Economy of Degradation
Economic inequality, diminishing global resources, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss the list of global societal issues is extensive, and while there are both corporations and individuals that are complicit in exacerbating these symptoms, it should be understood that neither are the root cause.
The first thing we should look at is the word “economy”- thrifty management; frugality in the expenditure or consumption of money, materials, etc., to avoid waste. Coming from the Greek word oikonomos “management of a household” from oikos “house” + nomos “managing,” hence “managing of the household.”
When we understand the origin of the word economy and its definition we can see that the “economy” of today is in fact anything but, and could be more accurately considered an anti-economy. The reality of our current economical system is one of consumption for the sake of consumption to sustain continual growth, which is demonstrated when global economic “recovery” is seen as a return to growth.
“These are important steps toward the ultimate goal—-lasting stability and growth, shared stability and growth. Achieving that goal will require coordinated action to break the main chains of this crisis: weak sovereigns, weak banks, and weak growth.”
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund
The life blood of our economic model is money, and the chief measure of success from the confines of this system is monetary profits, regardless of how those profits are generated or at what environmental/human cost. If there is profit to be had, the environmental or human impacts are marginalised if they are considered at all.
Monsanto ranked 234 on the fortune 500 list for 2011, generated a profit of over $1.1 billion in 2010 and disregards all warning signs and hard evidence that the use of Roundup herbicide is damaging soil, is contaminating groundwater with a carcinogenic chemical it contains called glyphosate and even in low doses is killing human kidney cells.
Dow chemical pocketed over $2.3 billion in profits in 2010 and refuses to add to the $470 million compensation paid out in 1989 for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, one of the world’s worst-ever industrial catastrophes. In 2001 Union Carbide, liable for the disaster, was purchased by Dow Chemical, who has done little to improve the situation in the disaster-stricken zone. According to estimates, 500,000 people are still suffering from illnesses developed after the tragedy, including cancer, blindness and various birth defects. Union Carbide Corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company and with a criminal case against Union Carbide far from resolved, Dow Chemical is of the opinion that it has no responsibility to clean up the Union Carbide facility. Dow “never owned or operated the Bhopal plant site and Dow did not inherit any liabilities of Union Carbide Corp.” It appears you can purchase a mess and then walk clean away from it, leaving it as someone else’s problem to clean up.
We are losing global forests at a rate of 36 football fields per minute; cattle ranching has been the primary driver of deforestation in the Amazon Basin since the 1960s, in Latin America 65 percent of deforestation has been due to ranching/pasture. Between 1990 and 2000, 80 percent of deforestation in South America was a result of clearing land for large scale agriculture and pasture and for the same period was responsible for 17 percent of deforestation in Central America.
Cattle ranchers and agribusiness form a powerful lobby in Brazil, especially at the state level. Many of the country’s most influential politicians are linked to the industry, resulting in the congress voting to relax laws which are protecting the Amazon from deforestation.
Private prison companies are generating massive profits; the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with well over 3 percent of the population--more than seven million people--under a form of supervision. This, however, is not just a profitable business model in the U.S.A. with companies like the GEO Group providing prison services in the U.S., Australia, South Africa and Britain. For the 2011 year the GEO Group had total revenue in excess of $1.6 billion, with imprisonment being such a lucrative business it is unlikely that the social determinants of criminal behaviour will ever be seriously addressed by any government.
While it is easy to find examples of this type of aberrant behaviour of corporations and politicians, the solutions are rather more difficult for many to comprehend. It is not simply a matter of dismantling the offending corporation or removing corrupt politicians, for when the economic system rewards this conduct a new company or politician will spring up overnight to fill the void left and continue with this same disposition.
If it is profitable to cut down acres and acres of trees, then in an economical system that promotes profitability what exactly do we expect will happen? Nowhere in our current economic model is there an allowance for the health and well-being of our environment, while it is our environment that allows us to live on this planet, the economic drive for profit is not concerned with the consequences of degrading that environment.
Unfortunately it may take us reaching a social precipice in order to generate the kind of global community concern and understanding that is needed to investigate the foundational elements of our current economy, which will facilitate the structural changes needed to secure a sustainable future for our species.