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Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

Posted: July 1, 2010 11:37 AM

Restraining the Profit Itch

What's Your Reaction:

The gap between the diffuse human yearning for a decent world and the organized agenda of the corporatocracy has never, in my lifetime, been wider.

I continue to be unable to turn away from the Gulf and what seems to be the unceremonious ushering in of a new age, a new awareness -- or maybe just the beginning of the end of our amped-up, gated, reckless civilization... and all that has a chance to come after it.

What the spill has yet to reach are the headquarters of corporate power and the consciences ensconced therein. The arrogance of the great capitalists remains undamaged, as they busy themselves with post-disaster job one: fending off what they fear will be a tide of market-fettering regulations and restrictions curbing their freedom to plunder the planet.

For instance: "The Gulf oil spill is having all sorts of nasty consequences well beyond damage to the regional environment and economy," a Wall Street Journal editorial seethed last week, not bothering to linger too long on ecocide, a wrecked coastal economy or dispersant-laced toxic rain. The real horror, we soon learn, is that politicians may actually make a big deal of it and try to prevent a recurrence.

"Not least," the editorial continues, "the resulting political panic seems to be rehabilitating the thoroughly discredited theory of regulation known as the precautionary principle."

Yeah, that's right, precaution. The editorial proceeds to belittle and, according to writers such as Amy Sinden of the Center for Progressive Reform, utterly misrepresent the concept, which is the regulatory foundation of the EPA and integral to many international environmental treaties. It's also basic common sense.

Sinden quotes the principle's articulation in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

What's truly discouraging is that this should be controversial -- but I understand why it is. It represents a fundamental shift in thinking at the geopolitical level, an assertion of human over corporate priorities. The precautionary principle puts the burden of proof square on the moneyed interests to demonstrate that a given project will not cause serious or, God help us, irreversible environmental damage -- rather than on opponents, or the government, to demonstrate irrefutably that it will.

Painful as it may be for Big Money to give up the freedom to do whatever it wants, to keep risking, and creating, irreversible environmental damage -- the technical capacity to do which we have had on a mega-scale since World War II -- restraining the profit itch, subordinating it to a larger value, is a crucial step in human maturity. This is not an adversarial debate, where one side wins and the other loses, or a choice between unemployment or cancer (though this is how it seems to be presented). For God's sake, Wall Street, we're all in this together.

Mary Parker Follett, who wrote about management principles back in the 1920s, and whose work has largely been forgotten, spoke brilliantly about the need for both sides of a labor-management dispute to transcend the win-lose paradigm.

Conventional thinking about dispute resolution recognizes only three possibilities: winning, losing or compromise, in which both sides partially win and partially lose and remain dissatisfied, bitter and agitated. Follett proposes a fourth possible outcome, which she calls integration: the creation of something new, which transcends the mutual exclusion of the opposing sides and fully satisfies both.

"Only integration really stabilizes," she writes in her essay "Constructive Conflict." "But by stabilization I do not mean anything stationary. Nothing ever stays put. I mean only that that particular conflict is settled and the next occurs on a higher level."

As the wounds in the Gulf continue to hemorrhage -- as the polar ice caps melt, as wars of domination spread their toxins into the unimagined future -- I know at least this much: We cannot afford to stay divided from ourselves. The global economy cannot continue as a rogue engine whose power dare not be restrained. We have to fuse our economic creativity with a reverence for Planet Earth. We must reclaim the sacredness of nature.

"Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world -- in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests -- as did European culture before the scientific revolution," Naomi Klein wrote recently.

...Calling the Earth 'sacred' is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe.

The enormous challenge of the 21st century is to reach deep into our past to reclaim that awe, even as we try desperately to undo the damage we have wrought for profit.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

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