This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
"Admittedly world organization with common obedience to law would be a solution. Not that easy…. Things cannot be forced from the top. The international relinquishing of sovereignty would have to spring from the people–it would be so strong that the elected delegates would be turned out of office if they failed to do it…"
–John F. Kennedy, from JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglas
When President Kennedy wrote these words, he was referring to the specter of war in the modern age, and the distinct possibility that armed conflicts could "go nuclear," thus ending life as we know it on planet Earth. Though we appear to have dodged that bullet, today's world is faced with the equally deadly specter of global collapse that is in ways far more insidious, and far more difficult to prevent, than Kennedy's worst nightmare.
The mortal enemy of today's world is not Kennedy's nuclear demon, but simply the logical outcome of continuing to do "business as usual" in a world that is reaching its environmental and natural resource limits. Tragic as it is, there is nothing highly unusual about the Gulf Oil Spill, which may be considered both a wake up call as well as a preview of coming attractions.
The explosion and sinking of the $350 million Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is the perfect example of what is wrong with the corporate world and our global economy. Corporations have no soul to tell them what is right from wrong, and in most cases their sole purpose is to make maximal profits for their stock holders. In an interview on 60 Minutes with Mike Williams, who was the chief electronics technician and possibly the last man alive to leap from the burning deck of the oil rig before it sank, Williams related that he was told the expected drilling schedule for this oil well was about 21 days, but by the time of the accident they had already been drilling for over six weeks. The drilling operation on the Deepwater Horizon was costing BP about $1 million a day, so their executives were under intense pressure to speed things up, and it appears that they made some rather unwise and risky decisions that ended in catastrophe.
Four weeks before the initial explosion, when a technician reported seeing shredded rubber come out of the drilling fluid after someone accidentally drove a drilling pipe through a critical rubber "annular" ring in the infamous "Blow Out Preventer" (BOP), a supervisor told them "it was no big deal" and drilling continued as usual. In the weeks that followed, communications problems with one of the two the electronic control pods that controlled the BOP were also ignored. Finally, in the hours shortly before the deadly oil rig explosion, a BP official overruled both Transocean and Halliburton engineers and opted for a quicker (and riskier) method of placing the concrete seals inside the well bore. The BP method obviously failed to do its job, allowing explosive gasses to break through the concrete seals with catastrophic results. In hind sight, it appears that BP executives may well have acted with criminal negligence, but in their own opinion, they probably felt they were acting in the best interests of their stockholders by trying to keep costs down through minimizing drilling delays.
Corporate decision makers are responsible to their stockholders for maximizing the profitability of their corporations. This often means producing products where labor is cheapest (essentially slave labor), environmental controls are at a minimum, and with little concern or regard for the future sustainability of the world. Spending extra money in any of these areas tends to cut into profits and may impair that corporate entity's ability to compete with other corporations operating with less concern for the welfare of their workers, pollution of the environment, consumption of nonrenewable resources, and so on. Society tends to applaud and reward the corporate warrior whose dedication to the "bottom line" dictates the cold-hearted decision to replace older workers nearing the top of their pay scale with younger associates who are willing to work longer hours for half the pay of their more seasoned counterparts, or to lay off thousands of American workers when they close local manufacturing facilities while opening similar plants in offshore locations.
"Profit at all costs" is not the only thing wrong with the way we are doing business in our world. Another area in which the free market has shown itself a dismal failure is referred to as "The Tragedy of the Commons". Wherever people live and propagate, there are common resources shared by the local residents. These shared resources might be in the form of common grazing lands, common fisheries, oil fields, river water, aquifers, hunting grounds, rain forests, and so on. From the high-tech, free market world to the most primitive, remote third-world villages, common sense dictates that the industrious individual, village, or corporation will do best for itself by maximizing its utilization of common resources for personal gain and/or maximum profit. In the case of the herdsman, it means growing more livestock; in the case of the oilman, it means drilling more wells and pumping more oil; in the case of the fisherman, it means buying or building more fishing boats and catching more fish; in the case of the farmer, it means growing more crops on more land; and in the case of the logger, it means cutting down more trees.
All of this is well and good when we are living in a world sparsely populated by human beings and well below the carrying capacity of local ecosystems. The tragedy comes into play when the local carrying capacity has been reached or exceeded. At this point, without strict management of local resources in a sustainable manner and agreed to by all (the end of the "free market"), the same logic of personal gain leads to rapid wholesale ruin. When there is no governing body to control consumption and dole out the "fair share" to each participant, then pure logic dictates that one must maximize his or her use of the remaining limited resources before some else beats him or her to these same resources, thereby cutting into the first person's potential profit, food for the family, and so forth. History has shown that relying on guilt or the innate "goodness of man" to control consumption and behavior is a recipe for failure. All it takes is for one person to come along and ignore all the rules before another one says, "I had better jump in and get my share too before it is all gone." Pretty soon, all those good intentions have been thrown out the window, and voluntary restrictions have turned into a free-for-all rush to get my share before another person (or corporation) snatches it first. The logical outcome of the unregulated free market is the wholesale consumption and destruction of our natural resources and ecosystems for maximal profit in as efficient and rapid of a manner as is economically feasible.
For decades, we have been told that "The free market will govern itself" and that if we would only get government out of the way, the world would run a lot smoother and better. Thanks to the Gulf Oil Spill, it appears that perhaps the world is finally waking up to the fact that this logic is shear folly, and that to continue down this path will rapidly lead to ruin. When Kennedy clashed with the powers that be (what he referred to as the "military industrial complex"), I believe he grasped the truth that if we are to defeat this dark menace to our world, it will require a tide of humanity so strong, massive, and committed, that to buck this tide would be shear suicide. According to Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest, hundreds of thousands of independent organizations, that are dedicated to ecological sustainability and social justice, have recently arisen in all corners of the Earth. You see, on a massive scale we human beings are getting the fact that our world is in trouble and that if we continue conducting our business according to the same old paradigm, we will destroy the natural systems the support life as we know it on our planet.
With somewhere around 70 paid lobbyists in Washington for every single congressman, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the same right as individuals to make political donations, we have become a country of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. It is time for America to take our power back–to once again be a country of the people, by the people, and for the people!
I pray that we may gain the necessary focus and collective determination to rise to this challenge before we pass the tipping point and it is too late. Whether we choose to act, or to do nothing, we are still making a choice, and that choice is between Game Change or Game Over!
Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.