7,000,000,000 and rising rapidly. 390ppm and rising rapidly.
These are the statistical results of a long term experiment. An experiment with very deep roots.
The latest research is telling us that for thirty thousand years or so our Cro-Magnon ancestors wandered happily; eating a healthy and varied diet, getting plenty of exercise, living in community with their relatives and friends and having lots of spare time to draw, sing, dance and worship their deities. Then our ancestors made a bargain with the earth. Some say it was a terrible deal – on both sides. The intensive cultivation of the earth enabled greater population density because it provided more food quantity. But studies of skeletons and teeth reveal that the more populous farmers were smaller, weaker and less healthy than their wandering ancestors. And an examination of the state of the earth in areas long inhabited by agricultural civilizations shows a deforested and barren landscape.
From wandering tribes to agriculture that first number went up from about 10 - 15 million to around 370 million at the time of the Black Death. Well beyond any population size that would be expected to occur naturally in a large bodied mammal. Studies of the population sizes of other human-sized mammals (similar because smaller critters - like ants - have a much larger natural population and larger mammals - like whales have a smaller natural population) seems to indicate that ecological balance occurs at no more than 10 - 15 million individuals.
The real take-off was yet to come. In the run of this experiment the dramatic results didn't occur until the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the joint-stock corporation. Productivity jumps exponentially with the development of things like fossil-fuel powered farm equipment. But the manufacture and distribution of these technological advances required the development of the most powerful machine ever invented by humans. The joint stock corporation.
The joint stock corporation is a marvelous machine. It is a massively effective device for scooping up large numbers of small investors into a behemoth worth billions of dollars. These investors are “owners” only in the sense that their small investments move up or down based upon the fortunes of “their” company. If they had the audacity to question the leadership of “their” company those leaders would tell them to go pound sand and sell their puny shares.
The thing that makes these machines really effective is something called “limited liability.” An owner of a small business, a sole proprietor, does not have this protection. If his company sells a defective product that makes a child sick he can be sued for everything he owns. Limited liability, on the other hand, means that if “your” company, for example, spews a cloud of toxic methyl isocyanate gas that kills 25,000 people and injures 200,000, you are only liable for the value of the stock you own and your loss is only if that value goes down. (The share price went from $48 to $32 in 1985. Then in 1999 the company was sold for $67 per share.)
The joint stock corporation is designed for liquidity. You don't even have to touch the physical stock certificates, they are just electronic bits. The time it takes to sell securities is the briefest instant. And the transaction costs are extremely low. Limited liability, liquidity and scalability have made joint stock corporations the summum bonum of our capitalist economy. The role of ownership is passive – limited to the buying and selling of shares and the accountability of management is limited by legal protection.
The rise of this machine is well illustrated in the change in automobile manufacture. There were originally more than a thousand auto manufacturers operating like small workshops where the vehicles were made in small quantities by skilled craftsmen by hand. And they were exclusive luxury goods owned by wealthy thrill seekers. By the 1920s this number was down to around a dozen large joint stock companies who were able to raise the amounts of liquid capital needed to build manufacturing facilities that expanded the market to where automobile ownership became the standard mode of transportation.
Joint-stock corporations have now become Masters of our modern civilization. Us civilized sophisticates are completely enmeshed within the products and conveniences provided by these profit generating machines – from the toothpaste we use in the morning, the toilets we flush, the automobiles we ride in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, on and on… and the jobs from which we get the money to buy all the products that give us life and support our lifestyle.
Some grumps have painted this complete and utter dependency as the life of abused children or spouses living under the control of a sociopathic power that only pretends to care about them when it suits its purposes. All the comforts and conveniences are the furnishings of a prison laboratory which, when working efficiently, keeps its inmates from considering escape. It is only when disturbing failures cannot be kept outside the laboratory walls that the prisoners sometimes wake sweating in the night disturbed by the unkind actions of their spouse.
This brings me back to that methyl isocyanate: in 1999, after years of legal battles, the joint stock corporation responsible for the disaster paid $470 million in "a full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liability." The U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 said the Indian victims had no legal standing and couldn't sue a U.S. corporation. Payments to the families of those who were killed averaged $2000.00 and to those injured, $830.00. All appeals to date have been dismissed. No one has been prosecuted. The site is still contaminated.
It is a marvelous machine. Little accountability or liability, tremendous liquidity, the ability to raise huge amounts of money from passive “owners” and no distractions from any kinds of human emotions like shame, grief, compassion, despair. After a court battle they pay a fine, muddy the waters with claims of sabotage and produce glossy brochures:
Some of the chemicals we make go directly into products used every day… Whether they are adding strength to stretch wrap, or smoothness to paint, removing static from laundry or simply making a teddy bear more cuddly, our products make great chemistry a part of daily life.The imprisoned victim asks about the 25,000 dead and the $2000 payments. The response is “No honey, you don’t understand. It’s very complicated what I do. Really beyond your understanding. There were some evil people who felt threatened by my success and sabotaged my factory. They are murderers and I will do everything I can to hunt them down and make them pay. Don’t fret yourself about those bad guys, I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of you. Don’t you see that I do all this for you: look at your nice house, clothes, the new car. Isn’t your teddy bear soft and cuddly!? Now go back to sleep. I’ll read you a fairy story by Milton Friedman about the Magical Free Market.”
This kind of strategic deception is standard in pathological narcissists. What is said is nearly 100% manipulative and the true intent is deeply concealed. If the joint stock corporation were a person this is the kind of person it would be. And this multi-billionaire, immortal sociopathic narcissist is encoded in the laws of the land as a "person." There are important legal conveniences that make this determination efficient but this designation has helped turn the joint stock corporation from a powerful tool into an even more powerful Master. It has also caused great harm to the word "person" and the legal rights of those living flesh and blood persons for whom that term should be reserved.
By design it is a machine that has no feelings, no soul, no humanity. It is designed to distance the living flesh and blood people who inhabit positions within it from the real life consequences of their behavior. From the poorly paid employee who is just "doing my job" to the highly compensated executives who may own thousands or millions of shares in "their" company; the joint stock corporation fosters narcissistic behavior and supports the commodification and monetization of their lives - both inner and outer.
This behavior is contagious. And not only in employees and managers. Victims can mimic their captors. What is deeply disturbing about this is that it seems to have infected the public life of our corporate oligarchical empire. It seems this contagion is spreading wildly. It is becoming more and more common in our cultural discourse, perhaps as a form of Stockholm syndrome, that more and more of the victims are becoming like their captors - strategic and narcissistic little corporate persons aiming solely at their own advancement and profit and having little or no concern for how their actions affect their relationships and communities.
Consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity here becomes a reflection of “lifestyles” that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label, as well as with attitudes and behaviors linked to where we shop, how we buy, and what we eat, wear, and consume..
The identity politics of the 21st century is then part and parcel of the infantilist ethos. It mistakes brand for identity and consumption for character while treating Americans as consumers of Brand USA rather than as the free citizens of a democratic republic.
– Benjamin Barber Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
The top 500 industrial corporations, which represent only one-tenth of one percent of all US companies, control over two-thirds of the business resources in the US and collect over 70 percent of all US profits. Internationally, the 1318 largest joint-stock corporations appear to own through their shares the majority of the world's "real" economy - representing 60 per cent of global revenues. (New Scientist “The Capitalist Network that Runs the World”)
We owe our lives and our livelihoods to these machines; they have made our civilization what it is today. The Green Revolution (of which that methyl isocyanate is an integral part) has miraculously increased the productivity of the earth to where we have the technical capability to adequately feed all 7 billion humans alive today. And advances in medicine and sanitation have improved the lives of many billions. The shiny, convenient products of advanced industrial technological productivity brought to us by the joint-stock corporation surround us, support us and protect us in all aspects of our lives. Airplanes! Computers! Shopping malls! Lifesaving medicines! Bananas in January in Alaska!
There is a price for this, of course. It’s a real Price bearing no relationship to the fairy tale “price” that the mythical Free Market produces from the “demand” of free, rational, well-informed consumers interacting with the “supply” of free, efficient, rational, productive suppliers. Yet it is this fairy tale "price" that determines our daily economic decisions. It is the "price" that economists consider in their models and calculations. The insanity is that there is almost no connection anymore to the reality of the earth in this "price."
In this laboratory/prison we never pay the full Price for anything we buy. But, since it is real, it is being paid - just not by us and not right now. Everyone is worried right now that the price of gas is going to make us so angry we will vote out anger, but that is not the real Price of gasoline. The real Price is being paid by the Ogoni and Ijaw in the Niger delta, by the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, by the increasing acidity in our oceans and by the increasing temperatures of the whole planet. In our corporate Magic Kingdom we have limited liability for these things at the fairy tale price of $4/gallon.
If we paid the real Price for the gas in our cars, the food we eat, the clothes we wear - if this computer was made by American Union labor with full benefits - we couldn't afford to live like we do.
And that is exactly the truth.
Our planet cannot afford 7 billion people rising by a billion every 12 years (it was 6 billion in 1999), and it cannot afford 390 ppm of CO2 and its continued rapid rise. The planet and all the suffering people in it cannot afford the true Price for the lifestyle joint stock corporations provide to those lucky enough to even be able to afford their false "price." The fairy tale “price,” according to the joint stock corporation, tells us the earth is worthless, human suffering is meaningless and government is a constraint that costs money to overcome – it’s more or less costly to buy politicians. Ethics, morals, anything of real, lasting value is reduced to a constraint that shows up on the ledger sheet as a cost of doing business and is targeted for reduction or, if possible, elimination.
basically everyone started being lulled into this strange sort of idea that markets are perfect, and rational people will always come up with the most economically beneficial solution… when I think of capitalism creating value, I think of it getting around constraints. What types of constraints? The constraints are physical constraints, or maybe legal constraints where the law really is sort of a dead letter or a bad idea. Like creating the wheel, you have to get around some of the constraints of gravity, or creating writing, getting around other constraints. I mean those are very beneficial ways of problem solving. The other constraints that people have started to view as just a minor problem for lesser people, are ethical constraints.I guess I just don’t have the stomach to reside happily within the prison/laboratory walls. My domestic tranquility is disturbed because I pay attention to scientists and their facts - the ones that aren’t bought off are very concerned about things like CO2 concentrations and the exponential function. But, I’m told, it’s just a bunch of complicated, boring math and science. And there are scientists who have facts that are different. So it’s not really something I should be concerned about.
- Jim Alexander former CFO of Enron Global Pipeline and Power
This prison/laboratory is very large and appears powerful. But, remember, it depends upon our continuing low self-worth and disempowerment to function.Our low self-esteem will be used against us; to keep us isolated and dependent. We suck, therefore we need all these consumer products in order to become semi-adequate. Our feelings of shame and responsibility will be used against us. It is important to remember in the face of this onslaught that we are good people. Good people being manipulated by massive powerful machines into behaving like them.
We are not narcissistic corporate persons. We can become empowered citizens. Strong, empowered citizens don't accept corporate booster speech at face value, they research the facts; they don't buy useless crap to make themselves feel better; they make their voices heard in the offices of their bought corporate politicians and they form durable, resilient communities.
Things are going to get much uglier before they get better. But they will, eventually, get better. The earth will survive.
Find a safe place. Find a support group of people who understand your situation and can empathize with you. On this Earth Day, 2012, find a patch of earth you can work with. Take the first small steps away from your own narcissistic corporate personhood. You can connect directly with the earth without any disempowering intermediary. Learn to successfully enrich the soil and grow useful things. Make your small plot an example of how to care for the earth and build the soil rather than exhaust and brutalize it in pursuit of profit.
And most importantly of all, find people you can be in community with. Find people you can work with for mutual support in the coming transition. We need each other.