An blog by a member of the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, to explore the nexus between contemplation and resistance. "The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Manufactured Scarcity

History is constructed from the building blocks of material fact, not "hope" or "change". But those blocks can be moved by the human mind and the human spirit and their triumph will be eternal.

One of the fantasies that currently dominates the debate on climate change is that of "green capitalism". The idea is essentially that we can keep the current economic system and maintain its growth rate while shifting to green technologies. Behind the smoke screen of this fantasy, the elite are effectively maneuvering to inaugurate the next great bubble. The devastation of the earth's ecology represents one of the most lucrative profit opportunities the world has ever seen. We will call this the "Enron Strategy" based on the pioneering work of Enron in California where artificial shortages were created to hike up the charges to utility companies. In one famous memo stated that "...the Kyoto treaty 'would do more to promote Enron’s business than will almost any other regulatory initiative." Enron made many innovations in the art of scarcity. They regularly invented reasons to take power plants offline while California was blacked out, allowing utility rates to be hiked 9 times between 2000 and 2001. This successful strategy acts as paradigm for the coming profits from global warming which will be based on the same principle. If you wonder why in the face of catastrophe, the leaders of the world dither and bargain over trivia, the answer may well be that the opportunities for enrichment from global destruction are just too tempting to pass up.

But first, we must set the stage: Despite the propaganda that proclaims that capitalism brings wealth to everyone, the truth is that capitalism thrives on scarcity. Nothing dismays investment bankers more than the prospect of abundance for all. Waste and destruction are natural for our system of wealth concentration. The profits accrue to a tiny elite while the destruction and waste are absorbed by the many. The way in which this elite passes the costs to the public and to the natural environment while retaining the profit for itself is referred to as externalizing. The costs of environmental destruction are externalized under capitalism on nature and society as a whole.

Turning the "free gifts" of nature into private profits through the selective commodification of parts of nature is not a recent development as many liberals pretend. Since the current system's beginnings in the 15th century, it has been the foundation for capital accumulation.

The new situation brought on by climate change is in many respects seen as a golden opportunity in which to further privatize the remaining natural wealth. This will accelerate the destruction of the natural environment, while enlarging the system that weighs upon it. But the greater the destruction, the greater the profit potential. This is best illustrated by the rapid privatization of fresh water, which is now seen as a new mega-market for global accumulation. The drying up and contamination of freshwater diminishes public wealth, creating investment opportunities for capital, while profits made from selling increasingly scarce water are recorded as contributions to income and riches. It is not surprising, therefore, that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development proposed, at a 1998 conference in Paris, that governments should turn to “large multinational corporations” in addressing issues of water scarcity, establishing “open markets” in water rights. GĂ©rard Mestrallet, CEO of the global water giant Suez, has openly pronounced: “Water is an efficient product. It is a product which normally would be free, and our job is to sell it. But it is a product which is absolutely necessary for life.” He further remarked: “Where else [other than in the monopolization of increasingly scarce water resources for private gain] can you find a business that’s totally international, where the prices and volumes, unlike steel, rarely go down?"

Huge profits are waiting for those who seize the moment. Why will Copenhagen be gutted by Obama and all the other heads of state? Because a moment like this will not come again. Let the destruction begin and let the wealth begin to flow.


Ben said...

Capitalism both lives on scarcity and wealth. Abundance for all would indeed, as you say, dismay the wealthy greatly. Fortunately for them, capitlism as a system ensures that the enormous amounts of productive capacity will never produce wealth for all. Global warming does indeed offer a great profit oppurtunity, for now. One last great party before capitalism leads to the breakdown of society.

Boyd said...

Thanks, Ben, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. If you want to see what this analysis is based on with all the facts and analysis needed to make it convincing, I encourage you to read the following article in Monthly Review: The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark in the November 2009 issue of Monthly Review:

Here you will see the underlying logic of capital accumulation and why orthodox economists fail to understand why capitalism is incompatible with ecological sustainability. Essentially, the greatest profit potential for capitalists is in privatizing public goods. A textbook example is the recent appropriation of trillions in taxpayer funds by the Wall Street banks. But the privatizing of water supplies by Coca Cola in India to drain the water table resulting in massive crop failure is one of many ecological examples. The point to keep clearly in mind is that these are not due to "aberrations" of capitalism. So many articles on the left talk about a "mutant form of capitalism" that has arisen over the 30 years. In fact, the capitalism of today is the same as in the 1960s and in the 1860s.

Read Marx if you want to know what capitalism thought about nature in the 19th century. In the words of John Bellamy Foster: "Thus, Marx was the first major economist to incorporate the new notions of energy and entropy, emanating from the first and second laws of thermodynamics, into his analysis of production. This can be seen in his treatment of the metabolic rift — the destruction of the metabolism between human beings and the soil, brought on by the shipment of food and fiber to the city, where nutrients withdrawn from the soil, instead of returning to the earth, ended up polluting the air and the water. In this conception, both nature and labor were robbed, since both were deprived of conditions vital for their reproduction: not 'fresh air' and water but 'polluted' air and water, Marx argued, had become the mode of existence of the worker."

This is only a small part of a much larger argument, but the main point is that capitalism thrives by "externalizing" the costs of production, such as pollution, degradation of the land, global warming and so on, onto the public and onto nature. This is one of the major sources of its profits and it can only survive by continuing to increase that profit margin.

Ben said...

I have read Marx extensively. One of the passages I like best is from the Economic and Philisophical Manuscripts, "Needs, Production and the Division of Labor"
"The refinement of human needs and of the ability to staisfy them, produces as its counterpart a bestial savagery, a complete primative and abstract simplicity of needs, or rather, simply reproduces itself in its opposite sense. For the worker, even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need. Man returns to the cave dwelling again, but it has now been poisoned by the pestilential breath of civilization. The worker has only a precarious right to inhabit it, for it has become an alien dwelling, which may suddenly not be available, or from which he may be evicted if he does not pay the rent. He has to pay for this mortuary. The dwelling full of light, which Prometheus, in Aechylus, indicates as one of the great gifts by which he has changed savages into men, ceases to exist for the worker. Light, air, and the simplest animal cleanliness cease to be human needs. Filth, this corruption and putrification which runs in the sewers of civilization(this is to be taken literally) becomes the element in which man lives. Total and unnatural neglect, putrified nature, becomes the element in which he lives..."
Marx goes on to say how savages, in some respects, are better off than people in modern "civilization", and to make other noteworthy remarks about alienation and pollution. This passage is extremely telling even in the United States. Clearly, Marx is describing problems like pollution and homelessness that still exist today. Nothing has changed, it is only gotten somewhat better in the wealthy countries because it has gotten that much worse in the Third World , where, as Mike Davis describes in his book, Planet of Slums, people often deficate in bags and throw it on their neighbors' roofs. Davis also shows a particlularly absurd example that challenges all previous definitions of "inherited housing". This is the City of th Dead, in Cairo Egypt, where nearly a million people reside in tombs. If only people knew the full truth, something might actually change.
Thanks for the article recommendation.

Boyd said...

Thanks for this passage from Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts which I was not familiar with. However, I must say that I'm less optimistic than you that if people knew the full truth, then things would change. Most people, despite the barrage of media propaganda, sense what the truth of capitalist dominance means for most of the world's population. For many reasons, they choose to ignore these facts. The more cynical among them, such as Dick Cheney, clearly understand what is needed to protect the privileges of the elite and make the moves necessary to pragmatically implement the required slaughter and oppression. Understanding the reality of the situation is not sufficient to effect change. Only a combination of hope, understanding, and practical resistance can effect real change.

Ben said...

I agree that many people who know the truth still knew nothing about it. Part of the problem is that many people in America don't live in bad conditions, and those who do are often too dysfunctional to do anything. However, if most Americans knew the shocking truth about how people really live in the third world, instead of the believing the nonsense from Tom Friedman and others about how "the World is Flat", or the fact that only 48% of the total American population actually works, meaning that the adult unemployment rate is close to 20%, something might get done.
Then again, maybe not. The economist from whom I heard the above information was asked by a caller (it was a radio show), about moving jobs back from China, and he said that doing that would reduce our standard of living. Obviously, just because one knows information doesn't mean they'll use it constructively. Part of the problem is precisely what you pointed out when talking about liberalism's inability to ask the defining, decisive question. It seems as if some people can't draw the correct conclusions even with correct information.
One thing I wonder is this. Why could people 100 or 150 years ago come to correct conclusions, and realize the need for socialism, while people today can't? Is it because of media propaganda, the experience of the Soviet Union, which , of course, was never really a socialist country, or some other factor?

Boyd said...

You are asking the decisive question, Ben. When I read essays such as Evan Knappenberger's "Betrayal of Generation Hope" on Common Dreams today, I'm filled with hope that the younger generation is finally starting to see the truth. The fact is that there are a lot of progressives that do see the truth and are willing to act. The fact that the most sophisticated propaganda system the world has ever seen is unable to completely suppress knowledge of the real class war that we are currently engaged in is another sign of hope.

However, there are many factors which incline the current generation toward social passivity. If you want to understand the role of the media in generating this passivity, a good place to begin is Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Here he characterizes the role of media this way: "It is their [media's] function to amuse, entertain, and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society." Every word and every image presented in the mainstream media is intended to reinforce the values and behaviors beneficial to the interests of the ruling elite. Yet alternative media still exist and we should treasure and support them.

Right now, for instance, the great alternative show, Flashpoints on Pacifica, is under attack and in danger of elimination. It is one of the last truly radical voices still on the air. I would strongly urge all Nonviolent Jesus readers to listen to this show, which is at

If you like what you hear please consider emailing the management with your support: Also, read the article about the KPFA attack on dissident voices:

Ben said...

The younger generation is more knowledgeable than the older generations. As a fifteen year old, I see this firsthand. Many of my peers know a surprising amount about how many problems there are in the world. Part of the problem preventing greater understanding by both the young and the old is a lack of understanding of political philosophy. When people don't understand philosophy, they don't understand the causes of problems, or the solutions to them.
On a slightly different topic, Why do you think that liberation theology is declining in Latin America, while the evangelical faiths are increasing in popularity?

Boyd said...

Liberation theology is neither declining in Latin America, nor is it declining in North America or Europe. It is being renewed in an extraordinary way in both places. For instance, did you know that the leader of the Latin American resurgence, Hugo Chavez, is a believer in Christ? And a firm upholder of Liberation Theology? And a Marxist? Never has the world seen such a uprising of belief in Christ and Marx, who reflect and reinforce each other in extraordinary ways.