The most important new book of 2008 so far is The Future of Nature, essays selected by Barry Lopez from Orion magazine. This book deals with the disconnect between man and nature [thanks to Alex and Amy who both sent me that story] and how that schism is allowing the most technologically advanced and self-aware society in the history of mankind to destroy itself.
The book covered non-traditional enviornmental issues like the prison system and conservation refugees (native peoples kicked off their land in order to “preserve it”). It dealt with Cyanide heap leach mining, PVC plant disasters, and also how an ecologically illiterate society cares less and less about these things.
Possibly the most eye opening topic in the book was about the issue of sovereignty — and how we’ve ceded our own fate to the “Free Market”. Chock it up to either personal ignorance or a superficial media, but when the WTO rioters “seized” Seattle, I had no idea what the issue was about. I assumed it had something to do with the prices paid to Panamanian papaya growers and that was about it.
The real issue with the World Trade Organization (as explained in some excellent essays in this book) is that it takes sovereignty away from state and local governments. Combined with the movement to give corporations individual constitutional rights (FYI: Corporations are not people, but instead big piles of money organized by shareholders) this has lead to some nasty situations.
This is an issue that should even get the blood boiling of the Red State, NRA-supporting, Constitutionalists out there. But the Republican party worships at the altar of the “free market” allowing corporate greed to decide the fate of our country — which often obscures the larger problem posed by ceding our rights to corporate entities.
Examples are pretty ridiculous: A township decides it doesn’t want sewage spewed all over farmland — so it passes an ordinance requiring haulers to test the sludge (at their own expense) for a wider variety of toxic substances than required by a weaker state law. The haulers sue the township (and each supervisor personally for $1 million) for violating the company’s right of due process. Um… What? A democratically elected local government does not have sovereignty to limit public health risks and environmental damages because of a corporation’s individual rights? WTF?
My personal favorite though, tackles the WTO tribunals — which have overturned U.S. laws and EPA standards:
Under NAFTA, a corporation can sue a government directly. The case would also be heard by a secret tribunal, such as when Vancouver-based Methanex sued the U.S. over California’s ban on a cancer causing gas additive, MTBE. The company, which manufactures the additive’s key ingredient, claimed that the ban failed to consider its financial interests and sued the U.S. for $970 million.
Luckily, On August 9, 2005, the Tribunal released the Final Award, dismissing all of the claims and ordered Methanex to pay the United States‘ legal fees and arbitral expenses in the amount of approximately $ 4 million.
I know, I know. I’m years out of date on these issues and just catching up. Also, I think Barry Lopez (editor of this book) missed something on this essay. In the back of the book, authors offer an update on what has happened since their orginal essays may have been written up to fifteen years ago. I understand that these are supposed to be polemics, but omitting the fact that the WTO tribunal overturned the Methanex suit is shoddy reporting. It should have been in the update.
All in all it’s one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read so far this year and I’ll leave you with a couple great quotes from various essays:
People should be storming the offices of all these pharmaceutical companies that are stealing money from them. They should be dragging these leaders, these CEOs, out into the streets and they should be challenging them. — Oren Lyons
It’s all related. The polluters, the clear-cutters, the incarcerators, they’re all enacting the same story: money is more important than life, and we have the technology or the guns to protect ourselves from any consequences of our heedlessness. — Van Jones
Free trade makes us helplessly dependent on an economy we don’t control. Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice. — Wendell Berry