Capitalist Swine

Think about the term "money laundering" for a moment. It suggests that the more often dirty money changes hands, the cleaner it gets.

Globalization operates according to the same imagined principle. If we tear down the barriers to the free flow of capital, our economies will cleanse themselves of protectionist impurities. The faster that money circulates in the global spin-cycle, the more efficiently the global economy will operate.

In fact, globalization just moves the dirt around. The recent outbreak of swine flu —actually a hybrid of swine, avian, and human flu — painfully demonstrates this truth. Did the epidemic begin at a hog farm run by Smithfield Foods in Veracruz, Mexico? A disease much like swine flu broke out in the community of La Gloria in February, affecting 60% of the town's population of 3,000 people. The link between this outbreak and the subsequent epidemic hasn't been determined. But the residents of La Gloria have been complaining for some time about the filthy conditions, namely the manure lagoons and the flies that love them.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Manuel Pérez-Rocha points out in the latest video interview in our Empire strategic focus, Smithfield was polluting the Chesapeake Bay before it branched out into polluting Mexico. In 1997, Smithfield was hit with the largest water pollution fine ever — $12.7 million — for dumping you-know-what into a river that feeds into the Chesapeake. Thanks to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Smithfield could easily shift operations to a place where health and safety regulations are considerably less strict. Rather than raising standards — wages, environmental regulations, health care — free trade agreements have pushed down the quality of life for workers and those living in communities around operations like Smithfield's in Veracruz.

The brouhaha over the name of the flu —  it is now officially called "H1N1," which makes it sound like the latest music video channel — has largely obscured the appalling conditions at these hog operations and their pathogenic propensities. "Pigs actually serve as a wonderful mixing vessel for influenza viruses to reassort," the CDC's Nancy Cox told The Washington Post. Epidemiologist Ellen Silbergeld was even more to the point: "It's my opinion that these kinds of events go on all the time because we have so little regulation of industrial agriculture. It's appropriate to refer to these animal operations as viral mixing bowls" (By the way, if you want to get a sense of what it's like inside these porcine hells on earth, read the novel That Old Ace in the Hole by E. Annie Proulx, which in the most entertaining way rubs your face in it).

Globalization isn't just about capital, of course. Germs and viruses are thrilled at the new opportunities to spread. Epidemics have been linked to colonialism (Europeans brought smallpox to the New World and brought home syphilis in return) and to war (the great flu epidemic of 1918 spread in part because of troop movements). These days, pathogens are benefiting from the greater circulation of people, goods, and capital. Both AIDS and SARS were given a big boost by airline travel. But the creation of a global assembly line for food production — swine flu breeding grounds, avian flu Petri dishes, mad cow disease production facilities — has exponentially increased our chances of breeding a virus that can tear through our compromised global immune system. If viruses could speak, they would sound a lot like Ronald Reagan: "Mr. Human Being, tear down this wall!"

One end run around this problem is to skip livestock altogether and grow meat in the laboratory, which the Dutch have been researching (giving new meaning to the phrase "Dutch treat"). But that sends us off into Oryx and Crake territory, novelist Margaret Atwood's terrifying vision of genetic engineering and pandemics. Without giving away the novel's ending, let's just say it's apocalyptic.

A more appropriate response would be to ramp up global cooperation to deal with these global challenges. One positive sign is China's recent decision to stop preventing Taiwan from participating as an observer at the World Health Organization. We can't deal with these problems until everyone is at the table. A shift in resources away from military spending and toward global health care is another no-brainer. And our globalization should be about raising standards rather than lowering them to the level of a pigsty.

We don't need an alien invasion à la The Day the Earth Stood Still to force nations to set aside their petty squabbling and join forces. The aliens are already here. They're just too small to see. They've sent their forces into battle several times already and been defeated, sometimes after a long and expensive fight. They're now gathering their strength and developing new weapons of mass destruction. Are we going to come up with an effective non-proliferation strategy? Or will we take the A. Q. Khan route and essentially supply these pathogens with the means to take us out?

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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