Global Ecology and the Common Good

John Bellamy Foster

 


"The Treadmill of Production"


(Editors' note: This essay is a revised version of a keynote luncheon address delivered at "Watersheds '94," a conference organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The piece was originally published in 1995 and is reprinted here by permission of John Bellamy Foster and Monthly Review.)

     

     1. Over the course of the twentieth century human population has increased more than threefold and gross world product perhaps twentyfold. Such expansion has placed increasing pressure on the ecology of the planet. Everywhere we look--in the atmosphere, oceans, watersheds, forests, soil, etc.--it is now clear that rapid ecological decline is setting in.1

     2. Faced with the frightening reality of global ecological crisis, many are now calling for a moral revolution that would incorporate ecological values into our culture. This demand for a new ecological morality is, I believe, the essence of Green thinking. The kind of moral transformation envisaged is best captured by Aldo Leopold's land ethic, which said,

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we begin to see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

Yet behind most appeals to ecological morality there lies the presumption that we live in a society where the morality of the individual is the key to the morality of society. If people as individuals could simply change their moral stance with respect to nature and alter their behavior in areas such as propagation, consumption, and the conduct of business, all would be well.2

     3. What is all too often overlooked in such calls for moral transformation is the central institutional fact of our society: what might be called the global "treadmill of production." The logic of this treadmill can be broken down into six elements. First, built into this global system, and constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of "social security" for a least a portion of its citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.3

     4. A defining trait of the system is that it is a kind of giant squirrel cage. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place.

     5. In such an environment, as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, "A man can do what he wants. But he can't want what he wants." Our wants are conditioned by the kind of society in which we live. Looked at in this way, it is not individuals acting in accordance with their own innate desires, but rather the treadmill of production on which we are all placed that has become the main enemy of the environment.4

     6. Clearly, this treadmill leads in a direction that is incompatible with the basic ecological cycles of the planet. A continuous 3 percent average annual rate of growth in industrial production, such as obtained from 1970 to 1990, would mean that world industry would double in size every twenty-five years, grow sixteenfold approximately every century, increase by 250 times every two centuries, 4,000 times every three centuries, etc. Further, the tendency of the present treadmill of production is to expand the throughput of raw materials and energy because the greater this flow, from extraction through the delivery of final products to consumers, the more opportunity there is to realize profits. In order to generate profits, the treadmill relies heavily on energy-intensive, capital-intensive technology, which allows it to economize on labor inputs. Yet increased throughput and more substitution of energy and machines for labor mean a more rapid depletion of high-quality energy sources and other natural resources, and a larger amount of wastes dumped into the environment. It is unlikely therefore that the world could sustain many more doublings of industrial output under the present system without experiencing a complete ecological catastrophe. Indeed, we are already overshooting certain critical ecological thresholds.5

     7. Matters are made worse by the tendency in recent decades to move from "gross insults" to the environment to "microtoxicity." As synthetic products (like plastic) are substituted for natural ones (like wood and wool), the older pollutants associated with nineteenth-century industrialization are being replaced by more hazardous pollutants such as those resulting from chlorine-related (organochlorine)production--the source of DDT, dioxin, Agent Orange, PCBs, and CFCs. The degree of toxicity associated with a given level of output has thus risen fairly steadily over the last half century.6

     8. It would seem, then, that from an environmental perspective we have no choice but to resist the treadmill of production. This resistance must take the form of a far-reaching moral revolution. In order to carry out such a moral transformation we must however confront what the great American sociologist C. Wright Mills called "the higher immorality" built into the institutions of power in our society--in particular the treadmill of production. "In a civilization so thoroughly business-penetrated as America," he wrote, money becomes "the one unambiguous marker of success . . . the sovereign American value." Such a society, dominated by the corporate rich with the support of the political power elite, is a society of "organized irresponsibility," where moral virtue is divorced from success and knowledge from power. Public communication, rather than constituting the basis for the exchange of ideas necessary for the conduct of a democracy, is largely given over to "an astounding volume of propaganda for commodities . . . addressed more often to the belly or to the groin than to the head or the heart." The corrupting influence that all of this has on the general public is visible in the loss of the capacity for moral indignation, the growth of cynicism, a drop in political participation, and the emergence of a passive commercially centered existence. In short, the higher immorality spells the annihilation of a meaningful moral and political community.7

     9. Manifestations of this higher immorality--in which money divorced from all other considerations has become the supreme reality--are all around us. In 1992 alone U.S. business spent perhaps $1 trillion on marketing, simply convincing people to consume more and more goods. this exceeded by about $600 billion the amount spent on education--public and private--at all levels. Under these circumstances we can expect people to grow up with their heads full of information about saleable commodities, and empty of knowledge about human history, morality, culture, science, and the environment. What is most valued in such a society is the latest style, the most expensive clothing, the finest car. Hence, it is not surprising that more than 93 percent of teenage girls questioned in a survey conducted in the late 1980s indicated that their favorite leisure activity was to go shopping. Not long ago Fortune magazine quoted Dee Hock, former head of the Visa bank card operation, as saying, "It's not that people value money more but that they value everything else so much less--not that they are more greedy but that they have no other values to keep greed in check." "Our social life is organized in such a way," German environmentalist Rudolf Bahro has observed,

that even people who work with the hands are more interested in a better car than in the single meal of the slum-dweller on the southern half of the earth or the need of the peasant there for water; or even a concern to expand their own consciousness, for their own self-realization.

Reflecting on the growing use of pesticides in our society, Rachel Carson wrote that this was indicative of "an era dominated by industry, in which the right of make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged."8

     10. Given the nature of the society in which we live, one must therefore be wary of solutions to environmental problems that place too much emphasis on the role of individuals, or too little emphasis on the treadmill of production and the higher immorality that it engenders. To be sure, it is necessary for individuals to struggle to organize their lives so that in their consumption they live more simply and ecological. But to lay too much stress on this alone is to place too much onus on the individual, while ignoring institutional facts. Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute, for example, argues that

we consumers have an ethical obligation to curb our consumption, since it jeopardizes the chances for future generation. Unless we climb down the consumption ladder a few rungs, our grandchildren will inherit a planetary home impoverished by our affluence.

This may seem like simple common sense but it ignores the higher immorality of a society like the United States in which the dominant institutions treat the public as mere consumers to be targeted with all of the techniques of modern marketing. The average adult in the United States watches 21,000 television commercials a year, about 75 percent of which are paid for by the 100 largest corporations. It also ignores the fact that the treadmill of production is rooted not in consumption but in production. Within the context of this system it is therefore economically naive to think that the problem can be solved simply be getting consumers to refrain from consumption and instead to save and invest their income. To invest means to expand the scale of productive capacity, increasing the size of the treadmill.9

     11. Even more questionable are the underlying assumptions of those who seek to stop environmental degradation by appealing not to individuals in general but to the ethics of individuals at the top of the social pyramid and to corporations. Thus in his widely heralded book, The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken argues for a new environmental ethic for businesspeople and corporations. After advocating an ambitious program for ecological change, Hawken states, "Nothing written, suggested, or proposed is possible unless business is willing to embrace the world we live within and lead the way." According Hawken,

the ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money. Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things. The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy.

Thus he goes on to observe that,

If Dupont, Monsanto, and Dow believe they are in the synthetic chemical production business, and cannot change this belief, they and we are in trouble. If they believe they are in business to serve people, to help solve problems, to use and employ the ingenuity of workers to improve the lives of people around them by learning from the nature that gives us life, we have a chance.10

     12. The central message here is that businesspeople merely have to change the ethical bases of their conduct and all will be well with the environment. Such views underestimate the extent to which the treadmill of production and the higher immorality are built into our society. Ironically, Hawken's argument places too much responsibility and blame on the individual corporate manager--since he or she too is likely to be a mere cog in the wheel of the system. As the great linguistics theorist and media critic Noam Chomsky has explained,

The Chairman of the board will always tell you that he spends his every waking hour laboring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price and work in the best possible conditions. But it is an institutional fact, independent of who the chairman of the board is, that he'd better be trying to maximize profit and market share, and if he doesn't do that, he's not going to be chairman of the board any more. If he were ever to succumb to the delusions that he expresses, he'd be out.11

     13. To be successful within any sphere in this society generally means that one has thoroughly internalized those values associated with the higher immorality. There is, as economist John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out, a "culture of contentment" at the top of the social hierarchy: those who benefit most from the existing order have the least desire for change.12

     14. Resistance to the treadmill of production therefore has to come mainly from the lower echelons of society, and from social movements rather than individuals. This can only occur, to quote German Green Party leader Petra Kelly, if ecological concerns are "tied to issues of economic justice--exploitation of the poor by the rich." Behind every environmental struggle of today there is a struggle over the expansion of the global treadmill--a case of landless workers or villagers who are compelled to destroy nature in order to survive, or large corporations that seek to expand profits with little concern for the natural social devastation that they leave in their wake. Ecological development is possible, but only if the economic as well as environmental injustices associated with the treadmill are addressed. An ecological approach to the economy is about having enough, not having more. It must have as its first priority people, particularly poor people, rather than production or even the environment, stressing the importance of meeting basic needs and long-term security. This is the common morality with which we must combat the higher immorality of the treadmill. Above all we must recognize the old truth, long understood by the romantic and socialist critics of capitalism, that increasing production does not eliminate poverty.13

     15. Indeed, the global treadmill is so designed that the poor countries of the world often help finance the rich ones. During the period from 1982 to 1990, the Third World was a "net exporter of hard currency to the developed countries, on average $30 billion per year." In this same period third World debtors remitted to their creditors in the wealthy nations an average of almost $12.5 billion per month in payments on debt alone. this is equal to what the entire Third world spends each month on health and education. It is this system of global inequity that reinforces both overpopulation (since poverty spurs population growth) and the kind of rapacious development associated with the destruction of tropical rain forests in the Third World.14

* * *

     16. For those of you with a pragmatic bent, much of what I have said here may seem too global and too abstract. the essential point that I want to leave you with, however, is the notion that although we are all on the treadmill, we do not all relate to it in the same way and with the same degree of commitment. I have found in my research into the ancient forest struggle in the Northwest--and others have discovered the same thing in other settings--that ordinary workers have strong environmental values even though they may be at loggerheads with the environmental movement. In essence they are fighting for their lives and livelihoods at a fairly basic level.15

     17. We must find a way of putting people first in order to protect the environment. There are many ways of reducing the economic stakes in environmental destruction on the part of those who have little direct stake in the treadmill itself. But this means taking seriously issues of social and economic inequality as well as environmental destruction. Only by committing itself to what is now called "environmental justice" (combining environmental concerns and social justice) can the environmental movement avoid being cut off from those classes of individuals who are most resistant to the treadmill on social grounds. the alternative is to promote an environmental movement that is very successful in creating parks with Keep Out! signs, and yet which is complicit with the larger treadmill of production. By recognizing that it is not people (as individuals and in aggregate) that are enemies of the environment but the historically specific economic and social order in which we live, we can, I believe, find sufficient common ground for a true moral revolution to save the earth.

 

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Notes

1 James Gustave Speth, "Can the World Be Saved?," in Anthony B. Wolbarst, Environment in Peril (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 64-65.

2 Leopold, The Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. viii.

3 The concept of the "treadmill of production" is taken from Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 205-50, and Schnaiberg and Kenneth Allan Gould, Environment and Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1949), p. viii. In Schnaiberg's earlier work the treadmill is situated in the historical context of monopoly capitalism as described in Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy's Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966) and James O'Connor's, Fiscal Crisis of the State (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973). It should be noted that the third element of the treadmill listed in the text above--the revolutionization of the means of production on pain of extinction--is attenuated in certain ways under monopoly capitalism, but still remains a general tendency of the system.

4 Schopenhauer quoted in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 20.

5 Chandler Morse, "Environment, Economics and Socialism," Monthly Review 30, no. 11 (April 1979): 12-15; Petra K. Kelly, Thinking Green! (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1994), pp. 22-23. The tendency of the system to draw upon ever larger throughputs of raw materials and energy was countered somewhat by increasing energy efficiency (measured by the ratio of GDP to commercial fuels consumed) in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since the mid-1980s, however, progress in this respect has slowed as a result of falling energy prices. In the United States, which uses about as much energy as the entire Third World, energy efficiency has remained essentially unchanged since 1986. See Lester Brown et al., Vital Signs 1992 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), pp. 54-55, and Vital signs 1994, pp. 126-27.

6 Speth, "Can the World Be Saved?," p. 65.

7 Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 338-61.

8 Kevin J. Clancy and Robert S. Shulman, Across the Board, October 1993, p. 38; The Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1993 (Lanham, MD: Bernan Press, 1993), p. 147; "The Money Society," Fortune, 6 July 1987, 26-31; Bahro, Socialism and Survival (London: Heretic Books, 1982), p. 31; Carson, "Silent Spring--III," The New Yorker, 38, no. 19 (June 30, 1962): 67.

9 Durning, How Much Is Enough? (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), pp. 136-37; Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991), pp. 78-79.

10 Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 1-2.

11 Chomsky interview, Bill Moyers, ed., A World of Ideas (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 42.

12 Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

13 Kelly, Thinking Green!, p. 25; Ben Jackson, Poverty and the Planet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), pp. 182-83; Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope (London: Verso, 1989), p. 221.

14 Quotation from Cheryl Payer, Lent and Lost (London: Zed Books, 1991), p. 115; also Susan George, "The Debt Boomerang," in Kevin Danaher, ed. Fifty Years Is Enough (Boston: South End Press, 1994), p. 29.

15 Foster, "The Limits of Environmentalism Without Class," Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 4, no. 1 (March 1993): 11-41; Thomas Dunk, "Talking About Trees: Environment and Society in Forest Workers' Culture," The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 31, no. 1 (February 1994): 14-34.

 


 

Contents copyright © 1995, 2001 by John Bellamy Foster. Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review.

Format copyright © 2001 by Cultural Logic, ISSN 1097-3087, Volume 3, Number 1, Fall, 1999.