The Systems View, Part I – The Environment and Corporations

A recent edition of the S.F. Chronicle contained a story on pensions that mentions social security “reform” and a book review on the possibility of environmental collapse. On the surface, they seem entirely separate. But an examination of the deeper system impacts shows that the issues are inextricably interwoven — and the social security “reform” is really social security deform.

Originally published 2005

The Sunday, 9 Jan 2005 edition of the San Francisco chronicle contains a couple of articles on the environment and pensions that appear to be entirely unrelated, on the surface. But when you look at things from the standpoint of General Systems Theory and examine the deeper system, the problems those articles describe turn out to be entirely interconnected.

The Environment

The first article, by a teacher named Troy Jollimore at California State University, Chico, is a book review entitled “How Societies Commit Suicide” (page E1). The book is Collapse, by Jared Diamond. That book chronicles the downfall of civilizations who destroyed the very ecosystems that sustained and supported them. In other words, they found out the hard way that their supply of resources was not inexhaustible.

One of the more interesting features about that book, according to the reviewer, is the author’s conclusion that those civilizations share a tendency to “cling stubbornly to their core values,”  refusing to examine them or consider change, even in the light of changing of circumstances — and such societies are unlikely to survive.

In our present circumstances, the reviewer summarizes the author’s claim:

“(We are finding it) difficult to revise or reject core values (including the materialistic consumerism that is motivating the depletion of our own nonrenewable resources, and the capitalistic individualism that encourages skepticism toward government but not big business), even when there pursuit can be demonstrated to be deeply harmful.”

The reviewer goes on to say:

“Diamond places a good deal of responsibility on the American public for having failed to exert political and consumer power to curb the anti-environmental excesses of various industries.”

The reviewer takes exception with Diamond, on this point, as do I. After all, what “power” is it that the American consumer has? Political power? Hardly. Money dominates the election process and corporations provide the mass of the money, even when it sometimes masquerades as “individual contributions”.

And consumer power? Again, no. Since 1998, I’ve been calling for a boycott on a substance that is effectively a metabolic poison. (See What’s Wrong With Partially Hydrogenated Oils?) The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been trying to get it outlawed since 1994. And the science goes farther back than that . How successful has those efforts been? Judge for yourself. The FDA managed  relatively weak labeling law that takes effect in 2006, but which has a big enough loophole that the problem will not entirely go away.

The notion of “consumer power” begs several critical questions:

  • How do we finance the massive public outreach necessary to educate all of the consumers needed to effect a boycott?
  • Government funding could work, of course — but where would they get money, and how can knowledgeable people acquire the political influence to make it happen, in the face of massive corporate lobbying?
  • Since there’s no profit in taking that action, only an extremely-well financed non-profit could do it. But even then, how could it compete with the dozens and scores of profit-making corporations that are advertising massively unhealthy products and making them sound like the best thing ever?
  • Why should we spend enormous amounts of money telling everyone about ingredients in the food supply that are manifestly unhealthy, and make them read labels conscientiously to avoid the stuff, when we could and should simply make it illegal?
  • Even if consumer action were effective, why should the American public live with the childhood obesity and epidemic levels of disease that these substances are causing?

Clearly, protection of the consumer is what government is all about. To underscore the point: Europe and Canada have both outlawed partially hydrogenated oils. And they’ve made genetically modified foods illegal, as well. But we can’t even get genetically modified foods labeled in America. Basically, the political power of the average consumer is all but non-existent, compared to corporate influence.

The book’s reviewer rightly has such thoughts in mind when he says:

“(the author) does not convince when he claims that businesses are obligated to maximize profits at the expense of the environment, simply because they are by nature profit-maximizing enterprises”

Here, however, the reviewer has overlooked a deep, systemic connection that derives from the pressure that financial markets exert on corporations. Perhaps more importantly, he has overlooked the fact that we the people are unwitting accomplices in creating that problem — and that Bush’s proposed “reform” of social security will exacerbate the problem to an unimaginable degree.

That will be subject of the next post:


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    1. The Systems View, Part II – Financial Markets and Corporate Short-Term Thinking | May 16, 2017 (5:45 pm)

      […] In Part I of this series, I argued that corporations are the major force in the destruction of the environment, that the average citizen has little political influence, and that the average consumer has little economic influence. This post shows how financial markets are putting irresistible pressure on corporations, how we are unwittingly complicit in that problem. The third and final part of this series then shows how the proposed social security “reform” will work to deform our environment and our economy even further. […]

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