This weekend, October 25 and 26, I will be joining leading critics, from the United States and abroad, of corporate-controlled technologies, who are also proponents of appropriate technologies for the people (Vandana Shiva, Anuradha Mittal, Helen Caldicott, Wes Jackson, Bill McKibben), convening at the historic Cooper Union Great Hall on “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth.”
The speakers are highly knowledgeable. Some of their prior warnings were ignored by policy makers. Unfortunately, many of these warnings were, in retrospect, understatements. The chief organizer of this gathering is Jerry Mander who heads the International Forum on Globalization (see IFG.org for the entire list of programs).
In 1996, Mander and Edward Goldsmith brought together several prominent writers to contribute essays to the book titled The Case Against the Global Economy. These analysts made predictions about the damaging effects of relentlessly single-minded corporate power and their corporate-managed trade agreements like the WTO (World Trade Organization) under President Bill Clinton and the newly ratified NAFTA. Eighteen years ago, these chapters seemed provocative and extreme to knee-jerk “free traders.” Reading these essays now, with knowledge of the subsequent effects of these agreements on workers, education, culture, energy, environment, media, food supply, pharmaceuticals, land use, the patenting of life forms, developmental colonialism and democratic processes, makes the book prophetic. Eighteen years ago, many wrote off this book as an exaggeration, when in fact it underestimated the damage to people of various economic statuses from both developing and developed countries caused by unbridled corporatism.
William Greider’s chapter, titled “Citizen GE,” remains one of the most brilliant succinct overviews of a global company’s avaricious reach ever written.
The book moves into proposals for “relocalization” of economic systems, currencies, communities and agriculture. Mr. Mander views this weekend’s conference as a jolting update and call-to-action for urgent redirections away from the secretive, proprietary corporate science/technology that serves the narrow intersects of short-term commercialism at the expense of humans and broader global values.
The corporate giants intent on domination through governmental proxies, shared monopoly power and propaganda, are not what the philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead had in mind when he said that a great society is one in which “its men of business think greatly of their functions.” For the corporate bosses, no matter how evident the stunning unintended consequences of their dominion, still march to the imperatives of quarterly earnings, stock prices and executive bonuses.
With such narrowly based yardsticks to measure their success, it is no wonder that the global corporations today, such as energy, drugs, “defense,” banking, mining etc. – are power-concentrating machines driven to defeat, diminish or co-opt any forces advancing contrary civic, political or economic values.
One of the least noticed, uneven struggles is that between corporate science and academic science. Unlike academic science, corporate science is not peer-reviewed, except by the ruse of some well-compensated and corrupted academic scientists – a practice known to both the tobacco and drug industries. Corporate science is secretive (aka proprietary), politically-empowered and intensely media-promoted. It is intrinsically linked to protecting and promoting commercially profitable pursuits that are often hazardous or harmful to people and the environment.
An example is Monsanto Corporation, which encompasses a global drive to use patent monopolies and political influence to change the nature of nature. Monsanto’s unlabeled, genetically engineered crops are widely unregulated, as noted by Scientific American, which said: “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers” (July 20, 2009).
Thus, corporate science is largely immunized from proper public accountability. This leads to rapid engineering applications without the rigorous testing and peer-reviewing process required by its more moral counterpart, academic science. It is these rapid engineering deployments, as well as their misapplication and public propaganda that the Cooper Union convocation seeks to address. There is a precedent for this work. The polluting internal combustion engine was rarely challenged until the nineteen-sixties when a Caltech scientist connected its emissions to smog.
A major part of the Cooper Union conference on “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth” will relate to what Mr. Mander calls “Which Way Out? Ingredients of Change.” Interestingly, there is no panel or topic focusing on the fundamental reality that there is no ethical or legal framework within which these technologies must operate. Consider GMO seeds, nanotechnology, weaponized drones, synthetic biology, medical robotics, weapons systems, surveillance devices and more! Where is the regulatory law? Where is the civic discussion of what these “machines” and technology portend for our societal and moral values?
There will be numerous presentations that urge local self-reliance, community businesses, “Indigenous Values and the Rights of Nature,” “True Cost Accounting,” and “Steady State Economics.” But there are limits to the efforts of individuals who promote local self-reliance in the civic sector. Mundane obstacles, such as Congress, cannot be ignored. The governmental arm of giant corporatism and its influence on our indentured politicians stifles initiatives to displace commercialism and corporate power.
There is no substitute for the much-needed political mobilization of the people in every congressional district to expand proven local efforts and spark a national discussion and transformation of our presently inverted priorities and plutocratic dominations (see IFG.org).