Sustainability – Back to Basics

There is a lot of talk going around about “sustainability”, primarily in the context of human societies.

Many people think sustainability is a good thing. Many people think we need to make changes, and become more sustainable soon, or we will be in big trouble. Some people think we are doing just fine right now, thank you. Others fear we are too late, and humankind is doomed because we are not, and cannot be sustainable as a species, or at least not in time to save ourselves. Still others don’t think about it at all.

Well, for those of us who think we should be paying attention to sustainability, here are a few thoughts.

One basic concept: there are limits. Within the envelope of the earth’s atmosphere there are a finite number of atoms. Over geologic periods of time this number does not change much. Everything is made up of atoms, so when there is more of one thing (human beings, for instance) there is less of something else (clean water, for example)

Another basic concept: The natural world is an incredibly complex dynamic balance in constant change. It tends to become both more complex and more disbursed over time, with periodic upheavals. Most of these upheavals are on a timeline much longer than is of usual concern to human beings. (We don’t pay much attention.)

Yet another basic concept: Human beings are only a small portion of the natural world, and non-essential to it. The world was here before we were, and will do fine if we go away. To continue as a species we must develop ways to prosper within the dynamic balance of natural systems.

And perhaps the basic concept with the most impact, in the context of our sustainability: As individuals, and as a species, if we consume more that we produce, we are being subsidized – by resources or other people. This is impossible to maintain over time, i.e. it is unsustainable.

We have very little time in which to transform our societies. We all live unsustainably – for the last 100 years or so, and particularly in the last 50 years, human society generally, and western society specifically, has been subsidized by abundant, easily obtained, compact and portable, dense energy (oil). We are coming to an end of that resource. Nothing else comes close to petroleum as an energy source. No alternative energy source, or combination of known energy sources, will be able to replace petroleum. The petroleum subsidy will be a thing of the past in the next few years, a decade or two at most.

We may return to slavery as our primary subsidy – the usurpation by the few of the fruits of the labor of the many. It worked for most of our societies for many centuries. Or we could simply consume less. Either will work.

Certainly population will fall dramatically, as will consumption. With a small enough population, and knowledge gained in the last ten centuries, we would not have to revert to savagery, nor even the grinding poverty of Dickens’ time, but we will live much more simply that we do now, and the productive arts will need to flourish. Small scale agriculture, fiber arts, carpentry and ironsmithing, carriage building, herbal medicine, and myriad other forgotten arts will need to be recovered from the few of us who still retain the knowledge and skill, and these reconstituted arts will need to take advantage of the advances in knowledge that will allow us to thrive.

It can be done, but we need to acknowledge that we must make changes, and we must start now.

Personally, as I said in an earlier blog, I think we can, but I don’t think we will.

What do you think?

Equality Before the Law

It is generally acknowledged that the Constitution guarantees individuals equality before the law. This means that we will all be treated the same way in similar circumstances.

For purposes of this discussion let’s skip over the acknowledged fact that minorities and women suffer systematic discrimination and oppression. While that is certainly worth discussing, and remedying, that is not the focus of this piece.

What is the focus is the gross, systemic discrimination consistently visited upon human beings in our legal system in contrast to the broad protections given to corporations, particularly publicly traded corporations.

The Supreme Court has stated (sort of) that corporations have the rights of people. In particular, they have the right of free speech, and can contribute to political campaigns just as individuals can, and that right cannot be infringed.

But with rights are supposed to come responsibilities. That’s the reasoning behind the special restrictions of the rights of minors – because they are not held to the same level of responsibility as adults (whose rights are much less restricted.)

But, from the standpoint of criminal activity, corporations have no responsibilities at all. I know of no case where a publicly traded corporation has ever been tried in criminal court, and I have looked. Civil court, sure. But civil cases are usually brought by individuals or classes of individuals, not the government.

Criminal cases are brought by the government – the folks who are supposed to protect us from bad stuff. The local drug dealer is charged, tried and incarcerated by the local government. So is the local hooker (although generally not the John). If you steal something, or forge something, or even kill someone, it is the government who makes the case in court.

But not if you are a corporation.

The argument is made that it is not the corporation that makes the decision that leads to the crime. For example, it was not General Motors that decided not to fix the Corvair so it would not burst into flame and incinerate the passengers when hit from behind (because it was cheaper to settle the civil lawsuits that resulted), but people in the corporation. It was not the peanut processing corporation that decided to continue to ship e. coli contaminated nut butter to unsuspecting customers, but some employee of the company.

True enough. Corporations do not exist as physical, thinking beings that make decisions. People (Boards of Directors, CEOs, CFOs, Directors, Manager, etc.) make decisions for corporations. So, those people are the ones held accountable in criminal court, if anyone is.

So how does a corporation decide what it wants to say? If the Board of Directors is not the corporation, who is? How can we protect the rights to free speech for an entity that cannot be identified and questioned as to what they want to say? Who takes responsibility?

In reality, and in case law, when the Board of Directors makes a decision, it is the decision of the corporation. So, why is the corporation not criminally liable?

What do you think?

The Impact of Advertising

My father was an advertising copywriter. He wrote the words in advertisements, first in radio, then print ads (magazines, newspapers, “car cards” – those signs in the inside of busses above the windows). He never wrote television ads.

He taught me, at an early age, to really pay attention to advertisements, to focus on what was being said, and how, and what was not being said, and how.

He started in advertising when it was an honorable profession, when the purpose of advertising was to reach those people who had a real need for the product or service and who would benefit from having it, and to let them know the product or service existed, it’s qualities, and the benefits to the reader/listener.

Not too long after he started his career the United States begin morphing into a “consumer society”. The role of advertising became to convince everyone that they needed the product or service, no matter their personal needs, likes or dislikes, no matter their income.

Advertising urged us to buy, and buy, and buy. To spend all our money, and then some. To borrow until we couldn’t borrow anymore, and then feel inadequate about our ability to buy more, so we would buy even more.

Advertising became the major instrument whereby our expectations were continually raised and never satisfied.

It continues today. And the foolishness just keeps increasing. Years ago the laws exempted advertising (including political campaigns) from requirements not to lie. (Believe it or not, their used to be laws called “truth in advertising”. They said that you couldn’t lie in advertisements).

Of course, in the pursuit of profit, we not only make stuff up in advertising, we say things that have no meaning, but sound impressive. I recently saw an advertisement for mascara. It promised “12 times more impact”.

What does that mean? How do you measure the ”impact” of mascara? You don’t.

A mentor of mine once told me, “Remember, makeup is just dirt. Why spend a lot of money for fancy cleansers for your body so that you can then carefully apply dirt?”

Because the advertisers tell us to. Often in ways that make no sense. And it works.

That is the impact of advertising.

What do you think?

Health Insurance is not Health Care

On June 16th, 2009, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon gave an address on the floor of Congress

While I applaud Senator Wyden’s remarks on the Senate floor, he repeats the most common mistake central to the discussion of health care: blurring and confusing the terms “health care”, “coverage”, and “health insurance”.

“Health care” is the provision of services and materials in the support of maintaining or improving human health.

“Coverage” is an artifact of an insurance-based approach to providing health care. It means inclusion in some insurance plan, ostensibly for some range of services or materials, and has little relationship to the actual provision of any particular health care service or material. Health insurance contracts abound with exclusions of coverage for likely claims. The selective issuance of policies is designed specifically to exclude those most likely to need health care. Even when policies are issued, experience and court records are replete with instances of denied coverage in direct conflict with provisions of the terms of the insurance contract.

“Health insurance” is an agreement whereby an organization (usually for-profit) pools the payments of a selected group of participants, and from that pool draws money to pay for health care services and materials provided to the select group (under rules that enumerate the services and materials as well as the level of payment for them provided by, and altered at, the sole discretion of the insurance company), administrative costs, fees, expenses and profits for the owners of the company. Health insurance companies are generally highly profitable. Providers of services and/or materials are not bound by the payment levels from the insurance companies in providing their services and/or materials to patients.

The Real Challenge
I am concerned that the discussions about health care in the United States do not address the real challenge: providing health care to every person in the country. The discussion usually focuses on how to get coverage to more people, usually (if mentioned at all) by extending insurance to include more people. Some people have expressed concern about equal coverage for everyone (covered), and some focus on children, while others focus on “what’s possible now.” Many talk about eliminating waste, particularly in paperwork and claims procedures. No one is talking about the bizarre way we actually provide health care in the United States.

Imagine any other business with this approach:

Bring us your problem. You must sign this paper before we will talk to you. The paper says you authorize whatever we decide needs to happen, and you will pay for it. If someone else is supposed to pay for it, but doesn’t pay or doesn’t pay all that we decide we want to be paid, you will pay the balance.

Incidentally, we do not stand behind our work. We make no guarantee that any of the things we do will address your problem, and we don’t make any claim that anything we do won’t make things worse. If you have a problem with our services or materials, you can take us to court. Do keep in mind, however, that we are a clannish group, and we almost never admit that one of us made any error.

And by the way, when we are done, neither we nor you will have any idea how much you owe in total, because we use a number of sub-contractors, all of whom will be billing you separately for their services, which we authorized for you, but for which we have no idea of the costs or extent. You still have to pay those other “providers”, even the ones you don’t know about, and we can’t name for you. They may take as much as 6 months to a year to let you know you owe them money, but you will nevertheless have to pay them.

And just like our services and materials, we don’t guarantee the quality, sufficiency or even the necessity of their services and materials, either.

(OK, most lawyers treat their clients much the same way. Perhaps that’s why most of us have pretty low expectations of the legal system for any but the wealthy.)

Insured or uninsured, this is health care delivery in the United States of America, ostensibly the wealthiest nation in the world, the land of the free, and the home of the brave

We must be brave to tolerate a system of health care like ours.

In this, the “cradle of democracy”, why do our legislators not seriously consider the health care approach that the majority of our citizens – those “demos” in democracy (that is, you and me) – favor – a single payer system?

Senator Wyden does address many aspects of the current problems in health care in the United States. Chief among them is, I believe, his initial point: we shy away from doing all we should be doing because we are convinced we can’t do all that needs to be done.

This aborted approach has worked for us for decades – after all, Members of the House and Senate have good health care. And so do the executives of most corporations.

It’s just those damned demos who won’t shut up!

I urge the Senator, and all legislators to fight for a real and complete solution: single payer health care – covering everyone in the country. We know it works.

What do you think?