Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Money Doesn’t Need a Bill of Rights–but our Children Do

By Madronna Holden

This year’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations unlimited campaign spending is as unconscionable as it is frightening.

Money doesn’t need a Bill of Rights.  It already has rights aplenty– rights  directly linked to US economic woes.  A recent report of the Institute for Policy Studies  indicated that the differential between salaries for the the top 50 CEOs responsible for worker layoffs in the US and those same workers are 42 per cent greater than the global average.

In other words, those with more money have the right to lay off those with little money– and to gain more in the process.

Do these folks really need to saturate the airwaves with ads about problems with the national debt, scapegoating welfare programs (responsible for one per cent of our national budget), while tax loopholes for the wealthy cost US taxpayers 20 billion dollars annually in lost revenue?

In a democracy we can’t choose without information, but the Supreme Court decision has given corporations the right to manipulate that information any way they wish.

For instance, oil-linked corporations have financed billions of dollars worth of ads undermining scientific information on climate change, such as the ad that asks, “If the climate is getting warmer, why is such is and such a city getting colder?”  In fact, the cities mentioned in these ads are not getting colder, but posing the question in this way leads the viewer to assume s/he has seen proof positive against global warming.

Congress recently tried to safeguard our right to know with the The Disclose Act— which would require that campaign ads state who paid for them.  However, this bill went down to defeat in the Senate as a result of a Republican filibuster.  In a strange twist, those who killed it claimed to be supporting the Constitution.

If money did have a conscience, the Supreme Court might have been justified in giving corporations comparable rights to human beings.  But too many believe the famous statement of Milton Freidman that the ethical responsibility of corporations is to increase their profits.

And in this goal all others  get shunted aside.  A recent article in the Annuals of Internal Medicine found that research funded by the pharmaceutical industry yields results favorable to its products eighty-five per cent of the time. That is four times the rate at which positive results are produced by independently funded research.

This tabulation reaffirms the importance of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who see getting out public information as essential to their role as scientists and Integrity in Science, who follow the money in terms of scientific research funding.

A few states do have disclosure laws for campaign ads.  This is how citizens found out that Target supported the anti-gay Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer with big bucks.

In California, oil-related industries Valero, Koch, and Flint, gave huge contributions to an initiative campaign to overthrow the state’s green energy bill.  As the Union of Concerned Scientists observed, the main focus of the ads supporting this initiative is to “muddy the waters”.   Such corporate spending sprees are off target in a democracy.  Monied interests should not have the right to protect their interests—and to do so secretly–  at the cost of the rights of our children to inherit a natural environment that sustains life.

Corporations can do the right thing when their interests are on the side of good science, as in the case of the insurance industry that has had to deal with claims resulting from increased tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, and fire in the past few decades.  The Hartford Insurance Company’s “Statement on Climate Change” is illustrative.

In fact, as the folks at Ethical Markets and CSWire illustrate, corporations can do the right thing because they are smart enough to see that their success is linked to social justice and environmental sustainability. But we are not encouraging that trend by allowing corporations to twist the Bill of Rights to protect their profits.

In a democracy, a Bill of Rights should protect the most vulnerable rather than the most powerful.  Protecting the rights of all humans with whom we share our earth was the goal of the International Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN in the wake of World War II, when the nations of the world saw just how far things could get out of hand if such rights were not protected.

Rather than to corporations, we need to apply such rights today to the millions of girls who are kidnapped and forced to serve in brothels.  In their book, Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn report  from the field on both the horrors of ruined and lost lives for such girls—and the models some of them provide for courageous resistance.

The current UN report on violence toward women underscores the tragic fact cited in this book that it is statistically more dangerous to be born a woman than it is serve as a soldier on the front lines of battle.

These are the heroes among the most abused of women who have started schools or networks providing legal protection for other women.  Wu Dunn and Kristof not only share their stories but indicate the importance of the international community’s shining the spotlight on the situation of such women, as Amnesty International has done. Heroic as well as inspiring are women like Sunitha Krishman of India, legendary for her fight against local slavery at substantial personal danger to herself. Her work is also supported by the Ashoka foundation who support such “social entrepreneurs” worldwide.

WuDunn and Kristof also indicate ways in which others have become “social entrepreneurs” who change the world for the better in remarkable ways.  Zach Hunter, raised in Atlanta, began his activism at age twelve when he heard of human slave trafficking and instantly became a self-declared “abolitionist”. After raising money to get women out of slavery with his Loose Change to Loose Chains campaign, he published a book for potential teenage activists and fostered chapters of his anti-slavery organization throughout the US.

There are other vulnerable ones who deserve the protection of a bill of rights as well—earth’s others upon whom our ecosystems—and ultimately, our own sustenance—depends.  Takelma Siletz elder “Grandma” Aggie, chair of the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers sees her own role as a “voice for the voiceless”—speaking on behalf of those lives, human and more than human, that have relatively little power in the contemporary global society.

In the context of such generous acts, the corporate fight for their own “human rights” seems especially perverse.  Twenty years ago, Carl Meyer published an extensive article in the Hastings Law Journal detailing the ways in which corporations have garnered not only legal “personhood” but every one of the protections of the Bill of Rights for themselves through their legal maneuvers.

Our country did not set out to grant such rights to corporations. Indeed, the original framers of the Constitution were so leery of corporate power, they made corporations subject to short-term operating licenses  periodically assessed to make sure that the corporate activity was still necessary to the common good.

Our precious constitutional rights—such as the right to avoid “chemical trespass”—should belong to our children, who have a right not to be exposed to toxic chemicals so that a few can earn greater profits.  As David Korten observes in his Agenda for a New Economy, the status of our children’s well being presents an “a remarkably clear picture of society’s state of health”.  Korten also notes that Adam Smith, hailed as the “father of capitalism”, had a “substantial antipathy toward corporate monopolies and those that use their wealth and power in ways that harm others.”

It is time to assess who we should be protecting with our Bill of Rights:  the vulnerable lives that represent our social and environmental future or the corporations acting as if the only thing we need to protect is money. I know my own answer:  I have signed on to the “motion to amend” our constitution stating that corporations are not persons and should not be allotted their rights.

Money doesn’t need a bill of rights, but our children—and all the children of the world– do.

An Oregon boy’s experiences working alongside migrant farm workers

By Madronna Holden

Sixty per cent of US citizens, according to a recent poll, support the controversial Arizona immigrant law. They want consistent law enforcement on the immigration issue.

But this law is not likely to get it for them. A sticking point is the law’s requiring police to check registration status of “suspected” immigrants– but just exactly how does an immigrant in a nation of immigrants look suspicious?   The Arizona Republic ran a page full of pictures—and asked its readers how they would pick out the “immigrants”.

Impossible to do without racial profiling.

There are others issues here:  low cost migrant labor is a mainstay of US agriculture.  If one really stopped all illegal immigrants from reaching or staying in the US, this sector of our economy would likely collapse.

There is the issue of justice involved when multi-national corporations in which US parties have substantial interest buy up lands in Mexico—ousting the residents from traditional subsistence farms. There are also market shifts created by our rush to produce ethanol, which has inflated the price of corn for mainstays like tortillas in the Mexican diet beyond the reach of the average family budget.

But for all such legitimate analysis,  the one perspective often missing in this debate is the story not of dollars or images or abstract legal standards, but human lives.  This is the story shared  by my student, Ohdran McGonagall, who relates his childhood experience working alongside migrant workers:

I worked on the hot summer farms as a kid for years. I did back-breaking work the way my dad and grand-dad did harvesting vegetables by bending over and picking them with my two hands. It was hard and dirty, it was everyday, all summer long. We hired high school kids who wanted summer jobs for a few years until they stopped showing up and started spending their summers indoors playing video games. Most kids didn’t want those kinds of jobs, so we had to replace them with people who did. People need food, farmers grow it, harvesters get it to the stores and canneries. Farmers are nothing without the work of the people harvesting.

On the farm, our new employees needed money and we gladly paid them. We drove around Salem in a van and picked them up from their meager homes, and they got up damn early (4am most days) to make sure they had jobs every day and that someone else didn’t take those jobs from them. We had the best crew around, and other farmers hired us to bring our crew to harvest their farms after they put in a whole day on ours. None of them ever said they were too tired. They asked for more work. They worked twice as long and sometimes four times as long in the fields as I could when I was half their age. Some of these people were seventy years old, yes, seventy!

I learned some of their language and discovered that not all of these people were just Mexican citizens, but indigenous people with their own language in addition to Spanish. They brought their traditional food to work and shared it with me, and they taught me a lot about family and sticking together. Many of them were saving up to buy a house for one family and then when one family was situated, they would do this for the next family and so on until they were all living in better homes.

My family even learned some farming tricks from them which they gladly shared without demanding anything for their expertise. We paid them better wages than other farmers did because they were good at their jobs and our success was theirs and we knew they all had families south of the border. Imagine being a couple thousand miles away from your family just so you can provide for them.

Were they illegal immigrants? Who knows? I never cared to ask. They were as much from America as I was. Were they friends? Absolutely. Were they busting their backs to feed people in my home town who in turn discriminated against them and wanted to send them home? Every day.

I always thought if we turned over the entire agricultural process we have today to those folks, we would be healthier. Of course we would as a nation need to drop the NIMBY approach. I doubt we would need to chemically “enhance” our fruits and vegetables thereby putting toxins in our bodies. I doubt we would allow large strawberry corporations to undermine true farming of indigenous peoples. We would be culturally enriched by just dropping the idea of putting up a wall, and by having our co-American neighbors here where we could work and learn new things together. And of course, they would find jobs and opportunities they aren’t currently finding south of lands we stole, lands that were formerly THEIR best.

Ask TIAA CREF to divest its Occupation funds

You don’t have to be a student or teacher to sign a petition asking TIAA CREF (a teacher’s retirement fund) to divest its funds supporting the Israeli Occupation. You just have to care about justice.

Here is a copy of note I posted on my companion blog at Oregon State University:

To my colleagues at OSU:  Please review this petition developed by Jewish Voters for Peace asking TIAA CREF to divest from funds profiting from the Occupation.

A regime that undermines Palestinian human rights, including the right of its university to remain open, does not deserve our support, as was the position of Hebrew University’s Solidarity with BirZeit University Committee during the  year I taught at BirZeit.  Certainly we should not profit from such a regime by allowing our retirement fund to provide economic support for it.

Having lived among Palestinians civilians at Ramallah the year that I taught at Birzeit, I have seen firsthand the effects of the Occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Occupation condemned by the UN has undermined not only Palestinian human rights but Israeli security and integrity– as in the jailing of teenage Israeli draft resisters who have attempted to develop interpersonal diplomacy between Palestinians and Israelis.

Merely to escalate the same actions that have undermined peace in the last three decades and expect different results is insanity, as the recent attack on the boat bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza indicates.

Please help to change this.

The Elephant in our Living Room, the BP Oil Spill, and Albert Einstein

By Madronna Holden

Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote an essay in which he predicted the unhappy future of “pure capitalism” or “economic anarchy”. as he called it.[1] He observed that the system based on individual competition for profit derives from a history of conquest.  As such, it expresses the “predatory stage” of human development which we must transcend if we are to survive.

A worldview which teaches us to value individual profit-taking at the expense of our fellows causes us to resent the society we inevitably also rely on—and anyone’s telling us what to do with our money is considered a major affront.  This is the logic of those who opposed a national health plan on the grounds that they might have to join it—even if it meant their families would have security from health catastrophes that can easily become economies catastrophes.

In this perspective, government is perceived as bad, since it is social. There is no sense that it might actually do something good for us. This worldview also leads us to declare hands off the money makers, who are supposed to be doing something good and essential for society.

It is this worldview that underlies the declaration of corporations as legal “persons”. The Supreme Court recently asserted such corporate “persons” had the protections of the first amendment to free speech—and could thus spend as much as they wished on advertising in political campaigns.

This decision brings us closer to Einstein’s prediction that “private capitalists” would inevitably “come to control… the main sources of information (press, radio, education).”  Corporate “freedom of speech” also extends to advertising pharmaceuticals on television in the US—and a growing push to allow this in other countries such as Britain.  Today US television networks, news media, newspapers, book publishers and even phone and internet delivery systems are owned by a handful of corporate entities, which increasingly control not only advertising, but news and other program content.

However, these corporate “persons” don’t follow the rules that human persons have to. In their application for offshore drilling permits, BP was excused from submitting an emergency plan to deal with an accident like the one currently fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil gushing into the Gulf is every bit as visible as the proverbial elephant in the living room as a wake up call that we need to change course. Yet in the month since the oil began gushing out of BP’s deep wells, regulators have approved 27 more offshore drilling projects, including 2 for BP. 26 of these received environmental exemptions.

Further, this comes in the wake of revelations of sex, drug use, and graft among Interior Department regulators.

If an individual human paid officials for the privilege of ignoring traffic signals on a busy street, we would be rightly outraged. We would be even more outraged if their exemption from the law resulted in the deaths of eleven individuals and uncounted members of other species.

So why do we excuse corporate “persons” from culpability here?  The answer can only be Einstein’s:  when we live in a capitalist society in which profit-making rules the day, we give unthinking leeway to those making the profits.

For instance, we have a “revolving door” through which corporate executives go to and from the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. This was the subject of an exposé in the Ecologist—though the issue in which this exposé was to appear was quashed in press after legal threats from Monsanto.

The “revolving door” is exemplified by George Bush’s appointment of Linda Fisher, a former executive vice president at Monsanto, as deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. The documentary, The Future of Food, notes that Fisher has been back and forth between Monsanto and the EPA three times.

It is no surprise that under such leadership The Union of Concerned Scientists found that researchers in federal regulatory agencies are consistently pressured by their superiors to hide their research findings if they are unfavorable to industry.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Union as well as “Integrity in Science” for revealing the funding sources of contemporary researchers– facing head on the question of just how independent scientific research can be when it is funded by pharmaceuticals or agribusiness.

In his article, Einstein laments the way our educational system stokes the “exaggerated competitive attitude” in its students, who are  “trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for future careers”.  In a follow up comment to the post in which former gmo researcher speaks out about the shaky scientific standards of that research, he observes this process firsthand: “They may think the company is totally evil and a threat to the planet, but when their bank account starts filling up, the next thing you know, they’re in a suit at a board meeting discussing profit objectives for the next quarter.”

The biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical industries (many of which share board members) not only hire researchers but bribe them outright.  They have blatantly tampered with the scientific peer review process, paying researchers to write articles and even draw up experiments in support of their products whose resulted are fudged.  In one case, Merck published an entire fake academic journal.

There are still the independent scientists worthy of the name.  The data they developed has led particular chemicals to be listed by the EPA as known, probable or suspected carcinogens. However, these chemicals are still marketed in the US—if not in the EU, where their regulatory system prioritizes human health over profit.

Our own lack of regulation here illustrates what happens when an economy is at odds with the well being of its people. Put through the wringer of the competitive profit motive, the laudable idea of freedom for all ends up as privilege for the few.

Take, for instance, the case of one of the hundreds of farmers sued by Monsanto for having genetically engineered seeds in their field as a result of wind drift.  In the Future of Food one of these farmers observes that once upon a time  if your cow trampled your neighbor’s field, you were responsible for the damage since you were responsible for the fence to keep your cow  confined. But in the context of current corporate privilege, the farmer is responsible not only for keeping genetically engineered seed out of his field, but sued for the privilege of having it trample his crop.

In a society in which competitive profit-making rules, the profits of a few inevitably wind up trumping the costs to the many. The President’s Cancer Panel notes the health care expenses for those who contract cancer from environmental causes, for instance.

No less than the father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith, chronicled his worry that capitalism would set societies adrift in the valueless “economic anarchy” that Einstein predicted.  Smith resolved this dilemma with the idea that free markets would express social “preferences” and thus exert ethical constraints on doing business.

Frances Moore Lappé’s response to the idea that free markets enforce social ethics is like Gandhi’s response to Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea”.

She notes that the free markets are a fiction:  they don’t respond to social preferences– they respond to money.  At a talk at Linfield College, she noted that “eating is right up there in terms of human preferences”, but when the numbers of hungry people are growing worldwide, it is obvious the current market system is not responding to human preferences.

Neither is the market for employment. The market in which we sell our labor is not determined by the usefulness of our work to society or its satisfaction to ourselves— but by the ability of our employers to make money.  The handful of US corporations currently controlling the production, transportation, processing, and marketing of food argue that they are doing something useful to society. They are feeding us. But they are feeding us junk food that is unsustainably raised using inhumane practices for farm workers as well as for farm animals.

The argument that large corporations are doing something essential because they are making a profit ignores the elephants they themselves are riding on:  their workers and the natural world.  If we don’t care for these, we will have no economy, growth or no growth, innovation or no innovation.

To do otherwise is following the logic of a bank robber who tells us if we don’t hand over the money, the system will collapse.  If we don’t turn over the money, it will certainly collapse for the bank robber.  But there is economic blackmail that makes it harder for us to respond to this as we should. The weapon large corporations are holding on us is our ability to hold down a job and to feed ourselves and our families.

But the idea that these corporations are “too big to fail” only holds if there is no alternative. It only hold, that is, if we assume they have a  monopoly on  providing for our needs–if there is no other way to get jobs or food but through them.

But this doesn’t jive with the facts. The folks at Good Jobs First have researched the ways in which subsidies for corporations result in economic losses for communities that hand them over. Notably, communities that have the most stringent environmental and labor regulations also have the best family wage jobs.  In “Regulate Me, Please”, on CSwire’s responsible business forum, CEO Jeffrey Hollender argues the case that “regulation is good for business”.

Political democracy entails economic democracy, in which we have regulations that level the playing field so that the power of one person/one vote is not subverted by the money behind a corporate “person’s” vote.

Regulation is not a dirty word. But blackmail—economic or political—is.  So are poverty, pollution, addiction, obesity, and cancer.

Einstein made some dire predictions for the future of “pure” capitalism.  But he also had a vision, based on the cross-cultural history of humankind which tells us how adaptable and creative we are.

Once we acknowledge the elephant in our living room, we can send it back to the jungle and busy ourselves creating a society based on care,  justice and sustainability–  in which we celebrate both our individual potential and our connections to one another.


Here are some suggestions as to what can individuals do to change the corporate power that is currently undermining our democracy.

  1. We can follow our political process carefully and support efforts to place limits on campaign spending –or publicly fund elections—and to reveal sources of funding for candidates or initiatives.
  2. We can support community job creation, “microenterprises” on the model of the Grameen Bank, which won the 2006 Nobel Prize for fostering development from the ground up.
  3. We can support small farmers and organics and community co-ops that do labor exchanges, seed saving, sustainable farming and urban gardening.
  4. We can buy products –and only those products– that are good for us, the environment, and our children.
  5. We can lend our support to alternatives that undermine the idea of profit first not only with the dollars we spend, but with our interest and personal presence, our intelligence and creativity.
  6. We can do whatever possible to change our society from an egoistical one to a caring one in our daily choices.

In short, we can design as many ways as possible in which we refuse to be bought.


For an update of the millions-strong movements all over the US to “turn anger into action” in response to the oil spill, check out this essay in Sarah van Gelder’s blog for YES magazine.


[1] I want to acknowledge Molly Saranpaa, who sent me a copy of Einstein’s article just as I was developing this essay on the same topic.

Beyond damage control: getting the future we want

By Madronna Holden

In the face of emergencies like the Gulf oil spill, many of us feel like the man in the traditional story who pulls one drowning man after another out of the river.

But even as he reaches the end of his energy and wits, he sees another man running upriver to stop the one pushing all these people into the river in the first place.

Though in an emergency, it may seem that damage control is all we can, so, we should never let it replace our vision—or our rational perceptions of what needs to be done.

Community planner Eben Fodor, who is doing an independent evaluation of “Envision Eugene”,  Eugene’s Comprehensive Lands Assessment, observed in a South Eugene Neighbors meeting last night that such damage control has replaced vision in this process. Thus, instead of asking how to create a vital and thriving community of humans and nature, we must figure out how to eke out sustainability and cut carbon emissions in the context of the same growth-oriented development model that has caused our problems in the first place.

In this context, we can only pull as many as possible out of the river—and community members fight with one other over which are the most important to keep from drowning.

As innovative environmental designer William McDonough has put it, such a “visioning” process is like setting a goal of going 20 miles per hour rather than 30 in the wrong direction.

What we really need to do is turn around.

Robert Emmonds of Lane County Landwatch, also at the neighborhood meeting, outlined the ideas that might make this happen– with a primary goal of matching human use to the character of the land. Fitting people’s actions to the land rather than attempting remake the land to fit human convenience is an ancient and effective strategy in human history.  One that develop a partnership between humans and their land.

Whether or not we agree with its details, this proposal deserves to be on the table– which cannot happen, since the comprehensive plan is working under the constraints set out by the Oregon State Legislature to allow for growth.

I am glad there are those working on changing this.

As the statement of the recent global People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia points out, all peoples need the development necessary to sustain their lives. But neither the earth nor the human community can afford the current growth-oriented development strategy, which would require five planets just to accommodate the continued resource use of the current developed nations alone.

We also need to shift from damage control to rational planning in dealing with environmental health issues, according to the recently released report of the President’s Panel on Cancer.

The panel’s report noted that when forty-one per cent of US citizens will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes and nearly one in four will die from this disease–and the fastest rising cancer rate is among children– our medical rescue operation needs to look at what is happening upriver to create all these cancer victims.

The culprit is clearly environmental pollution. Thus the panel states that in order to stem the current cancer epidemic we much shift federal policy from a “reactionary” to a “precautionary” approach with respect to the over 80,000 human-made chemicals currently released into our environment. The panel has a clear and accessible list for individual and citizen actions to protect your family, your community, and your personal health—like curtailing of lawn chemical use and switching to organic foods wherever possible.

As with the cancer epidemic, current research implicates environmental toxins in the rates of obesity and diabetes among the current generation of children.  Researchers have isolated pesticides that are “obesegens”. Children exposed to this class of pesticides are more likely to grow up obese and to become diabetic.

Together, cancer, obesity and diabetes make children in this generation the first to have a predicted lifespan shorter than that of their parents.

US children are also subject to the fast food/junk food environment created by the concentrated corporate powers that produce and distribute US food. Our system of subsidies for such foods makes it more expensive for the individual consumer to buy organic, locally produced fruits and vegetables than a cheap burger. There is a painful scene in Food, Inc., in which a poor family assesses the costs of items in the fresh produce isle and rejects them all as too expensive.

Kelly Brownell, Director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, put it point blank:  our kids “haven’t a chance unless we curtail the junk food industry”. Not only does this industry carefully calculate salt, sugar, and fat percentages in fast food recipes to trigger addictive responses, but they use psychological and physiological research to find ways to bypass the decision-making areas of our brains and produce ads accordingly– to the tune of 100 million dollars every four days.

We pay these costs not only with our food dollars but with our health.

We also pay the costs of researching, marketing, protecting patents and fighting labeling genetically engineered foods. If we shifted to the precautionary rule with respect to these products we would not only require that they be labeled, but we would test them according to their long term effects—and require industry to foot the bill for this before they release their products into our environment.

A central reason why this does not happen is lack of oversight in regulatory agencies– as in the one that exempted BP from developing a plan for handling an accident like the one that is currently spilling as much as two and a half million gallons of oil a day into  the Gulf of Mexico– though a citizen group has a plan — a petition to stop offshore drilling.  Industry that funds research also oversees its results, leading to a scandal with regard to the scientific peer review process—an attempt to draw up a new ethics policy to keep scientific research independent.

We can see how industry might nix the publication of the study done by a scientist who found that genetically engineered  soy fed to three generations of hamsters caused sterility—and triggered gene expression for things such as hair growth inside their mouths.   In fact, the industry has worked to restrict  independent (non-industry funded) research on genetically engineered products.

But amidst all this dysfunction, there are those who are working at staying the hand of the ones sinking all the lives currently lost to cancer and diabetes. Senator Lautenberg recently introduced the Kid Safe Chemicals Act into Congressional committee. This legislation would institute a precautionary policy with regard to chemical usage in the US., following the lead of the European Union’s REACH program. The Environmental Working Group is tracing the progress of this bill and ways you can support it.

It is about time. In her congressional testimony, EPA director Lisa Jackson agreed, noting how outdated our current 1976 act is in this regard.

The old law does not even allow us to ban asbestos or to clamp down on the use of formaldehyde in construction products, so that this chemical, directly linked to asthma, is more prevalent in new construction than in houses several decades old.

“Fore-caring”—another term for the precautionary principle urged by Jackson and Lautenberg– is an essential moral act.  It is also a central pragmatic one. What, after all, is more pragmatic than protecting our own future?

Some would like to take this vision of “fore-caring” even further:  creating a society with the central value of caring.  Only a caring society would replace an economic system that rewards the acts that threaten our survival. Such a shift to a caring society is the goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who plan a conference with this goal and an impressive array of speakers to be held this coming June in Washington, D.C..

They would like to invite all of you who are reading this to attend.

The network supports a constitutional amendment that states that corporations are not persons with the rights of human beings (as our law currently has it) and all US citizens have a right to a healthy environment.

A shift to a society of caring is only a return to the central value that made humans survivors for one hundred thousand years of our history. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples gathered from around the globe at the People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia and asserted it in their statement:: “It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings,”

There are too many lives of all species going down in the current river of carelessness and greed. We need not only to care for those wounded by our present policies, but to recognize what is wounding them—and develop a vision for changing that.

As the People’s Agreement on Climate Change observes, knowledge should be the shared inheritance of humanity.

So should vision.