Thursday, April 8, 2010

Corporatism has eaten libertarianism, and now it starts gobbling environmentalism

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Although I am not a libertarian, I have often appreciated folks who hold to libertarian ideals.  I am partial to them because libertarianism is an ethos, and people who subscribe to it often do so because they are honestly thinking about their impacts on others, and how people should behave towards one another.

But libertarianism as a concept in the minds of many has been consumed by corporatism, and though individuals may hold to true libertarian ideals, the word among the public is now a cover for the type of behemoth corporate accumulations our economic and political system has spawned and nurtured. 

Our market system is not a free market system - for example, our borders are not free, thus regulating one of the four basic factors of production, labor.  Our market system is generally more free than some, and more regulated than others.  But, the style of our regulations in recent decades (see my post from yesterday) has become more and more slanted in favor of large corporate enterprises, such that individuals within corporations may wish to behave in certain ways, but corporate pressures for profit, magnified by regulations that encourage this behavior, make long-term prudence and personal ethos nearly impossible to enact.

Where the large corporate enterprises create economies of scale (the fancy way of saying "more efficiency by being bigger"), we should allow it in some fashion.  But where it does not, we should not use it.

One major problem with our current market system is the elimination, over time, of competition.  When companies "win" in our markets, they actually beat other companies, which means those companies cease to exist.  But, instead of new companies taking their place, more often the "winning" company eats the old company, grows larger, and exerts more power over the market.  This power, in turn, causes political ripples in favor of the remaining company, often at the expense of free society and government representation, as well as consumer prices and efficiency.

Noting the strong libertarian streak in our American ideals, many companies have used the notion (rather than the actual principles) of libertarianism as a way to maintain our current system, while at the same time stifling competition through political influence.  The past decade saw many politicians finding cover in the words of libertarianism while actually undermining those libertarian principles of our government.

Now, corporatism has made serious inroads into the environmental movement, and threatens to eat it like it has eaten libertarianism in the minds of the public - through controlling the conversation and political processes.  From "greenwashing" to lobbying, corporations are exerting a level of control over our environmental consciousness that threatens to crush real changes where those changes may risk individual corporate profits.

One current example of this is in California, where the Department of Fish and Game and the California Fish and Game Commission are working to enact the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA).  Though I like the idea - enacting a series of protected areas akin to national parks and wildlife refuges on land - the continuing state budget crisis has been used as a final corporate crowbar, an excuse to privatize our public regulatory and legislative processes.  This bodes ill for our public processes and the reasons for our public actions.

This week, High Country News has a great blog entry titled "Privatizing Conservation", where they write in better detail about the MLPA and the influence of Packard Foundation and the Western States Petroleum Association.  Especially note the chair of the MLPA process.  I highly recommend it for everyone, because, unlike our neighbor to the East, what happens in California almost never stays in California.

After reading that previous post, please read this piece from the San Luis Obispo Tribune on a new offshore drilling proposal between oil companies and three environmental organizations.

Environmental organizations have always had to look for money in order to operate, and many wealthy folks want to do right by the environment.  However, private donations and membership don't always pay all the bills, and so corporate foundations and other pools of money offer to cover many expenses and battles, and usually with few or no strings attached.  Heck, I've even been paid by RLFF money.  But these payments, often in the form of non-profit foundation grants &/or pools of money set aside as mitigation for illegal activities, sometimes make advocacy a winding, twisting road.  Add the idea that many companies both donate to environmental organizations and groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and large-scale battles over the fate of the California Environmental Quality Act take on an interesting hue.

Generally, these issues are not a problem - 95% of the time, people come to the table to debate and discuss, our representatives vote, and we move forward.  However, occasionally (and especially over the big fights like CEQA and climate change), these conflicted interests create problems.

In the case of the MLPA, the problem is that the ocean isn't receiving adequate or appropriate protections for habitat or for people to care about its fate in the future, and the appearance of bias in favor of the private industries involved makes the process look very bad, indeed.  Currently, the protected areas (MPA's) look like "no fishing" zones for recreational and commercial fishermen, but with absolutely zero protections against pollution, other visitation impacts, commercial fishing in neighboring federal waters (more often by huge international operations rather than by local folks), or take for scientific purposes.  In addition, the Fish & Game department's own wardens believe that they cannot adequately protect the areas designated, which means that only lawbreakers would get to fish, and then they would do it with little fear of reprisal.

Consider this:  If a company was polluting the Merced River before it flowed into Yosemite Valley, would we stand for it?  And yet, the same company that pays a huge chunk of money for the MLPA process, Hewlett-Packard, is represented by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which lobbies to keep the California Coastal Commission from coming down hard (or at all) on coastal polluters.

This same company helps pay for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a beautiful place and a hub of conservation efforts.  However, the fact that MPA's don't protect from scientific take becomes more ominous when the Vice President of the Aquarium is on the Fish & Game Commission, and when it remains unclear whether or not scientific take is currently the largest fishery in California, because landings are not monitored like they are for commercial fishing.  If it isn't the largest fishery, many believe it is close.

Last, please read this piece in Calitics about the President of the Western States Petroleum Association... er, I mean the Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act... calling for more drilling off the coast of California.

Many local environmental and environmental justice groups in Northern California are making a ruckus over the MLPA as it moves into their neighborhoods.  Northern California environmentalists seem to have come around to the positive impacts of local food and appropriate access to the wild, and hopefully these ways can educate and inform the process such that we get a more nuanced and appropriate set of rules for the North Coast.  

The appearance of huge, private enterprises funding and running actual government processes marks an unfortunate turn in the environmental community.  We all must tackle our demons, and the pressures of our current market structures are such that, even when individuals want to give large chunks of money to protect the environment, corporate pressures tend to put undue pressures to protect their profit interests.  This is why we created a government of, by, and for the people - we understand that the pressures of a market can cloud people's judgment, and so we try to remove those pressures when making public decisions.  This deeper encroachment into our public life needs to be reassessed.

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