Corporate Government?

After viewing this film, I was left wondering if it is appropriate to allow extreme wealth to have such a disproportional influence over the democratic process?

In the landmark ruling, “Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission” the US Supreme Court upheld the idea that government cannot restrict free speech even when the entity engaging the process is a corporation. In a 4 to 3 vote, it was decided that corporations are entities that have heavy investments in the direction of US policy, in the same way that most individual citizen have, and thus have the same rights to express themselves as people do. It means that a corporation has a voice independent of the executives and staff of a company (which would exercise their own civic responsibilities), and that corporate voice has a legitimate right to be heard. Corporations are encouraged to bring to bear all of their available resources to support the candidates and legislation that best represent their business goals.

This is interesting because global business goals are not necessarily synonymous with the goals of creating a “more perfect union” here in the United States.

There is a tremendous, almost unimaginable disparity between the lower & middle classes and the ultra-wealthy in the United States. The film above does a great job of capturing the lifestyle gap between the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy, but doesn’t hardly mention the massive number of poor people throughout the world. The richest 1% of people in the United States hold about 38% of all privately held wealth in the United States, while the bottom 90% hold 73% of all debt. The richest 20% of people in the United States own 80% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% own only .2% of the wealth. It is extraordinarily difficult for average people to contribute substantially to the democratic process when they are so outmatched in resources. Any policy that does not support the goals of the ultra wealthy simply cannot gain traction in a system where public officials are dependent upon large amounts of money to remain in office. However, that has always been our system and the fact that the wealth gap is much greater now than ever before, is a different challenge.  If we say that this current system is acceptable (which I don’t), the recent Citizen’s United decision positions corporate revenues that run into the trillions of dollars (exceeding that of most countries) behind policy that has little, or nothing, to do with the welfare of 80% of the population of the United States. It supports the goals of the wealthy with insurmountable force. It compounds the power gap exponentially and clearly sends the message that our government does not represent all of the citizens of this country. Democracy is dead.

Image from Wikipedia

I like Pam White’s short article, in the Boulder Weekly, where she writes about the legal benefits of incorporation: “So  now corporations get to have it both ways. When it comes to crime and  punishment, the individuals who make up a corporation can’t be thrown in  prison. But when it comes to participating in our elections, they have  the same rights as you and I. Except that you and I don’t have billions  of dollars to ensure that politicians hear our voices.”

The underlying imperative for most companies is to produce wealth and therefore growth. Most companies see themselves in an incredibly competitive marketplace, where every possible opportunity to save money contributes to their ability to stay alive. The idea that a company can act in the interest of the greater good is seen as an excessive luxury that puts the company at risk. Companies will use every legal, and frequently illegal, option at their disposal to reduce their burdens, increase their productivity, and extend their foothold in an ever hostile marketplace. Corporations will do what needs to be done in order to gain an advantage over the competition, frequently at great expense to society.

Consider the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP (similar to all other oil companies) have signed environmental impact statements that claim knowledge, resources, and ability to stop worst case disasters. These are legal documents that normal business people will take seriously. It took 5 months to stop the oil leak, and the clean up never really happened. The reality is that nobody, not one single company, had the knowledge or technology to end this incident quickly and control the damage. This was a systemic failure on the part of an entire industry. The “.com” bust, the sub-prime housing bubble / Wall St collapse, the environmental disasters inflicted by Mansanto, the Exxon Valdez failure, Enron, Bernie Madoff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The list of corrupt and greedy corporations (and corporate leaders) is endless. These large companies that want to influence the Democratic process have endless resources, but feel no obligation to improve the human condition (unless it means they can grow to make more money).

In “The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy,” Raj Patel offers an observation regarding the behavior of corporate America, by matching symptoms against the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He shows that the American Psychiatric Association classifies psychopaths and sociopaths as having “antisocial personality disorder.” To be diagnosed with the disorder the patient must meet three out of the following seven criteria:

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest,

2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure,

3. Impulsivity, or failure to plan ahead,

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults,

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others,

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations,

7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mis-treated, or stolen from another.

Patel continues throughout chapter 3 to show how these unhealthy behaviors are typical of large international companies (like Mc Donald’s). So, are corporations the same as healthy, well adjusted people, like our Supreme Court would have you believe? No, not really. Does a corporation have a voice separate from the executives who run the company (which presumably act upon their own civic responsibilities)? Probably, but it is not a voice that is fundamentally concerned with the good of others, like mentally and spiritually stable humans are. A corporate voice is not concerned with the extinction of unknown species, nor are they concerned with the environmental cost of destroying forests, mountain tops, or watersheds, so long as it doesn’t affect their ability to stay alive in the marketplace.

The ultimate issue is that most of the natural world, and much of the human world has no value to business. The aesthetic things, or the moral ideals, the artful commentaries, the millions of indigenous people on the planet, as well as most of the species of plants and animals are “priceless.” In other words, they have no value. This is what makes the old American Express commercials so funny, yet extremely ironic. You know the ones, “Green Fees: $240, Lessons: $50, Golf Club: $110, having fun: priceless.” That last one, the one that is “priceless,” that is the one that has no value in business, yet it is the most important human value. This is funny for a second, but only until you think about it.

Allowing corporations the right to influence our democracy to such a great degree severely undermines our ability to sustainably live on this planet, and it is just one of those things that “The Comfortably Numb” will let happen because they are too busy and apparently too comfortable to be bothered with picking a fight with the corporate world and the US government (which is charged with creating a more just and perfect union for all of its citizens, not just the top 1%).

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


The New Facts of Life – Fritjof Capra

Starfish and Anemones on Washington Coast

If someone were to ask me who my heroes are, Fritjof Capra would be right near the top of the list. He is a trained physicist, who has spent most of his career trying to understand the relationships between the social/spiritual world and that of science. He’s written a number of books, including “The Tao of Physics,” “The Web of Life,” and most recently, “The Hidden Connections.” As a physicist, Capra argues that of the 3 major scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, and biology), biology is the most fundamental. This is unusual because typically physics is considered the most basic building blocks of the world, building up to the molecular constructions of chemistry, and finally to the complex world of biology.

Capra’s argument is that understanding “life” is the most important consideration of science, and one cannot understand life without understanding the complex relationships between living (and nonliving) systems, which physics and chemistry do not effectively deal with – particularly when one speaks of cognition and social structures. He places a higher priority on understanding living relationships, than he does structural objects (in large part because quantum physics tells us that objects are nothing more than inter-related, nested systems, which are forever nested into infinitely smaller networks, placed within one’s self – therefore, ultimately there are only relationships and no actual objects).

Capra strongly feels that society must renew their understanding of ecosystems in order to healthfully engage the world and live sustainably. We have lived so long inside our man -made bubble that we have forgotten how the world works. That is why he co-founded the Center for EcoLiteracy, which the following article is linked from. Please take a look through it. It is a quick read, and a pretty good summary of some of his new ideas on “the facts of life.”

The New Facts of Life – Fritjof Capra | Center for Ecoliteracy.

A Bioregional Quiz

Evening on the Washington Coast

Here’s a little game of 20 questions. See how you do. I came across this a couple of years ago, and thought that it was a pretty good indicator of what the modern age has done to us. I couldn’t answer all of these at the time I originally took the test. I’m sure that 200 years ago, and before, nearly everyone could answer them. This little quiz is adapted from “A Natural Way to Organize: Bioregions” from Bill Devail & George Sessions’ Deep Ecology, Bibbs M. Smith, 1985, p.22.

1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2. How many days until the moon is full – plus or minus a couple of days?

3. Describe the soil around your home.

4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?

5. Name 5 native edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

6. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

7. Specifically, where does your garbage go?

8. How long is the growing season where you live?

9. On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?

10. Name 5 native trees in your area.

11. Name 5 resident and 5 migratory birds in your area.

12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion during the past century?

13. What primary geological event/process influenced the land form where you live?

14. What species have become extinct in your area?

15. What was the total rainfall in your area last year?

16. From where you are reading this, point north.

17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18. Name 5 wild animals that live in your bioregion.

19. What kind of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

20. What are the primary energy sources (developed and potential) in your area?

Scoring: [from Deep Ecology, not from The Comfortably Numb]

0-3     You have your head in a hole. Open your eyes and check out the soil around you.

4-7      A good start on the obvious.

8-12    A firm grasp of the obvious. Make it a goal to look at the not so obvious.

13-16   You are definately paying attention to the world around you.

17-19   You have a strong sense of place

20        You not only have a strong sense of place, you also know what is there with you.

Hey let me know how you do!  Add a comment!

The Depth of Our Systems

Image by Josie Welsh – 2011

My wife and I have an ongoing, light-hearted, disagreement about our approaches to sustainability. I’m careful about disagreeing with her, because she’s pretty sharp, and I’m usually proven wrong when I disagree with her. However, on this one, I’m blazing my own path. Her argument is common. I hear it all of the time, from people of all different backgrounds. She likes to take personal responsibility for living in the way that she feels is sustainable, and I tend to focus on the really big picture systemic failures of our institutions. She buys the high-efficiency light bulbs, the cloth grocery bags, and the high-efficiency appliances. I, well, I mostly complain about the failures of our institutions to move on issues of sustainability. I read a lot about it, take classes, and being a designer, I try to incorporate it into my professional work. I do fully support her in her efforts, because they are in the right direction, however, her decisions feel insignificant when we are in desperate need monumental, landslide changes. I know, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Ghandi said it, I know. I get it. The republican friends of mine suggest that the market place will change if consumers change what they want….yeah, right. I’m not that nieve.

I’m a designer. I see the power of marketing to direct what consumers want. Billions of dollars are spent every year on marketing, whose sole purpose is to define/direct what people want to buy. There is a whole technology to marketing that tracks everything you buy, and knows what you need, before you even know you need it. When you go to Target, or Wal-Mart, well, they knew you were coming, and they pretty much know what you want to buy. But, that’s a whole different blog post….

My question is, why is it so hard to live my own principles, rather than that of the large institutions? I wrote a little about it, yesterday, in the “Wishful Thinking” post.  Societies create man-made systems (bubbles) to live within, frequently being separate from the impact of nature. Society strongly discourages living in a way that is inconsistent with the accepted norms. The thousands, upon thousands, of systems that we engage everyday are set up with particular rules that we generally need to follow. Stepping outside the bubble can be costly, inconvenient, and puts an individual at a severe disadvantage in most aspects of life. Living in the bubble is not a matter of personal choice. Laws and regulations define what you are allowed to do, and going against the grain can land you in jail with heavy fines.

Systems, be it legal systems, business systems, social systems, building systems, or environmental systems, are interesting things, and have similar properties worth understanding. Donella Meadows defines a system as, “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” She continues to say there is, “an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms to maintain that integrity. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may consist of nonliving things. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing over at least some range of disruptions. They are resilient, and many of them are evolutionary. Out of one system another completely new, never seen before imagined system can arise.”

Systems are everywhere. Our bodies are a great example of an integrated, living, dynamic, complex system. A bicycle, or a tornado, is a good example of a non-living system. Systems are nested and networked together. Your body has hundreds of systems within it, and they are all working in cooperation to keep your body working as a single organism. A temperate rainforest is a system, with tens of thousands of systems working in cooperation, which allows the forest to be a healthy single organism. Of course, the rainforest is a component of the biosphere as well.

There are political and economic systems, transportation and power systems, as well as social and family systems, and many, many thousands more.

Most of the modern ideology, including the industrial revolution was created out of the idea that an object is the sum of its parts. We’ve worked very hard to fragment everything and understand the pieces so that we might be able to reassemble them into a coherent, meaningful whole. We keep looking deeper and deeper to find some essential truths about the way the world works, and we never seem to get there. We never seem to answer life’s big questions. The problem is that, in reality, an object is more than the sum of its parts. If, for example, you considered the human body by breaking apart all of the major systems, then started studying the heart, lungs, bones, and brain, you would learn a little about a human. But then you’d break down the organs into tissues, and the tissues into cells, and the cells eventually into molecules. You’d keep digging deeper, breaking the molecules into single atoms, then into sub-atomic particles, looking for that underlying truth that will make sense of everything. Unfortunately, when you get to quantum physics, all of the normal rules go out the door, and everything gets really strange. Particles can be in multiple places at the same time. Particles can move and not move at the same time. What have we learned about being a human?

Unfortunately, not enough.

Once we’ve broken our bodies down and studied each part, would we expect to see humans build great cathedrals? Would we expect great paintings, or weapons of mass killing? Would we expect to see expressions of pain, compassion, and love that happens millions of times throughout the world everyday? The answer is simply no. It is because there are emergent properties that come out of a complete and healthy system, that can’t be expected by studying the parts alone. Systems are actually more than the sum of their parts. For example, a heart has a unique purpose beyond what its cardiac tissue, nerve tissue, and blood tissue understand. The heart has an additional purpose of supporting the rest of the circulatory system, while the cardiac tissue in the heart is only concerned with the health of the heart itself.

A bicycle, as another non-living example, is a system with a very particular configuration of parts, and a defined purpose. The components have a specific relationship with one another to be considered a bicycle. The components alone cannot achieve the purpose of the bicycle, unless the relationship between the components is correct. You can’t study just the parts of a system and understand what the system does. You must focus on the relationship between the parts as well, and look for patterns that might clue you in to its purpose. Quantum mechanics actually suggests that there are nearly no parts at all, and that all we have are relationships. Have you ever wondered how far they can keep dividing particles up and finding smaller, and smaller pieces?

So, humans are systems, living among systems. To keep our larger ecological systems healthy we know that we need to do our part, just like the heart and the bicycle wheel must do their part. However, our systems are not set up correctly. Our transportation systems cover the landscape in concrete and asphalt, and belch too much CO2 into the air. Our electricity comes from coal, our food comes from fertilizer, which comes from oil. Our “waste” is everywhere, including the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Almost all of our infrastructure and institutionalized systems have been created without consideration for the health and well-being of the larger ecosystem that we are a part of. Clean air fills our lungs, and rain falls from the sky to water our crops. These things are essential to our lives. They are the result of other systems, that are doing their jobs well, for our benefit. We are failing to do our job, therefore we are hurting the whole.

I feel that the bulk of the responsibility to fix our environmental problems falls into the hands of those who design major systems. That would be policy makers, executives, designers, engineers, and others. Our socio-economic-political system has created a bubble that doesn’t allow me to easily be sustainable. I’m penalized for rubbing against the grain. I can do the small things at home, that will make a tiny difference to the world’s environmental problem, but changing transportation systems, economic and regulatory systems, and education systems will make major, long-lasting contributions to our survival. The infrastructure and transportation within our cities should be coordinated with systems ecologists to understand how to gracefully integrate man-made systems into natural systems in a mutually healthy way. It needs to be required by our governments, not because it is a moral issue, but because it is a safety and welfare issue for the larger organism that we live within, and therefore for ourselves.

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