“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 28, 2006

the treadmill of production

LI finds the shenanigans over oil recently extremely funny and sad. To question the oil-chemical complex in any way is to invite massive retaliation – remember, conservatism in this country has nothing to do with conservative ideas. It has everything to do with well financed expression of the industry’s interests. The G.O.P., and much of the Democratic party, simply exist to forward their interests. The parties are allowed to take up hobbies, in the spirit of Junior League – the Dems going out for reproductive choice and home decorating, for instance, and the G.O.P. taking up preserving the brain dead and biking. So, even when, for instance, a pundit like Michael Kinsley comes out for a windfall tax, he hedges himself about – for instance, by saying that taxes should never, ever be used as punishment. Heavens no. In the world of pundit economics, taxes can only be used as rewards – everybody must get prizes, you see. Why punish an industry for gorging on limited resources, spending progressively less on R and D (actually, this is one of the big effects of the Bush tax giveaways – why spend on R & D when it is now more profitable to distribute your profits via dividends? And especially when the tax regime for the upper management is so favorable that those ethically challenged parasites move heaven and earth to take as much of a bite as they can from the enterprises they run, now) because who ever heard of a Republic limiting the power of the most powerful? It has occurred to Tacitus, Montesquieu, John Locke, Tom Paine and the like – but that’s a bunch of losers, as we well know.

So – since this is Chernobyl week, and since we’ve been thinking of the question of value posed during the recent Spivak to-do – we thought this would be a good post to talk about Allan Schnaiberg.

Schaiberg is an economist at Northwestern. In the early eighties, he published an influential book in the field of environmental economics. Not a field people have heard of, right? But it is an influential field. The big controversy in the field is about ecological modernization. Briefly: a German sociologist, Peter Huber, proposed that the offloading of costs onto the environment during the twentieth century was caused by the State. If we just took the state out of the equation, private enterprise would develop ways of being greener. The thought was – greener is more efficient.

Schaiberg’s thesis was different. He coined the phrase, the treadmill of production, to talk about the network effects of industrialization – whereever the ultimate control over industry lay. In a recent essay, The treadmill of production and the environmental state, he revisits his thesis. We are going to try to comment on the treadmill of production part, which articulates a thesis about the economy for which we have tons of sympathy. But the environmental state part is equally interesting.

“From a conceptual perspective, we might characterize an "environmental state" as encompassing the following feature: whenever it engaged in economic decision-making, considerations of ecological impacts would have equal weight with any considerations of private sector profits and state sector taxes. Put this way, most industrialized nation-states fall far short of this standard. Indeed, it is increasingly true that any environmental policy-making is subject to more intensive economic scrutiny, while economic policies are subject to less and less environmental assessment (Daynes 1999; Soden and Steel

Schaiberg’s paper includes a case study of the recycling industry in Chicago. It is a study about the structural changes that came about in that industry as it was turned into a regular private sector industry, with the goal of making a profit. LI found this interesting as a case just because we remember the old recycling movement in the seventies and eighties. My brothers worked, at that time, heading up maintenance for some apartment complexes. They were both enthusiastic about recycling. They sponsored a cleanup of litter, for instance, along a highway leading into Stone Mountain Georgia. They got their complexes in touch with recycling services. For a couple of years, they devised a mass pick up of Christmas trees – the trees were, I think, going to be used by fish hatcheries or something. My brothers are enthusiasts, and they turned out the family, including my mother, my father, and me – in the Christmas tree deal – to do the various recycling projects.

However, as recycling became simply profit based, the air went out of volunteering. And as they became profit based, instead of applying the private sector efficiency in taking care of the whole spectrum of waste, the spectrum was cherry picked.

Schaiberg writes:

First, treadmill organizations [those in the treadmill of increasing consumer demand and cutting production cost by leveraging part of that cost onto the commons, or other people’s property] generally resist environmental regulation with all the substantial means at their disposal. For example, prior to the advent of recycling regulations and programs, container firms fought all forms of
"bottle bills", spending perhaps US$50 million opposing such bills, and succeeding in about 2/3 of the states. Yet even these bottle bills were only indirectly constraining firms. Legislation did not directly mandate a refillable container, but only the imposition of a deposit on all containers. Even in this limited regulation, the refunding mechanisms for the deposit put some cost burdens on non-refillable container manufacturers and/or users. Thus, in recent years in New York state, bottlers have refused to repurchase stockpiled
refunded containers. They have let these accumulate at brokers and large retailers, seeking thereby to mobilize opposition to the bottle bill system. For the remaining 2/3 of states, container manufacturers and bottlers have simply encouraged recycling, and have kept feedstock prices low, and avoided paying labor costs for refilling containers.

Second, where direct resistance against any environmental legislation becomes
infeasible, under pressures from environmental NGOs, firms first dilute the legislation to minimize its impacts on their operations. Then they wait for opportunities to further lighten their regulatory load, whenever the political climate shifts and/or NGOs are elsewhere engaged. In the recycling arena, this has been commonplace. Affected industries have continuously shifted their campaigns to avoid mandatory direct controls on their production and distribution activities. All U.S. government regulations have avoided mandating firms with a "life cycle" responsibility for their own generation of post-consumer wastes, as has
occurred in some European states. Instead, governments had introduced fairly weak mandates for firms, requiring higher "recycled content" of their production. Firms have responded by including post-production waste recycling (a standard economic practice for decades) as part of post-consumption recycling.”

The treadmill aim of weakening the impetus for even voluntary environmental action seems odd, at first, until you take into account what the companies take into account – such behavior leads to an enlarged sense of the interaction between the economy and the environment. It is not just to make more money that the great energy monsters convened by Cheney in 2001 agreed to put the keebosh on conservation – it is because conservation countervails an insane consumerist ethos. If people are allowed, for a second, to fall in love with the planet to the extent of wanting to spare that tree or ice floe, the virus will spread. Questions about the justice of exhausting our resources will emerge. Fundamental questions about ownership and its limits. In fact, people will begin to think that politics doesn’t begin or end with what dumb party you vote for or the latest outrage that we must rush to have opinions on – should we sing the National Anthem in Spanish? Is the book by the guy who runs the Daily Kos doing better than the book written by the guy who runs instapundit? but we will think about why, if Americans (for instance) are so happy, they are so indebted, so unable to stop buying the stupidest things, so unwilling to look at, say, the environmental horrors being perpetrated, for the last five years, by coal mining companies in West Virginia.

When you have no control over your mind or attention span, you are fucking owned. And that is the resource they are extracting with every hot air soundbyte and fake crisis.


naivefox said...

Right on. The environment, our futures, are being stolen under our noses - processed, monetised, converted into a "wealth" which is highly short-term, abstract and narrowly shared - in the form of massive numeric profits yielding increased share prices, dividends, good quarterly results, and therefore rewards for management and senior shareholders.

-> we need to look at corporate form, and how numeric wealth is defined (GDP etc).

I was thinking about this the other day; the massive and increasing rate of throughput of the environment, generating numeric wealth; it's a crime, direct theft, transgression of legitimacy even while being legal, not to mention suicidal etc- but could it ever be paid back? Can the numeric wealth be refunded, if in the medium-term future, having experienced some kind of crisis of illumination and discover our sanity - we decide to try those who stole from the environment? (not that we can escape our own responsibility for this situation). You can't pay it back though; it's dead; it's gone; it's numbers in a computer. I read in The Ecology of Commerce that even with a billion dollars and as much time and as many scientists as you could ask for, it's not possible to create a single square metre of rainforest. All people can do is destroy, not create (tho we can of course be creative about limiting our destruction).

Anyway, just some random indirectly connected thoughts- great post.

naivefox said...

"senior shareholders" should read "major shareholders"!

roger said...

I sorta want to distinguish between environments that are adaptive and resources that are exhaustable. So, for instance, the more they find out about the tropical rain forest in Brazil, the more they find an intricate pattern of human - forest interaction. In the 1500s, when the first spanish reports about the Amazon came in, they all uniformly described pretty big populations -- which disappeared in the next century and a half, probably due to disease. From what I have read -- and there are a lot of disputes about this -- but probably, the human population of the Amazon didn't reach its 1500 peak until around 1900. In any case, those people practiced intense aboriculture and slash and burn, but -- slashing is much harder with a stone axe. They also developed a way of enriching the soil which is still being studied. What is exhaustable about the tropical rain forest, I believe, is the soil -- the erosion is what does the damage.

However, it is much easier to imagine the rain forests adapting to constraints on slash and burn and cultivation -- the rain forest reclaiming territory that isn't arbitrarily and wastefully taken -- than it is to image permafrost coming back. If the polar regions are thawing so that permafrost goes, that is going to have massive effects -- starting with the human environment. It is like we are trying to strip the cooler out of a nuclear reactor. A slight change in weather in the Great Plains states is definitely going to catch the American attention span. Given the exhausting of the Ogalala and the way we rely on that area for corn and beef, two water intensive products, we are coming upon a time when the Plain is going to turn back to what it was in 1800 -- semi desert. Not so bad for the Plains environment, actually, but when cornflakes is twenty bucks a box, maybe people will look back at handing the country to the petro playboys as not such a good idea.

In the essay I referenced, Schaiberg figures in extraction costs as well as pollution costs. It is a cool article. I'm glad I ran into this guy, researching another topic.

pulaski said...

There is a related area where lobbying would seem to go beyond the corporations' immediate economic interests: the ongoing privatization of land in the US. I think this privatization movement pushed by the American Recreation Coalition (including such well known recreation companies as Chevron) is about eliminating the idea of public land. The feel of public land in the western US has changed dramatically since Fee Demo began --- 'Adventure Pass', the required outsourcing of campgrounds in National Forests and National Parks, the elimination of low-cost options in parks, etc. This an interesting area because the environmental organizations were very slow to get on the right side of the issue (and some never have). There is sometimes local support for Fee Demo: in my neck of the woods the white locals were largely in favor of fee demo charges instituted on a BLM rec area popular with Latinos. The language was all about keeping the riffraff out. Now the BLM spends more in collecting the fees than they make and the area has strict hours. But folks get use to it and learn that none of it is 'theirs'.

roger said...

Pulaski, that's fascinating. I'm going to look up some stuff about the american recreation coalition. This is worthy of a stand alone post. Thanks!

pulaski said...

Looks like I lied about Chevron (Kawasaki and Yamaha are currently listed as ARC members, however, and they make more sense). My memory may have failed or the list has changed: http://www.funoutdoors.com/node/view/1227