Sunday, June 26, 2011

Government, industry, and proxies

In a recent comment on a previous post, it was argued that with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the government is on our side. This may be true to a certain extent; indeed, the US EPA has jurisdiction over some of the most important pieces of legislation to ever come out of Congress - the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (part of it). It is also clear that there are employees of the US EPA that truly do care about the environment, and value the data and numbers that science provide, and want to see those data and numbers effectively understood and acted upon. (I know of one personally.) Yet a government agency that works within a government-industry system of violence towards nature can in no way put a halt to environmental destruction; it may only serve to quell it at times.

As I have written about previously, we have surrounded ourselves with proxies of all sorts - we rely on others to grow our food, we rely on others to make sure we are drinking safe water, we rely on others to make shoes for us, we rely on old white men sitting in rooms making decisions about where our money is spent, whether for education or war. As soon as we give proxies, we lose our ability to have adequate control over what is done with our confidence. So, we end up with genetically-modified foods whose impacts are uncertain, we end up with potentially toxic chemicals in our water because of a 'risk-based' approach to chemicals, we end up with sweatshops in foreign nations, we end up with perpetual war. And when I see permits continually granted for fracking in eastern US and mountaintop removal continuing unabated, I conclude from these data that however we've structured our society and government so far just isn't working. How is it that our land can be allowed to be scarred permanently? Any moderately concerned individual would think that such behaviour just isn't right, even if you can't scientifically prove it (because you probably don't have the ability and access to do so). Our best interests, yours and mine, are not in mind, particularly if you have a government and industry adopting a utilitarian approach to promotion of "welfare."

If there is any hope to move away from a continuing destruction of nature, it is this paradigm itself that must be changed. This is the paradigm that allows pollution of air and water and degradation of land. And this is the very paradigm that is being perpetuated elsewhere - we now have "industrialising" countries, where environmental and ecological norms are blindsided by the euphoria of "growth" and "development." This paradigm shift needs to happen first and foremost in our minds. If we delegitimise industrial capitalism, violent extraction of what nature provides, and the social norms that constrain our actions in our minds, we may be on the road to a meaningful collective action that respects nature and its people.


  1. "This is the paradigm that allows pollution of air and water and degradation of land."

    a) It's also the paradigm that allows, for example, very low infant mortality rates.
    b) We're far from the first society to have serious environmental problems.

    There's a lot of babies in that bathwater....

  2. Bruce,

    I understand that we are not the first culture or society to have environmental problems. We are the first, however, to have them on such a massive scale, permeating everything we need for our existence - land, air, water.

    I am not sure how to respond to your example of low infant mortality rates other than that I feel that it is unfortunate that we have disaggregated the health of humans from the health of what it is that allows us to live.

    I'm curious - how much ecological damage would *you* be willing to tolerate to prolong a human life?

  3. My only real point is that there *are* some things that we do exceptionally well. We should appreciate those things, and try to understand why we do them well, in addition to trying to understand what we do badly and why.

    Also: infant mortatily is an example of something that I suspect we've been able to improve partly *because* of our ability to specialize. In a world where we all test our own water and make our own shoes, I don't see how we're going to have a lot of public health professionals, as one example.

  4. "We are the first, however, to have them on such a massive scale, permeating everything we need for our existence - land, air, water."

    Also--citation needed here. Really.

  5. Climate change.

    Mountaintop removal.


    Hegemonic industrial capitalism most everywhere in the world.

  6. I'll accept the first three as good examples!

    I don't understand what you precisely you propose that we do about those, that would also preserve the advantages we've won.

    (And, again, the advantages I'm talking about aren't cars or ipods--I'm talking about the basics: infant mortality rates, healthy life expectancies, etc.)