Monday, October 26, 2009

World Domination

I recently watched the movie “The World According to Monsanto,” which together with the movie “Flow” illustrates how corporations are acquiring as much power as they can, up to and including controlling the basic necessities of survival. It is apparently anathema to them for anything to be free and for anyone to not be totally dependent on them. This is the path to monoculture, and because it increases both consumption and the vulnerability of the entire population to single points of failure, total extinction.

If it weren’t real, the plot would be a top notch paranoid science fiction fantasy. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unlike other organisms, are subject to ownership. Farmers who use them to grow food (or if the food is a GMO) must pay a royalty to the creators of the GMO. The natural interbreeding of organisms in the wild virtually ensures that GMOs will become ubiquitous. Theoretically, every farmer could ultimately owe a royalty for the food they grow. Because most of the world is poor and cannot afford to pay, only the most affluent farmers will be able to economically survive.

One way to foil this evil plot is for governments to better fulfill their traditional roles as protectors of the commons -- a set of resources and capabilities that no one can own and everyone can use -- which provides the basis for the survival of its citizens. This can and should include all the things necessary for good health, among them: food, water, air, the means to repair our bodies (healthcare). Because we are an integral part of the web of life on the planet, the rest of the biosphere should also be protected.

That governments are unable to do what’s needed is traceable to two interlinked problems: scale and accountability. Maintaining a global or even a national commons is simply too big a task for any small number of people. We must all do it, and be held accountable if we don’t. Accountability is a social function, where members of a group either reward or penalize other members of the group based on their behavior; and this too may be too large a task for a government bureaucracy subcontracted by its larger population.

In the totally sustainable world we will need to create over the next fifty years to avoid global population collapse, everything we use will be reusable or renewable (it will become part of the commons) and our population will remain constant. Critically, the energy we use to change the form of one thing into another and transport the end product to who uses it, the dominant activity of our economy, will need to be matched to its availability from renewable sources. The combined requirements of no waste and limited energy will abolish the profit motive for activity because profit itself -- synonymous with exponential consumption -- will be impossible, on average (without shrinking the world’s population, and this too has a limit). The concept of property, as exclusive use of something until it becomes waste, will be replaced with something more like loans, because the different forms of matter we create will need to be usable by other people in the present and the future. In short, avoiding catastrophe will require that we do away with the economic rewards for world domination.

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