Life on the line…

Beautiful Old Minnesota Barn – Spring 2008

The hope of The Comfortably Numb is to make obvious the unsustainable actions of our fragmented socio-economic capitalistic culture thereby awakening the senses of intelligent people who have been blinded by the industrial/scientific spectacle of our time. Our fragmented world collectively supports the top 1% with ever-increasing effectiveness, and simultaneously blinds the average person to the tragic, and unusually dangerous, outcomes of our socio-economic/industrial processes. Each of us 99%ers are, at best, experts in a very narrow field, rendering our ability to comment on the human condition insignificant. It has become someone elses problem, because the individual’s authority has been taken/given away.

However, many of the actions of modern organizations are so outrageous, so extreme, that anyone can see the hateful outcomes, and demand appropriate change.  Dashka Slater recently published a fantastic article for the NY Times Magazine, on what she feels might be the most dangerous thing in your house. Surprisingly, she suggests that it is your couch. More specifically, it is the fire-retardant chemicals added to the foam in your couch. The article is great, and it reflects a favoritism toward creating wealth for a few powerful individuals, over our sustained health as a species. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it. In the article she says:

“Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.”

“Safe unless proved otherwise” is a reactive attitude that implies that the industrialists can make as much money as possible until the true effects of their actions become readily obvious and scientifically proven. Thousands must become gravely ill, or disfigured to raise serious questions. Millions, if not billions, of dollars will then need to be spent in scientific research, grass-roots organizing, marketing efforts, and legal fees to prove that a single material is legally dangerous for public use. Since there are tens of thousands of “designer materials” that have been introduced for public consumption in the past 50 years, the task seems overwhelming. William McDonough, in his book “Cradle to Cradle,” claims that we are designing a system of production that,

  • puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water and soil every year,
  • produces some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations,
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • requires thousands of complex regulations-not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly,
  • measures productivity by how few people are working
  • creates prosperity by digging up, or cutting down, natural resources and then burying them or burning them,
  • erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices.

It simply makes public health, and economic sense to force companies to prove their materials in a lab before they prove them on my children. Any average person should agree that there should be some basic level of safety required for the man-made concoctions that modern engineers dream up, before they are released upon the public.

The attitude toward the tinkering with the genetic codes of life are the same. The farming/agricultural industry would like us to visualize them as cute red barns, with white picket fences, and maybe a tractor or two lightly plowing a pastoral landscape. That children’s book version of food production is a joke! Agriculture is one of the most corrupt, destructive industries that we inflict upon ourselves and the natural world. They have destroyed millions upon millions of acres of forests and grasslands to produce just a handful of crops, severly limiting the diversity of life that nature depends on for her resiliency and stability. Most of the meats, fruits, and veggies that you buy at the grocery store have had their genetic code altered such that they are more profitable to produce. Companies are now inserting genetic markers into living organisms to both alter the qualities of the organism, and to protect their legal rights to their “invention.” (…sounds like playing god to me!) Meanwhile, by consuming these foods, we are injecting strange, and untested genetic codes, into our bodies and into the general environment, with absolutely no understanding of what those outcomes will be. The 5 giant multinational organizations that control nearly all seed production have virtually no responsibility to prove that what they are doing is safe until things start to go wrong.

Jeffery Smith has created a free online movie entitled “Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives“. I highly recommend watching this movie. It is a fairly aggressive, and totally biased, look at our indifference to the potential outcomes of such a dangerous game. I usually have a bad reaction to these types of highly aggressive messages, because I question their truthfulness. However, I watch them because the overall idea is based on a sound question. They may, or may not be providing perfect arguments, but they are certainly dovetailing into a larger question about societies indifference to life’s future. They are certainly asking the right questions.

Nearly all the food in the world is touched by the 5 or 6 large pharmaceutical companies that design seeds. If a farmer is caught illegally growing plants containing the genetic markers of one of these companies, they can be heavily fined. These seeds are allowed to be used for only one season. A farmer is not allowed to use the surplus seed from one season in the following season, without paying a fee to get a license to do so. In fact, they cannot use seeds generated from the plants grown in one season, to re-seed in following seasons. These few companies are determining the direction for hundreds of millions of people. The fines can be steep. In this NY Times article, issued just last month, Andrew Polluck writes about a billion dollar win for the pharmaceutical company Montsago, over Dupont, for patent infringement. These unbelievably powerful cartels are buying up all of the seed companies throughout the world, making it increasingly difficult for smaller more conservatively minded farmers to avoid genetically modified seeds. Phil Howard of Michigan State University has produced a diagram that only begins to capture the size and power of these companies. In this diagram, he only looks at the influence that the pharmaceutical companies have over the seed companies, but the influence actually moves throughout the entire food production process. It is a powerful diagram worth checking out.

Are we, as a species, willing to risk our lives on this genetic gamble? Are we OK with presuming innocence until proven guilty for these companies, when they are screwing with the very foundations of life itself? Are we OK with the idea that a company can patent living organisms? Are we OK with mixing and matching genetic information, to a point that we’ll feed it to our children? Is it unbelievably arrogant to think that DuPont, or Mansanto, can improve life beyond what billions of years of evolution has done. We barely understand the role of genetics in the web of life. It would take the very sophisticated tools of complex dynamical theory to even begin to understand the outcomes of these changes to the genetic structure of life, and those tools are in their infancy – nowhere near ready to tackle this monster. These pharmaceutical companies are not that smart, they are just clever and greedy. This shoot first, and aim later approach needs to be stopped.

A simple blog post can’t begin to capture this. Learn more. Here are a couple of websites to further your understanding:

Thanks for your comments.



  1. […] “Life on the line” post left me thinking, and I wanted to pass along a few more important thoughts. These […]

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