I will consider it but based on my understanding of you and your comment it would be a boring writeup. I'd probably enjoy it and appreciate it too much :) I did read the article and my appreciation of people like you has increased even more.

 

At 8/20/2007 09:38:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Thanks for the comments, monkeymind and Mike C. I hadn't check back on the comments here for a few days, but to address some of your notes:

A recent study suggests that organic ag produces comparable yields to conventional in developed countries, and increases yields in the developing world.

I wasn't really comparing organic and conventional methods, but a large part of my point was that we can expect yields to increase in the future due to research like this. Better farming methods and GM can go hand-in-hand; being 'unnatural' doesn't make things bad any more than being 'natural' makes them good.

In regard to golden rice, is there really proof that it HAS saved millions of lives, or only claims that it WILL.

Sorry about that--meant WILL on this particular one. Last I checked it was still being held up for some esoteric reason and isn't even being consumed yet.

As Michael Pollan points out, there are problems when we focus on eating nutrients instead of food.

That article comes across as a mildy paranoid anti-scientific rant to me. It lost me when it claimed we should go back to eating "natural" things like breakfast cereal. In parts of the world where rice is the beginning and end of diet, working on putting nutrients in rice is a rather important thing, even if it's only a temporary solution. Suggesting that the purpose of eating food is "pleasure, say, or socializing" is just silly in the context of places where malnutrition is among the leading causes of death. It smacks of longing for the idealized past that never really existed.

Miko, are you familiar with the Jubilee Campaign, or with the term "Fair Trade"?... So while people starve and children go without healthcare and education, bankers in New York are getting rich off the debts of the poor.

Yes, I support both. I've always believed that hedge funds are dangerous on a number of levels, in large part due to manipulations like these.

(Think of it as the Wal-Mart effect on a global scale.)
Wal-Mart is successful because customers prefer it over alternatives. Wealthy consumers may be willing to pay more for the ambiance of a mom-and-pop store, but I don't think that it's right that they use the legal system to force people who are looking under the sofa cushions for milk money to do the same. Translating this back to your analogy, change of this sort rarely comes to cultures unless a majority want it.

I don't know if you realized, but we actually do export food to Africa, and all over the world.

I know. But we do a lousy job of it. And we'll never be able to do it in sufficient quantities. You've got a "Buy Local" logo in your left page column, so presumably I don't have to go into why this is preferable.

So, for instance, Borlaug's wheat may help fight hunger, but of course it comes at the cost of local economy, environmental sustainability, and social inequalities. It's always a trade off.

I'm not sure those criticisms are valid. (I note that the wiki page you linked followed most of the claims by "attribution needed.") And one of the cricisms is that it would end subsistence farming, which I fail to see as a problem in the first place. Thoreau-ean philosophy aside, if someone wants to farm in a way which is better for them financially and better for the planet environmentally, I fail to see the problem.

Or regarding sweatshops, yes a bad factory job is better than begging on the streets, but why is it that whenever I get into discussions about this people assume those are the only two possible options? Why not suppose that it would be possible for people to have a good factory job? If we, the consumers, start demanding more non-sweatshop made clothes, that's exactly what we'll have.

If wages are driven higher, the shops would move out of the countries. It is possible to have good jobs, but they aren't created solely by people wanting them. The U.S. had quite a long sweat-shop period before good jobs became available and I've heard it suggested that this may be a necessary developmental stage, although I don't know enough about the issue to see why this would be the case.

 

At 8/21/2007 06:53:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Wal-Mart is successful because customers prefer it over alternatives."

Customers prefer it because it has lower prices. But it has lower prices because of all kinds of unjust (though legal) business practices, for instance:
- using slave labor and/or sweat shop labor to supply its products
- blocking unionization among it's workers
- not providing adequate health care benefits for employees and instead passing on that expense to tax payers (the Wal-Mart employee manual actually encourages it's full time employees to go on public assistance!)
- using it's size to force suppliers and manufacturers to sell them their products at drastically reduced prices (often below cost) which no other retailer can compete with
- using it's clout to get financial incentives from local city governments that no other local businesses receive (this is going on in my own community right now)

(For more on the evils of Wal-Mart, I'd recommend the documentary "Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price".)

I grew up in an impoverished rural area and I can sympathize with those who can't afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart, but at the same time, I don't think it is justifiable for our lower prices to come at the expense of people living in far greater poverty somewhere else in the world (or at the expense of Wal-Mart's own employees).

I mean c'mon, this has nothing to do with "ambiance" and everything to do with whether we choose to pay a fair and living wage to the people who make our clothes and our toys and our food. The same issue holds true on the global scale as well.

And if you're right that a majority of a culture has to want change for it to happen, well, then that's exactly why I try to raise awareness about these issues with people.

"if someone wants to farm in a way which is better for them financially and better for the planet environmentally, I fail to see the problem."

But that's exactly it, converting local subsistence farms into cash crops like wheat and rice is not better for the farmers financially or for the environment. It's not the local farmers that get to suddenly start growing these genetically modified grains. It's huge agribusiness companies that come in and buy up all the land, and then hire the farmers at below-living wages to work the land they once owned (a practice condemned repeatedly both in the Old Testament and by Jesus). The poor are thus left dependent on handouts and foreign aid to gain access to these new crops.

Of course, the solution is not simply to leave the farmers at a subsistence level. As with sweatshops, our options are not simply between bad or worse. We could teach local farmers to grow their current crops in a more sustainable and productive way. We could provide them with micro-loans so they can diversify their crops, buy new equipment, and expand their markets. You might say that difference between this approach and Borlaug's wheat is the difference Confucius noted between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish (sometimes literally).

And these huge agribusiness farms with genetically modified cash crops are not better for the environment either. The lack of diversity degrades the quality of the soil, and the pesticides and herbicides used on such farms poisons the water and land all around them. Again, what if instead of importing our environmentall destructive Western farming habits over there, we taught them how to farm in a way that is both ecologically sustainable and agriculturally productive right from the get go? It's not like we don't know how, we just lack the will to implement it in our own country. But why should we impose our own dysfunctions on them? Why not teach them how to do it right?

"If wages are driven higher, the shops would move out of the countries."

Not if the demand is for fair wages no matter where they are made. If Wal-Mart (for instance) refuses to buy any products made at sub-standard wages, no matter what country they're made in, it will not help those factories to pack up and move elsewhere - the same condition would apply no matter where they went.

"The U.S. had quite a long sweat-shop period before good jobs became available and I've heard it suggested that this may be a necessary developmental stage, although I don't know enough about the issue to see why this would be the case."

It's not a necessary developmental stage. That's a common conservative myth. I've studied that period of US history, and the reality is that exploitative labor practices didn't come to an end because the free market "matured" any. They came to an end through social and political action - through the passing of laws (like the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and worker safety regulations, among many other reforms) and the organizing of unions - the very things that modern proponents of free trade decry as socialism or government meddling. Labour conditions got better in this country because the people demanded it and the government enforced it. And that's the only way things will get better globally these days as well.

Sorry for the long reply, but thanks for being willing to engage. :)

 

At 8/21/2007 07:02:00 PM, Anonymous monkeymind

Hey Miko, glad you dropped by again.
Sorry you found the Pollan piece a paranoid rant, admittedly it was aimed more at the problems with our own food system rather than the developing world's. I recently read "The Ommivore's Dilemma" so that was in my mind more than the actual piece I linked to, which probably wasn't the best example of his writing.

Anyhoo, I just think there are tons of good reasons to support small farmers in developing nations who are resisting WTO/World Bank pressure to follow in the foodsteps of industrial ag. We can't afford the oil, for one thing.
When it comes to complex, locally adapted systems like food webs, it just makes more sense to look for locally adapted solutions that emphasize local control and local expertise. Because in an ecological system, it's impossible to do just one thing. If you pull one problem out of the system and try to synthesize a magic bullet to fix it, the magic bullet may miss its mark and destroy an aspect of the system that was functioning reasonably well.
In regards to golden rice, those who are suffering from Vitamin A deficiency because they don't have access to vegetables or dairy products from grass-fed animals are malnourished, plain and simple. It goes beyond just Vitamin A. Once you have spent millions putting beta-carotene in their polished rice, will you spend millions more to engineer rice with folic acid, Omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols, and whatever essential nutrients are going to be discovered in the next decades? Hey, I have a better idea, let's spend those millions figuring out a way to give every pre-schooler 2 tablespoons of sweet potato or squash or a half-cup of leafy greens per day. Then they'll get Vitamin A plus a bunch of other nutrients. The only problem with that of course, is that it's not going to make any money for Monsanto.
If you think I'm engaging in my own paranoid rant, consider that in the recent Farm Bill passed by the House, millions will be spent to keep the price of high fructose corn syrup low, while a program to give people in inner cities access to fresh produce was axed (many people in inner cities live miles from the nearest supermarket with a produce department)

 

At 8/22/2007 05:08:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Sorry for the long reply, but thanks for being willing to engage. :)

Sure thing. And since I'm answering two sets of replies each time, ditto about the long replies.

Walmart does:
- using slave labor and/or sweat shop labor to supply its products

True. But that's not really exclusive to WalMart.

- blocking unionization among it's workers
Also true. But they get a lot of help from the fact that most of the workers don't want to be unionized. They have a high turnover rate in their employees since a large percentage are there to do minimum wage work until something better comes along. Paying union dues on minimum-wage work doesn't usually make much sense. Again, this isn't an issue exclusive to WalMart: they're not going to pay employees more than minimum wage no matter how good a union they have, so working to raise the minimum wage itself would seem to be a more effective strategy.

- not providing adequate health care benefits for employees and instead passing on that expense to tax payers
I've always been in favor of nationalized social health care anyway, but that's a separate issue. For the record, those employees would be getting health care on taxpayer expense if they were unemployed too, so what WalMart is really doing is not so much passing on the expense as not taking the expense away. In any event, the majority of taxes are paid by the wealthy and the majority of WalMart shoppers are lower-class, so you can think of it as the rich helping the poor to buy groceries, if you like.

- using it's size to force suppliers and manufacturers to sell them their products at drastically reduced prices (often below cost) which no other retailer can compete with

I don't know the details of this, but I can guarantee you that their suppliers aren't selling them products below cost.

But that's exactly it, converting local subsistence farms into cash crops like wheat and rice is not better for the farmers financially or for the environment...It's huge agribusiness companies that come in and buy up all the land, and then hire the farmers at below-living wages to work the land they once owned

I think I'm missing something here: how does introducing new crops lead to farmers losing their land?

We could teach local farmers to grow their current crops in a more sustainable and productive way. We could provide them with micro-loans so they can diversify their crops, buy new equipment, and expand their markets.

These all sound like excellent things to do, but how is that incompatible with introducing Borlaug's wheat? It's a crop diversification. It has a stronger stalk to prevent collapse, ensuring a maximal productive harvest, as well as producing more stalks per head. It's more disease resistant. From 1944 to 1963, Mexico's wheat production went up sixfold as a result, making the country finally self-sufficient in wheat production. This doesn't have to be an issue of changing what crops are grown, just of changing how they are grown.

Not if the demand is for fair wages no matter where they are made. If Wal-Mart (for instance) refuses to buy any products made at sub-standard wages, no matter what country they're made in, it will not help those factories to pack up and move elsewhere - the same condition would apply no matter where they went.

The companies also having shipping costs. If they paid the same amount in wages everywhere, they'd move the factories closer to the U.S.

It's not a necessary developmental stage. That's a common conservative myth.

I've always suspected that, but as I said I don't know the details. Now, of course the changes came when the people demanded them; but does it necessarily follow that the changes would have come if people had demanded them earlier? Or would the companies have just said "sorry, we can't do that" no matter what the public threatened? For example, if for some bizarre reason we were to tell a company that we'd boycott it, etc., until it set up a permanent colony on the moon, things would be bad for the company and bad for those that want its products, but nothing productive would come of it because the request is simply beyond the company's capabilities. Over that period, technologies and our national infrastructure evolved and it's entirely possible that these changes were necessary to support better working conditions. The argument seems less likely in the modern third-world, but it's a conceivable possibility. I'm completely in favor of making things better; I just worry that many advocates are trying to achieve this by destroying what little already exists. In the U.S., we moved from sweatshops to better jobs (theoretically), but we didn't bulldoze the sweatshops as an intermediate step.

We can't afford the oil, for one thing.
Just to make sure we're on the same page, where is the oil coming into this?

When it comes to complex, locally adapted systems like food webs, it just makes more sense to look for locally adapted solutions that emphasize local control and local expertise.

I disagree, to an extent. Not all parts of the world were created equal. Maybe I'm misinterpretting, but this seems sort of like a "It is this way, so it should be this way" argument to me. Now, I'm not advocating a global magic bullet, but I definitely think that it's beneficial to look at these local areas and ask what we can introduce to make things better. Homer Atkins kind of stuff. "Your wheat is falling over? Hm. How can we make the stalk stronger? Not enough vitamin A in your diet? What can we do about that?" etc.

It goes beyond just Vitamin A. Once you have spent millions putting beta-carotene in their polished rice, will you spend millions more to engineer rice with ...whatever essential nutrients are going to be discovered in the next decades?
Yes. Although it doesn't have to stick with just rice. Don't forget that this work is valuable to enhancing the understanding of geneticists, so they're going to do it anyway. Making better produce seems more useful than other things they've tried (glow-in-the-dark corn comes to mind), so if we can get humanitarian benefits as a free side effect, I'm all for it.

Hey, I have a better idea, let's spend those millions figuring out a way to give every pre-schooler 2 tablespoons of sweet potato or squash or a half-cup of leafy greens per day.

Why not try both? After the Iraq war, squabbling about millions seems rather petty. ;-) Of course, the thing to be wary of with this one is the whole throw-money-at-it-and-it'll-go-away paradigm: reality doesn't usually work this way. The March of Dimes was great after we already had a polio vaccine, but it wouldn't have helped much with developing one in the first place. If you throw money at it now, what you're most likely to get is a program that gives people fish instead of teaching them to fish, to borrow the earlier analogy. Golden rice, on the other hand, is something that acts like regular rice, so the populace will already be experts at growing it, etc. I'm not advocating we stop there. By all means, let's bring in the leafy greens and see what we can do to give them a foothold there, but we're going to have to accept the fact that we're going to have to tinker with local systems in order to do it.

The only problem with that of course, is that it's not going to make any money for Monsanto.
I normally don't like to defend Monsanto, but I should point out that both Monsanto and Syngenta have released golden rice under a Humanitarian Use License: any farmer making less than 10,000$US per year on the crop pays absolutely no royalties on it and is allowed to keep the seed free of cost. They may make some money from big ag, but they're not taking a cent from small farmers who are growing their crops primarily for their own consumption.

If you think I'm engaging in my own paranoid rant
Not at all. You and Mike C are both doing an excellent job of defending your positions rationally. Plus no one's mentioned Frankenstein yet, which is always a plus when talking about GMO/GEO. I agree with most of what you're both saying and I know how fragile ecosystems are, but I have to think that opposing scientific and techonological advances like these can't be helping the situation.

while a program to give people in inner cities access to fresh produce was axed
Pretty bad, but not so bad as the whole "ketchup is a vegetable" thing.

 

At 8/23/2007 03:05:00 PM, Anonymous monkeymind

Hey Miko,

Just a few more thoughts/responses, and then I think I will have said all I need to say on this topic for now.

We can't afford the oil, for one thing.
Just to make sure we're on the same page, where is the oil coming into this?

In the US, industrial ag uses more petroleum than personal transportation. That's not just the oil to power the tractor and discer, but the fertilizer and pesticide, and the energy costs to turn corn into raw materials for junk food, and the extra transportation involved in separating out livestock production from the family farm into CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).

this seems sort of like a "It is this way, so it should be this way" argument to me.
No, I'm not advocating that at all. What I'm advocating is that we look for appropriate technology solutions that empower the people they're meant to help.

You add:

Not all parts of the world were created equal.

Well, that's exactly my point. To get at the root of the Vitamin A deficiency problem, you'd have to look at what is causing the problem. Do you have any evidence that in the majority of areas where this is a problem, people are eating a monotonous diet of rice out of choice, or because of lack of access to fresh vegetables that are a traditional part of the local diet? I really doubt that lack of knowledge of how to grow or eat healthy vegetables is the problem in most areas. The only exception would be former nomads who got their beta carotene from dairy products. Even in these marginal areas, I think you could find some sort of crop of the leafy green type that would provide Vitamin A and a ton of other nutrients including calcium.
In fact, the pesticides and cultivation methods introduced by the Green Revolution might be a factor in reducing nutritional diversity in some areas. Industrial ag leads to monocultures, reducing intercropping and the availability of wild foods.
I asked
will you spend millions more to engineer rice with ...whatever essential nutrients are going to be discovered in the next decades?
You answered:
Yes
Now, Miko, think about this for a second. Maybe I'm assuming too much, but you don't seem the type of person who falls for the sales pitches of the nutritional supplements industry, but rather someone who follows sensible nutritional advice to eat a varied diet with fresh vegetables, whole grains, and protein. But when it comes to the developing world, you're OK with bandaid solutions that don't address the real problems of poor nutrition?

You add:
don't forget that this work is valuable to enhancing the understanding of geneticists, so they're going to do it anyway.

I think you hit the nail on the head there. Rather than a real solution to the problem of malnutrition, golden rice was an answer to the PR problems of the GMO industry. In particular it was a godsend to Monsanto, which had taken a terrible PR hit with its Terminator seed technology. You point out that the Golden Rice technology is being made available for free to small farmers, but compared to what Monsanto spends on advertising, I'm sure it's a drop in the bucket, and would provide a good foot in the door for future GMO products in those markets.

Regardless of who pays for it, spending millions to reproduce what local people can grow for a few dollars with cheaply available ingredients does not seem like a good use of money. That's leaving aside the question of how well the Vitamin A in golden rice is taken up in nutritionally compromised individuals, and how much rice they would need to eat to get the Vitamin in 1/2 cup of mustard greens or kale.

If you throw money at it now, what you're most likely to get is a program that gives people fish instead of teaching them to fish,
In what way is finding solutions that work for people locally using local expertise and labor, "giving them fish", while relying on solutions imported from laboratories far away "teaching them to fish." Microloans enabling rural women to enlarge their vegetable patches and market the extra produce at low cost to the urban poor are the type of thing I'm talking about. Whereas with promoting monoculture cereal crop cultivation, you are probably going to push the poorer peasants off the land, exacerbating the problem instead of helping.

To me, the story of golden rice is not of brave scientists finding solutions to world hunger, but more akin to the cynical marketing ploy of offering free baby formula to women in developing countries.

 

At 8/23/2007 04:52:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

But when it comes to the developing world, you're OK with bandaid solutions that don't address the real problems of poor nutrition?

I don't see why they couldn't address the real problems. The foods you mentioned aren't just decreed to be good arbitrarily. By figuring out what about them makes them good, we can transfer those good properties to other types of food as well.

I think you hit the nail on the head there. Rather than a real solution to the problem of malnutrition, golden rice was an answer to the PR problems of the GMO industry.

As someone who knows many scientists involved in these areas, I can tell you with complete confidence that none of them care at all about the PR problems of any industry.

provide a good foot in the door for future GMO products in those markets.
Yes, when people see that it works, they'll want more. The same thing will happen here as well. Currently we eat food that's developed through evolution and/or cultivation. Evolution serves the interests of the food's survival but does nothing to guarantee fitness for our own consumption. Cultivation is a step towards improve food for humans, but is a prolonged process. GM achieves the same aims as cultivation but does it faster. The switch from evolved food to GM food will come for the same reasons that we moved from caves to constructed shelters.

Regardless of who pays for it, spending millions to reproduce what local people can grow for a few dollars with cheaply available ingredients does not seem like a good use of money.

If these local alternatives were really conveniently available, the problem wouldn't exist in the first place. And don't forget that we may need to expand into some of the harsher terrains of the planet if the population keeps increasing; I'd like to have crops that can grow in a desert environment (for example) ready when we need them.

To me, the story of golden rice is not of brave scientists finding solutions to world hunger, but more akin to the cynical marketing ploy of offering free baby formula to women in developing countries.

But really that's just an ad hominen against an industry you don't like; the real question is whether it'll work. If it does, Monsanto is free to make up commercials saying "We ended world hunger" as far as I'm concerned.

 

At 8/25/2007 01:35:00 PM, Anonymous monkeymind

Miko:

Sorry if you felt I was maligning friends of yours involved in the GE field, I'm sure there are many who are motivated by a desire to help people as well as scientific curiosity. For those who control the funding of research however, PR is often a consideration. An entomologist friend of mine was offered funding for a research project on Integrated Pest Management with one string attached - the corporation reserved the right to quash the publication of the article if it turned out that their product was harmful to wildlife. I was shocked by this, but she was rather blase, apparently it is not THAT uncommon in her field.
Also I have met some of the international interns at the Agroecology program at UC-Santa Cruz, where I live, and they emphatically do not want to have an industrial ag system similar than the one in the US, imposed on them. I think you could do a little more research on exactly how unsustainable and unhealthy our industrial agriculture is. GMO's may have a place, but I think a go-slow approach is warranted.

You say:
If these local alternatives were really conveniently available, the problem wouldn't exist in the first place.
Well, I don't claim to know exactly what the problem is with Vit. A deficiency. It might be food culture, it might be Green Revolution monoculture, it might be poverty, it might be urbanization, but I really doubt that it is due to being unable to cultivate a Vit. A rich crop in the region in question as there are any number of them suited to widely varying climate and soil conditions.
It seems a shame that when we have finally developed enough computing power to analyze complex systems, we are still looking for simplistic answers instead of "solving for pattern" as ecologists advocate.

 

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