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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Down With the Sickness

review by Sam Urquhart

Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine by Stan Cox, (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008, 219 pp., $24.95. ISBN 978 0 7453 2741 9) http:\\www.sickplanetbook.com

Like a liver badly transplanted, the planet is rapidly rejecting the human species. While the global econ-omy seems to be geared towards infinite growth, spewing toxins into the environment with gay abandon and finding ever more harmful means of despoiling ecosystems, it is becoming more and more clear that we, as a complex society, are reaching a point of decision, and not any old decision: stop now, or collapse. Mend your ways, or descend into a somewhat more primal state of affairs. The smart money is on the latter.

The recognition that we have reached such a juncture has been dawning on us for a long, long time. In a purely aesthetic sense, capitalism has intolerable effects on the appearance and vitality of living systems. Poets, painters, philosophers and assorted dreamers have long asserted that our trajectory has been locked into catastrophe. Satanic mills, glimpsed by Blake as a harbinger of the apocalypse, progressed via Walden Pond into the Planet of the Apes and beyond. Yet politicians and the general media have never really assimilated these insights. At the cusp of total ecological collapse, we still stand in need of a corrective dose of “radical” economics if we are to turn our ship around.

Stan Cox basically agrees, but his Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine will be useful reading for anyone who seeks to grab the ship’s wheel and persuade others to join them. His book is a short, readable activist’s crib which ranges fluently across the environmental costs of bloated corporate health care (and the human costs of overprescription and phoney medicalization) to the problem of industrial agriculture and “better living through chemistry.”

On health care, Cox is unequivocal. Focusing on the US, he argues that the health-care “industry” is hopelessly bloated, noting that, since the 1960s, the average consumption of health-care products per person has tripled. In a neat turn of phrase, he writes that “for decades, business has been coming up with ‘solutions’ to the problems that result from America’s overconsumption of food and underexertion of bodies.”

To beef up profits, companies have been hyping minor or non-existent maladies such as “shaking leg syndrome” …

To beef up profits, companies have been hyping minor or non-existent maladies such as “shaking leg syndrome” to extract ever more profit from the American consumer. Yet, unsatisfied with gouging American workers, the same companies have also taken to low-cost production and testing of generic drugs in countries like India, with catastrophic environmental and human results. One of Cox’s best sections deals with the region around Patancheru in Andhra Pradesh, which will be all but unknown to most readers. Cox finds devastating water pollution from medical factories and massive damage to local agriculture, another hidden holocaust in the annals of neo-liberal globalization.

Yet health care is not seamlessly integrated into Cox’s wider narrative — that of the capitalist challenge to the planet’s ecology and human society. It remains hard to see how drug production, and the waste resulting from it, could ever have an impact as destructive as nitrate pollution or greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Ditto for the effects of the health industry upon American bodies. If Americans wish to waste vast amounts of money on useless drugs and procedures, it is unlikely that this will be a prime cause of eco-collapse. The sedentary and lazy lifestyles of Americans, detached from the land and dependent on industrially farmed produce, may be more significant, but the hyping of ADHD is not related to the looming collapse of capitalist civilization. Not in my book, anyhow, but the same does not hold for agriculture.

Agriculture receives a detailed treatment in later chapters, and as plant genetics is Cox’s specialist area, his treatment is strong and chilling. Corporate agriculture, he finds, has massacred rural communities, which now number 450 out of the US’s 500 poorest. Converted by the market into factories for processed foods, these rural areas are ironically now often “food deserts” in which fresh produce is harder to find than in urban areas.

… rural areas are ironically now often “food deserts” in which fresh produce is harder to find than in urban areas.

Industrial agriculture is hopelessly inefficient — dependent upon continuing injections of natural gas to produce fertilizer, oil for trucks to transport its produce to faraway markets, while being massively wasteful of the manure that it generates. He calls, not originally but sensibly, for a more modest, dispersed agriculture in which the 900 million tons of manure produced by American farms every year is recycled into the soil. This isn’t framed as a utopian dream, but as an essential survival strategy, but Cox argues that the benefits would be very real. Revisiting Patancheru, he cites examples of community-driven agriculture which “have beaten back the individual despair that had developed under the brutal logic of the national and international economy.” Yet the case is identical for many American farming families.

Cox makes it clear that the hierarchical and massively unfair economic system which underlies industrial agriculture must be dismantled if a fairer, ecologically sensible world is to be created. He has short shrift for “sustainable development,” though — labeling it “code for perpetual growth.” What is required, says Cox, is a radical downshifting of elite consumption in the developed world and something akin to a “back to the land” movement to localize now dispersed economies and to distribute a safe level of economic surplus to now deprived communities. This is basically eco-socialism, and Cox alludes to eco-socialist thinkers like Joel Kovel and, refreshingly, a side of Karl Marx that few will be familiar with (an aficionado of organic manures and localized agriculture).

Cox concludes by arguing that “before [we] can start designing the kinds of local, regional, and world economies that are needed, we have to acknowledge and act on the fact that in the long run…we cannot have both capitalism and a livable planet.” And we can’t have reductions in “emissions intensity” or put our faith in miraculous capitalist efficiency either.

As Cox notes, “using efficiency to make growth less destructive is sort of like playing ‘whack-a-mole’ at the county fair. Knock capital out of circulation here, and it will pop up over there.” Controlling the beast of capital is Cox’s theme, and Sick Planet is an effective call to arms for activists to do just that. Either we do it democratically and rationally, or circumstances will do it for us, bloodily and chaotically.

Controlling the beast of capital is Cox’s theme …

Provided our species survives, there lies somewhere in its future another stone age, and the faster our economic growth, the steeper the decline will be. The next Stone Age will be more resource-poor and probably more toxic than the last, and there will be no shot at a comeback.

Citizens of the United States in particular should read Sick Planet and then act with conviction and haste if such a situation is to be avoided, but don’t bet on it.

Stan Cox paints a picture of the corporate-dominated world as akin to pre-apocalypse Mad Max, but another movie parallel springs to mind. Noting that the average American consumes as much energy as a 30,000 kg primate, Cox summons up the image — which many people will sympathize with worldwide — of a nation of King Kongs, clinging to their Empire State Building and hopelessly swatting the specters of imperial collapse and ecological crisis.

Sam Urquhart is a freelance journalist from London, UK and an activist with the Campaign Against Climate Change (Campaigncc.org)

[17 dec 08]

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