Maybe you have already heard the term externalities in economics: Externalities are defined as harmful or useful side-effects of economic activities… For example pollution is a harmful side-effect of many industrial production activities.
Most economy books explain the harmful externalities as if they were unintended, unplanned and undesired side-effects. Corporations would certainly avoid these harmful effects if this were technically cheap and easy.
Unfortunately, this is not the whole story. Deliberately or not, many companies profit from the harmful side-effects of past business activities.
For example, industrial pollution creates new profit opportunities for industries like water purification, air purification and pharmaceuticals. Ruthless and unplanned urbanization create new revenue opportunities for many industries, including the toy sector (recreational widgets & gadgets), by simply limiting the outdoor playing grounds of children.
The expansion of the intrinsically unsustainable monocultures in agriculture creates new profit opportunities for global agrochemical corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, that sell tons of agrochemicals like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.
How could we explain this relationship between destruction and profit? What is the big picture?
Note that we are talking about harmful business externalities that have wide-reaching effects in time and location.
Corporations simply can’t earn money from a self-sufficient and sustainable ecosystem. What can you sell for a natural garden pond which is an almost complete (self-sufficient and sustainable) artificial ecosystem that doesn’t need human intervention?
What can a corporation sell to a traditional (or ecological) farming community which has a closed, self-sufficient and sustainable economy? They don’t need any GM seeds or chemical fertilizers, they don’t need any pesticides or herbicides, because they have a complete production ecosystem without any gaps at all in the physical and biochemical cycles.
Take permaculture gardens as an example, as almost self-sufficient and sustainable ecosystems for producing food. It must be clear that agricultural corporations should have no interest in promoting permaculture; they would certainly prefer industrial farming based on monoculture as deficient (not self-sufficient and unsustainable) ecosystems, because they can sell lots of equipment, gene technology (GMOs), widgets & gadgets, pesticides etc. in order to provide short-term solutions for the gaps and deficiencies of the ecosystem.
If these short-term solutions like pesticides cause new problems, hence new needs and necessities by further crippling the ecosystem -in most cases they do- so much the better; corporations can happily offer new solutions for these new needs and necessities. An endless chain of ecosystem mutilation and solution (technology) development means an endless flow of profits. In a sense, technology failure becomes a reliable profit source.
For an average urban person, whose connection with nature is rather limited, and whose mind is shaped by the modern human-centric, mechanistic and reductionist industrial education, it is very difficult to understand the following fact:
You can’t replace the complex biochemical cycles of nature that are based on extremely rich and dynamic (continuously evolving) biodiversity, by intrinsically mechanistic and reductionist human technologies. In other words, you can’t compensate for the gaps of an ecosystem with human-made things like tools, machines, computers or chemicals on a sustainable basis. You can’t replace evolving live by non-evolving dead matter however smart or intelligent it is.
We can now formulate the long-term strategy of ecosystem mutilation business (destructive corporations and their investors):
Destroy (mutilate) self-sufficient, healthy and sustainable ecosystems in order to create new needs and necessities (hence new profit and monopolization opportunities) so that even clean water or air should become a necessity that must be paid for.
Monoculture creates gaps and deficiencies in the ecosystem by destroying the solidarity and balance between different species. Transforming a sustainable polyculture (rich biodiversity) into an unsustainable monoculture (poor biodiversity) is one of the most common methods of ecosystem mutilation. Planned or not, deliberately or not… In most cases, this adverse transformation is promoted as technological progress, efficiency improvement or modernization.
Lots of monopolizable technologies like water filters, air filters, GMO seeds and agrochemicals can be sold (generally as short-term solutions that create new chain of problems) in order to compensate for the deficiencies of the ecosystem. This is in effect a business strategy for replacing the easily available and accessible (un-monopolizable) production technologies of nature by monopolizable technologies of corporations.
For example, in order to sell water as a corporation, you must first wait until all the available free water resources are somehow destroyed or polluted.
If a farm has sufficient biodiversity to keep all the crop pests in check, you must wait (as a corporation) until the biodiversity is somehow destroyed, so that you can sell pesticides to kill the pest enemies.
So, self-sufficient and sustainable ecosystems must first be mutilated (crippled) to create new needs and necessities.
Remember: Self-sufficient and sustainable natural ecosystems like natural forests, seas, lakes or coral reefs don’t need human intervention (human technologies, human work, human maintenance) for a continuous survival and production, because they are complete, or almost complete, in terms of biochemical cycles, thanks to the rich biodiversity they possess.
I want to mention two other examples: Aquariums and health sector
Aquarium companies and shops have generally no interest in promoting natural (low-tech, low-maintenance) aquariums because such aquariums tend to be quite self-sufficient and sustainable, and therefore don’t need much technology and human intervention. Aquarium companies and shops like crowded conventional (industrial, high-tech) aquariums, for which they can sell lots of fish, plants and equipment. Promoting big and demanding fish species like angelfish or discus as the height of advanced aquarium keeping is a subtle way mutilating the artificial ecosystem of an aquarium.
Assume, an honest, idealistic and competent government of a 3. world country reduces cancer cases significantly with clever public health policies, like improved environment, lifestyle, physical exercise and nourishment, that prevent many serious diseases including cancer. Do you think, big pharmaceutical concerns would support such governments, or do everything in their power to eliminate them? To be more concrete, do you think, Bayer would support a government which is against potentially carcinogenic Monsanto products (GM seeds and pesticides)?
In fact, the notorious Bayer-Monsanto pair is one of the most obvious and striking examples of ecosystem mutilation from the near history: Monsanto makes cancer, Bayer sells cancer drugs (see Dr. Vandana Shiva’s speech in YouTube: Why we need organic future? about 28. minute)
Written by Tunç Ali Kütükçüoğlu, 5. May 2019, Feldmeilen
NOTE: Critiques, comments, language & style corrections or new ideas are all welcome. You can leave your comments here, or you can reach me using the contact form.
This is a synthesis kind of article without direct references. When I look back, I think, these are the resources that inspired me most:
- After electrical engineering I studied economics and finance, so I know the intrinsicly humancentric, mechanistic and reductionist worldview of mainstream (neoclassical) economics and business world very well.
- Various books about philosophy and history of economic thought, including The Worldly Philosophers by R. Heilbroner
- My many years of experience with conventional (industrial) and natural (low tech, low maintenance) aquariums; my interest in nature, evolution and ecological agriculture
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the depressing history of the poisonous DDT-based pesticides
- Collapse by Jared Diamond
- Who Really Feeds the World by Vandana Shiva
- A Little History of Philosophy by N. Warburton, the chapter about Hitler’s bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann “the man who asked no questions” as a striking example of narrow minded technical industrial education that mutilates imagination and empathy
- Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
- Auf Kosten Anderer (at the cost of others) by I.L.A. Kollektiv, a brilliant booklet about the global economic system and the industrial-imperial lifestyle (see aufkostenanderer.org)
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin W. Kimmerer, her critiques about the humancentric, mechanistic and reductionist worldview that dominates modern (industrial) science
- The Wealth of Nature by John. M. Greer
- The concept of sub-optimization in mathematics, my experience with various optimization software, the importance of holistic view (i.e. including all relevant factors and parameters) in optimization problems
- Various academic papers from the field of ecological economics that criticize the mechanistic and reductionist worldview of mainstream economics that especially dominates the undergrad-level education at universities (Econ 101 and co.)