The common denominator

Posted December 6, 2012 by Jim Harkness   

FinanceMarketsBusiness and industryClimateClimate ChangeFood security

IATP President Jim Harkness presented the following address to the attendees of the 11th Hour Project's grantee gathering on October 11, 2012. See a video of his remarks below.

Good morning.

The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”

Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”

Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.

This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.

Whether the goal is sustainable agriculture, a just food system, public health or fighting climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that our common denominator and primary obstacle is the concentrated wealth and political power of multinational financial firms and corporations. This power feeds off of and exacerbates other problems, like scarcity and racism and state tyranny. It is manifested not only through grossly unequal legal and economic structures, but through an ideological privileging of markets and private profit over democracy, justice and environmental well-being.

I want to talk about two massive, existential threats—climate change and the enclosure of the global commons—that are endangering global food security and the very existence of the world’s peasants, and are driven by the turbo-charged version of capitalism that has been put in place over the last several decades.

Both of these things have been happening for some time, but have gotten exponentially worse—GHG in the past half century, global land grabbing just in the past five years. Bill McKibben pointed out that in the case of climate chaos this is in part an accident of scientific history. We didn’t realize that carbon was a deadly pollutant until very recently, so we’ve given the fossil fuel industry a colossal free ride. His insight makes me wonder. What if we had discovered the truth about greenhouse gases in the 1960s? What if, in 1962, Rachel Carson had written The Truth About Carbon, instead of Silent Spring? If that had happened, I believe we would be much, much farther along in addressing climate change, not just because we’d have more time, but because in that decade we were still, as a society, able to make bold choices that were not wholly predicated on the enhancement of profit and privilege.

But by the time we had scientific consensus about the threat of GHG, about 20 yearrs ago, the relationship between capital and the rest of us had changed. The notion of the Public Good had been replaced by the ideology of efficient markets and the profit-maximizing individual; the idea of using democratic institutions to solve big problems had been replaced by the idea that Big Government IS the problem. Can you imagine someone in 1969 developing a species extinction abatement cost curve instead of the National Endangered Species Protection Act? Or starting an industry roundtable to try to gradually reduce the rate of extinctions through voluntary codes of conduct? In hindsight, the speed with which a bipartisan “Market First” mentality took hold in our society, and globally, is startling.

So what does this shift have to do with climate change and land grabs?

Farmers and peasants everywhere have to gamble on two things every season: weather and markets. Neither one is completely predictable, but a good farmer knows enough about both and about her farm to make prudent choices that will help her get through a bad harvest, a drop in prices or an increase in costs. The problem today is that the weather has gone crazy and so have the markets.

You know the basic facts of climate change. Much more noticeable than the gradual rise in mean temperatures has been the large increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events worldwide since the 1970s.

And although farmers have always adapted to the exigencies of weather, this new weather chaos means they have bigger losses or less time to recover, and it’s getting progressively harder to repay their debts,rebuild the soil, or produce surplus grain to store before the next drought or flood hits. This is what farmers all over the world are up against. And it’s going to require an enormous investment in adaptation from the farm level all the way up through the food system.

Even more volatile than the weather are global markets, and this, like climate change, is a human-created problem.

The past several decades have seen the passage of trade and investment agreements giving unprecedented rights to international investors, and freedom for capital to roam the planet in search of the highest returns. But until very recently, commodity prices were low, so money flowed not into things like mining or agriculture but into other sectors.

At the same time, though, governments also weakened regulation of the banking and finance industries. More and more types of actors started playing the market: banks, hedge funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, even university and foundation endowments. Massive, unregulated derivatives markets were built on top of the primary markets, aided by “innovative financial instruments” such as the now-famous credit default swaps. This initially brought big profits for investors, but it also led to a series of speculative bubbles as trillions of dollars rushed from one booming and crashing industry to another. As the real estate bubble burst in late 2007, there was a huge flow of capital into energy and commodities, and this infusion of purely speculative cash drove global food prices to a record high. We had created a single global market, in which the poor are bidding against hedge fund managers, wealthy consumers and our automobiles for food, so not surprisingly the ranks of the world’s hungry shot up by over 100 million.

In this new world, agriculture and farmland all of a sudden looked more valuable, as sources of food, biofuel feedstocks or financial investments, so banks and corporations and even the governments of food importing countries started scrambling to buy up as much farmland as they could in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As of 2011, over 560 million acres of farmland had been snapped up.

The World Bank and Bill Gates have called this a good thing: wealth from the finance industry flowing to the cash-starved farming sectors of the Third World, and generating profits for Wall Street while feeding the world. It’s a win-win! But people on the ground all over the Global South tell a very different story: of farmers and pastoralists forced from their lands, and huge plantations growing cash crops for export on land that used to feed locals. Much of the land is growing biofuel feedstocks, and some of the land is not being developed at all: it was bought with the assumption that the price will rise, so that it can be flipped like a condo in Miami Beach in 2005.

And it’s not just farmland. The volatility of commodity markets more generally—created not by fundamental shortages of supply, but by predatory speculation—is driving other land and resource grabs that threaten much more than farmland: minerals, oil, and water are the target of numerous land acquisitions. Forty percent of Colombia’s national territory is either owned, leased or under consideration for licensing to multinational ag and mining companies.

And here in the U.S. we have our own speculation-fuelled resource grab, called fracking.

For me the bottom line is that the issues we’re working on—whether its fracking or human rights or sustainable food systems or environmental health or protecting natural areas—aren’t some inevitable result of a planet with X number of people and Y amount of resources. They result from a historically unique set of economic rules and structures, and the worldview that supports them.

The good news is that the mists of individualist, consumerist, free market ideology are starting to clear, and people are recognizing the gross injustices of the economy and politics. People are starting to understand that fighting climate change and creating a just and sustainable food system can’t be achieved by simply changing the consumption choices of individuals, or tiptoeing around the question of who profits from an unacceptable status quo. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, we need to fight the Bad Guys, something that many of the people in this room have known all along. We also need to build entirely new models of production, consumption, savings and investment, like the Food Commons and the Common Market in Philadelphia and Finance for Food. And we need to develop and fight for strong and fair and democratic policies and governance systems that put human and environmental values over corporate profit, to allow those new local economies to thrive but also to ensure social resilience in the face of global threats like climate change.

Two final thoughts.

The bad news is I fear things are going to get worse before they get better, because there are fundamental features of politics and the economy that will have to change if we’re going to truly prioritize humanity over turbo-charged capitalism: things like getting money completely out of politics, rewriting or revoking corporate charters, putting the finance genie back in the box and establishing enforceable rights of nature. Those will be long, hard battles, and the outcome is far from certain. But even though we aren’t all going to focus all of our energies on those fights, we need to realize that they’re our fights too. The changes we want to see on any of our issues can’t happen as long as the bigger game is rigged.

So as we each work in our own area of the social movement ecosystem, I hope we can keep in mind that we are all in this together, and each ask ourselves questions like, “How is this work building power for communities and farmers and workers? Is it undermining privilege and inequality? Is it treating a symptom, or helping us move toward the bigger, structural changes that all our dreams for the future depend on?”

Thank you.




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