Come Hell and High Water

Late last year, the research journal Science published a surprising article called "Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions" (9/11/09). In it, an international team of eminent biologists, climatologists, ecologists, and economists reviewed the long list of current global problems and came to an ominous conclusion: "Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects."

The article was accompanied by an illustration with arrows showing the many connections between "Global drivers," like rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, increasing per capita resource use, and nuclear proliferation on one hand, and "unwanted outcomes" for the climate, ecosystem, human health, and the economy on the other. For dispassionate scientists, these are fighting words. The article amounts to an indictment of state capitalism by an important part of the professional class engaged in the hard sciences. Their conclusions are highly relevant for a left that has spent years striving to draw attention to these issues.

Anticlimactic Climate

A central point of the article is the interconnectedness of the various "global-scale failures," and their tendency to combine in unexpected ways. A good example is climate change (considered to be well established among actual scientists), which influences several "unwanted outcomes." Consider its effect on biodiversity—the presence in different ecosystems of the rich variety of organisms that naturally occur, absent human activity. Studies point to the "many benefits" of biodiversity, including "increased community stability, increased resistance to invasive species, and higher resistance to diseases" (Science, "Biodiversity Under Global Change," 12/4/09). But more recent research shows that biodiversity loss due to climate change may be reduced by simple geographic variation. In other words, plant and animal species may be able to partially adapt to a warming regional climate by moving uphill to cooler temperatures or to greater latitudes where temperatures tend to be lower.

Sounds good, but here is where the different "global drivers" interact in an unexpected way. The research also suggests that this adaptive ability is weakened by the widespread reduction of available habitat, due to another "global driver"—urbanization. Habitats have shrunk to the point that, "Over 75% of the Earth’s terrestrial biomes now show evidence of alteration as a result of human residence and land use." The authors’ conclusion is that the ability of biodiversity to resist climate-driven decline through migration depends on the character of the developed areas around the remaining habitat fragments—i.e., farms are somewhat more conducive to the migration of animal species than paved urban sprawl. Given that urbanization is a classic feature of capitalist development, it’s not surprising to find it interacting with climate change. The article closes by noting ominously that "conservation will require a whole new definition of what is ‘natural’."


The left has had to make a huge effort merely to get the climate issue onto the public radar, overcoming heavy opposition from industry-funded climate skeptics and a politicized media happy to take cheap shots at climate research. The peak of this was the media-manufactured "Climategate" in which leaked e-mails from prominent climatologists were presented as refuting the claims of a warming earth and violating scientific propriety. To the extent the hysterical coverage had a point, it was that the scientists had adopted a "circle the wagons" mentality when challenged. Of course, this may itself reflect the fact that, as NASA climate researcher Gavin Schmidt put it, "You can’t have a spelling mistake in a paper without it being evidence on the floor of the Senate that the system is corrupt" (Science, "Stolen E-mails Turn Up Heat on Climate Change Rhetoric," 12/4/09).

This politics-driven excess of caution by some climate scientists was seized on by the dominant reactionary media to prove the untrustworthiness of scientists who want to take away your SUV. Further examples were manufactured to suit. One was the exclusion of "climate skeptic" work from IPCC papers (which were, in fact, cited in the end); another was a quote pulled out of context, seeming to indicate that climatologists "can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment," but was a reference to the need for a broader weather observation system, as the surrounding sentences made transparently clear. Further claims made in the feverish denunciations were outright falsehoods, especially claims that the scientists were withholding data—widely known to be available for study from NOAA and the UK Met Office.

The Dead Elephant in the Room

Another "global driver" described by the scientists is "increasing connectivity" (economic, social, ecological). While economic theory encourages us to think of human activity as being basically self-contained, recently an awareness of unexpected connections among different social and natural elements has found an unlikely home, the Wall Street Journal.

In a discussion of the current financial crisis, the Journal concedes that the social costs of economic activity are not always the same as the private costs. Using the example of traveling by train, the passengers on the train are willing to pay based on their saved time and the railroad is willing to provide the service in exchange for a certain return, but outside parties are left out of the decision—such as owners of property around the line that may experience pollution or fire hazard from rail sparks. In economics textbooks, these economic side-effects are called externalities (or "spillovers") and are usually treated as relatively innocuous nuisances like traffic congestion—fixable with mild reforms.

But the Journal article admits that externalities lie behind some of our biggest problems: "In banking, the negative spillover can be catastrophic. Many millions of households and firms rely on credit to finance their expenditures. If this credit is suddenly curtailed, spending can fall precipitously throughout the economy. That is what we witnessed at the end of last year…. [R]eforming health care can also be viewed as a counter-spillover policy. Sick people who don’t have health insurance often end up using emergency rooms, which imposes a cost on the insured, perhaps as much as $1,000 per person per year…. Global warming presents perhaps the most dramatic example of what can happen if spillovers are ignored" ("Policy: An Economist’s Invisible Hand," 11/28/09). Startling words from the deregulation-mongers at the Journal.

We can find more "connectivity" between commerce and ecosystems by noting that international wildlife bodies are being asked by the governments of Zambia and Tanzania to lessen the protection of their endangered elephants. Countries can request that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species "downlist" their elephant populations if their animals are safe and their endangered classification is being enforced. This downlisting would relax restrictions on the sale of elephant ivory, the largest importers being China, the U.S., and Japan, primarily for ornamentation. Yet the countries claiming secure elephant populations were implicated in recent ivory poaching busts, such as when "the largest single ivory seizure since the ivory trade ban (6.5 tons in Singapore) in 2002 was shown by DNA analyses to have originated almost entirely from Zambia" (Science, "Elephants, Ivory, and Trade," 3/12/10).

These tons of ivory in the Singapore bust are worth a mere $1 million or so. Small potatoes in world trade, but decent from the point of view of African commerce. This is the nature of externalities in the market economy—with elephant numbers in decline, the future existence of the species is in the balance, but the value of this to the ivory "industry" is zero. So the African elephant is in peril for relatively small amounts, less than 1 percent of the annual tourism revenue of these nations. Externalities like species survival aren’t accounted for by market transactions—along with the survival of the many plant and tree species of central Africa for which elephants are by far the leading seed disperser. So this "connectivity" driver is again mainly the offspring of state-capitalist economic forms and their cost "externalizing."

Sick of Profit

Other global problems on the list include two serious global health issues: antibiotic resistance and the swine flu epidemic. Antibiotic resistance refers to the spread of bacteria that have evolved resistance to antibiotic compounds, usually in hospitals or health clinics where antibiotics are commonly used. The role of capitalist forms in contributing to this problem is rarely explored, but the connections are not obscure. Examples from the clinical literature would include a paper published in the journal Lancet—Infectious Diseases by a number of Australian epidemiologists. They found that high hospital bed occupancy rates and periods of understaffing of hospital/clinic staff are strongly associated with outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other infections. (Overcrowding and understaffing in modern health-care systems, 7/08) "Flexible" labor practices by hospitals also play a role, since the movement of hospitals toward "float" or "pool" staff that move from hospital unit to unit with demand, are also correlated with HAIs (health-care acquired infections). The authors find economic factors at fault, as "A common strategy to decrease health-care system costs has been to replace registered nurses with nursing assistants, and to reduce the proportion of full-time staff." In other words, the more health-care workers are understaffed, undertrained, and shifted around by institutional demand, the less hand-washing gets done and the more resistant microorganisms are spread.

Turning to the swine flu pandemic, the fingerprints of capitalism are present as well in the wild divergence in vaccine access. At the peak of the pandemic, health experts bemoaned a tightly-limited supply of vaccine donated to developing countries, in the neighborhood of 1 percent of total need. The only consolation was given by Tido von Schoen-Angerer of Doctors Without Borders who noted that the H1N1 strain was mild by pandemic standards (Science, "Developing countries to Get Some H1N1 Vaccine—But When?" 11/6/09). Yet the very same day, the business press reported an "uproar" as vaccine doses in a program to treat "high-risk adults" were distributed to several bailed-out Wall Street banks at a time when many New York City hospitals had no doses (Wall Street Journal, "Uproar as Firms Get Swine-Flu Vaccine," 11/6/09). The banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley, had their public criticism cranked up yet another notch. In the end, Morgan Stanley sent its doses to city hospitals.

Wall Street may have been relying on connections with major clients for its preferential vaccine access, including pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline of the UK. Glaxo has pioneered a new Big Pharma niche as supplier of vaccines and related equipment to governments, especially crucial as the old profit-center of pharmaceutical manufacturing, drug patents, are expiring. Glaxo was accused of profiteering after an Evening Standard article claiming its $10 flu shot cost a mere $1.60 to produce ("Glaxo charges £6 for £1 swine flu vaccine," 7/22/09). Glaxo claimed this alleged 80 percent-plus profit margin was too high, and its CEO stated, "We’re not trying to generate here some crazy level of profit—but equally, our shareholders wouldn’t want us to do this for anything other than a return" (Wall Street Journal, "Glaxo’s Big Bet on Battling Pandemics," 10/9/09).

The Fog of Blowback

Another driver of global failure decried by the scientists is terrorism, referring of course to the Islamic variety, with the researchers claiming a need for more international cooperation to reduce the violence. These professionals leave out the pivotal role of the U.S. in contributing to this problem. Some surprisingly astute post-9/11 analysis appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which reported for its elite readership that even prosperous, pro-West Muslims see the September 11 attacks as "a desperate call to America to rethink its support of Israel and, more subliminally, of authoritarian Mideast rulers who deny democracy to ordinary Muslims" ("Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them," 9/21/01). The "subliminal" connection to Arab authoritarians is very real—of the 19, 9/11 hijackers, there were 15 Saudis, 2 from the United Arab Emirates, an Egyptian, and a Lebanese. In other words, all but one hijacker came from a country with an American-backed tyrannical government—that’s 95 percent of the hijackers coming from U.S.-supported dictatorships.

Analysis by the Journal was not limited to post-9/11 soul-searching. In a less-noted article on Donald Rumsfeld, the newspaper noted that, "despite the [Bush] administration’s oft-stated pledge to democratize the Middle East, the military’s U.S. Central Command…has a somewhat different emphasis. Its top priority is to help existing government in the region beef up their security to provide a ‘protective shield’ against al-Qaeda…. In most cases, that means increasing intelligence-sharing with nondemocratic regimes, providing more counterterrorism training and participating in exercises with their militaries. The hope is that once the regimes are more secure, power will slowly devolve to their people" ("Rumsfeld’s Control Of Military Policy Appears to Weaken," 4/17/06).

Finally, turning to the current Pentagon "surge" in Afghanistan, we might draw attention to the "Eikenberry cables," a pair of memoranda from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan to the U.S. State Department, which made headlines when leaked in November 2009. Almost the entirety of the press attention went to Eikenberry’s strong skepticism of ultimate success for the Afghanistan escalation, but a real gem of international affairs went unnoticed: "Beyond Karzai himself, there is no political ruling class that provides an overarching national identity that transcends local affiliations and provides reliable partnership" (New York Times, "US Envoy’s Cables Show Worries on Afghan Plans," 1/25/10). The actual origins of Islamic terrorism, which these scientists correctly see as another driver of global failure, should now be clear. The U.S. is experiencing what the CIA calls "blowback" from its support for "ruling classes."


The "missing institutions" called for by the scientists could be realized in a revitalized UN and in expansion of related institutions like the World Health Organization. However, the real missing institutions are those that would allow citizens to control their own economies and societies. While public opinion has long called for serious action on climate, stronger regulations to cope with externalities, and a leading UN role in world affairs instead of U.S. unilateralism, it is institutions of state and capital that decide these issues. To replace this world of elite control with the vision of a democratic economy, the illustration accompanying the scientists’ analysis may be right—the people will have to rise up and cut the strings themselves.


Rob Larson is Assistant Professor of Economics at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana and has written for Z Magazine, the Humanist, and Dollars & Sense.