Ecocide And The Global Treadmill Of Production

The concept of the global "treadmill of production" is a term coined by Galbraith to demonstrate how our late modern materialist and "consumer-oriented" society operates.43 The global treadmill system, largely responsible for the accelerated pace of ecocide, constitutes "a kind of giant squirrel cage."44 Everyone is part of this gigantic 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 of the world's people, the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain these jobs and to maintain an acceptable standard of living 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.45 An increasingly large proportion of people within this global treadmill system - currently estimated at more than 850 million people - are either underemployed or unemployed.

Considering these large, structural forces, it is not merely individuals acting in accord with their perceived needs and acquired desires, but the global treadmill of production itself that has become the main culprit in the ecocidal endgame. As discussed in previous chapters, this treadmill has been churning for some time, creating a predicament that is at odds with the basic ecological health of the planet. As John Bellamy Foster points out, a continuous 3 per cent 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 25 years, grow sixteenfold approximately every century, increase by 250 times every two centuries, 4,000 times every three centuries, and so on.46

Further, the tendency of the present global treadmill of production is to expand consumption of raw materials and energy in order to generate higher profits. The treadmill relies heavily on energy-intensive, capital-intensive technology, leading to a more rapid depletion of high-quality energy sources and other natural resources, and to ever larger amounts of waste being dumped into the environment.47

The global landscape is increasingly littered and suffused with microtoxic and radiological time bombs. The degree of toxicity in the environment has risen steadily over the last half century. Some of the 100,000 synthetic chemicals introduced in the last century are affecting the reproductive systems of animals and humans - even generations after exposure. For example, by the end of the twentieth century, over 1,000 tons of plutonium had been produced worldwide. The annual radiation of the plutonium used in the world's 424 nuclear power plants alone would be capable of destroying all living creatures on earth.48 In short, the global treadmill of production has produced an exceedingly damaging global social configuration. "It would seem," writes Foster, "that from an environmental perspective we have no choice but to resist the treadmill of production."49

The most vocal environmental activists have long argued that resistance to ecocide must take the form of a far-reaching moral revolution.50 In order to carry out such a "moral transformation," however, we are unlikely to succeed unless we confront what sociologist C. Wright Mills called "the higher immorality," that is, forms of "structural immorality" built on the institutions of power and the treadmill of production.51 Structural immorality produces societies characterized by the loss of the capacity for moral indignation, the growth of cynicism, falling levels of political participation, and the emergence of an atomized, commercially centered existence.52

Under the conditions of a global corporate culture with industry geared toward profitable production and exchange, we can expect people to be more interested in the value of commodities than in the increasingly precarious state of the planetary environment and the progressively ecocidal scope of the contemporary mass extinction crisis.

Resistance to the depredations of the global treadmill must be based on the repudiation of the process of commodification of living beings and the environment. A respectful coexistence of diverse life forms - human and otherwise - must be pursued on the basis of relinquishing the myth of the rational subordination of nature as well as its related dogma of self-interested accumulation, both of which arose during the Enlightenment. Resistance to the global treadmill of production has come mainly from social movements representing the underprivileged and marginalized. As the late German Green Party leader Petra Kelly emphasized, ecological concerns are always tied to issues of economic justice - the exploitation of the poor by the rich.53

Every environmental struggle of today is also a struggle fought over the expansion of the global treadmill, as in the 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 ecocidal and social devastation that they leave in their wake. To be sympathetic towards the powerless means to embrace a common morality that constitutes the foundation from which to combat the immorality of the treadmill. Above all, we must recognize that increasing production will not eliminate poverty. As the historical record of the twentieth century shows, economic expansion and growth merely raise the ecocidal stakes.

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