The disaster of philanthropy and capitalism

Philanthrocapitalism enables the destruction of nature and the erosion of democracy.

SOURCEYes! Magazine

“The idea is to pull off a digital version of the Enclosure of the Commons and put huge powers into the hands of an increasingly hardening police state.” —Arundhati Roy

“If brute force doesn’t work, you’re not using enough of it!” has been proposed as the central operating principle of the modern world. It is a plausible candidate because it captures the compulsive logic of the marauder, empire builders, clear-cutters, strip miners, corporate tycoons, militarists, and true believers of all kinds who shaped the past two centuries. Brute force does not negotiate with history, hubris, culture, biology, old knowledge, ethics, foresight, and the unknown. It eschews humility, persuasion by reasoned debate, and ethical limits, and it abhors empathy, compassion, and the discipline of place. In the fossil fuel era, the logic of brute force escaped from confinement and went on a planetary rampage and now pervades virtually all human activity. It masquerades as progress, but the disguise conceals a darker reality. A prime example, at the far edge of insanity, is the logically airtight, mathematically rigorous strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” which informs our testosterone-saturated foreign policies and by which Armageddon hangs by an oh-so-slender thread. For what great cause, exactly, would one push the button to destroy the planet? What national interest, or reputational advantage, or great cause might be served? Who would be around to ponder such things and sift through the debris left by the most brutish of brute-force weaponry?

Sometime after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the logic of brute force infected Western economics, informing its underlying proposition that all men (mostly) have insatiable wants that justify tearing up the earth, polluting it, or frying it to death. By this logic, human survival is deemed uneconomical. But why would any even modestly sane person run the risks of destabilizing the Earth’s climate? It is impossible to comprehend the depth of nonsense in waters so turbid.

More pertinent to this book [Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy: A Global Citizens’ Report on the Corporate Control of Technology, Health, and Agriculture]is the unfolding disaster of a global agribusiness system that operates by brute force as well. In return for a mess of pottage, industrial agriculture compromised the fecundity of natural systems, eroded soils, drained aquifers, polluted waters, destroyed once-stable rural communities, created hundreds of dead zones in seas around the world, destroyed biodiversity everywhere, and erased the knowledge of better ways to farm, while creating a vast moral chasm between the overfed and the starving. The ironies of industrial agriculture stack up like cordwood; the unpaid full costs of cheap food for the rich are staggering; the moral costs are beyond counting.

Defenders of the system cannot rightfully claim they were not warned. There are warnings against overreach and hubris in the founding myths, literature, poetry, and scriptures of nearly every culture on Earth. In Western literature, for example, the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for one, is not the creature but its creator, who refused to take responsibility for what he’d done. Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851) is a further warning about the penalties that accompany uncontrolled obsession in pursuit of ignoble ends. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor gave a further warning about the perverse logic of necessity; in The Brothers Karamazov (1879), the Grand Inquisitor says to a silent Christ: “In the end they [the people] will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘make us your slaves but feed us.’ They will understand at last that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together … they can never be free for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.”

The strategy of the Grand Inquisitor is that of the petrochemical companies, agribusiness, and multinational corporations that will feed us in a manner of speaking but only in return for our acquiescence in the ruination.

In the nick of time, however, along comes Bill Gates and other “philanthrocapitalists” who, as luck would have it, promise to solve hunger, disease, poverty, and a rapidly destabilizing climate, often by selling us more of the things that made them very rich. A godsend, indeed, until one reads the fine print that, among other things, requires believing that the leopard has shed its spots and now wishes to feed those it once fed upon. A more enlightened and beneficent capitalism is possible, I think, but it requires capitalists to transcend self-interest and greed, which is not wholly supported by the record. It isn’t just their hearts, however; it’s their mindset, conditioned by many years of accumulation to believe that money is necessary to solve problems. But for all of their puffery, philanthrocapitalists don’t talk much about the root causes of the problems they purport to solve; or the politics of who gets what, when, and how; or the fair distribution of wealth; or the destruction of vibrant rural cultures rooted in place. In Anand Giridharadas’ words: “To question their supremacy is very simply to doubt the proposition that what is best for the world just so happens to be what the rich and powerful think it is. … It is to say that a world marked more and more by private greed and the private provision of public goods is a world that doesn’t trust the people, in their collective capacity, to imagine another kind of society into being.”

What he calls the “Aspen Consensus” entails challenging the winners to do more good but never to do less harm—the kind of absolution theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

There is a long, ironic, and mostly unhappy history of the very wealthy trying to do good, most often late in lives spent otherwise. To improve agricultural production and end world hunger, for example, The Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s decided to launch what became known as the Green Revolution. It entailed the application of capital, machinery, chemicals, irrigation, consolidation of small farms, and migration to overcrowded cities, and it caused the destruction of “an agricultural system around which village life and livelihoods had revolved for thousands of years,” as Mark Dowie wrote in American Foundations: An Investigative History.

The Foundation leaders ignored repeated warnings, including those by University of California geographer Carl Sauer about overlooking the possibility “that native practices represent real solutions to local problems.” As it turned out, Sauer was right. The results of the Green Revolution have been a social, cultural, political, and ecological disaster.

One wonders, then, what great problems have been solved by philanthrocapitalism? After all the hype, the record—at best—is mixed. Most of what’s grown by brute-force agriculture goes to feed the wealthy, often at the expense of people on the land, tropical forests, and biological diversity. “What to make of the fact that growing philanthropy and growing inequality seem to go hand in hand?” Linsey McGoey asks in No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Increasingly, philanthropy, she notes, deprives treasuries of tax revenues that could otherwise be better spent to help the poor. And who holds the Bill Gateses of the world accountable? Who weighs the difference between tax revenues not paid to the public treasury against the purported benefits of unsupervised philanthropy? The answer is no one. A more sensible approach to philanthropy is to recognize that “the state is better placed, for reasons of legal power and accountability, to do some things” that require a systems perspective, transparency, and ultimate accountability (Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World).

The battle over land, common property resources, rural culture, and footloose wealth has entered a new and perhaps final phase, as the writers in this book explain. Bill Gates, through Gates Ag One, is spending billions each year to monopolize seeds and control global agriculture in ways previously impossible. Agriculture was the last major sector of society rendered vulnerable to capitalism, but the advent of gene splicing and CRISPR technology makes it possible and highly profitable to control the foundation of agriculture by controlling seeds and genetic material. The result is the brave new world of synthetic meat, genetically modified plants, and novel organisms of all kinds; a world of biopiracy, dependence, pesticides, and control beyond the wildest imaginings of any Grand Inquisitor. It also is a world losing vibrant rural communities, cultural diversity, biological diversity, and democracy—one shaped by “monocultures of the mind” warped by the ideology of brute force applied to genes, plants, animals, recalcitrant rural communities, and independent thinkers, like Vandana Shiva. Under the flag of feeding the world and armed with technology that can manipulate down to the fine grain of life, Gates and others are enclosing the final commons. That is a fight we must not lose.

In sum, we are kin to all that ever was, is, and ever will be. Vandana Shiva captures this ancient truth with an invocation: “We are the land. We are the soil. We are biodiversity. We are one Earth family deriving our common humanity and identity from the land and Earth as earthlings, sharing our common sustenance for life, breath, food and water through community and mutuality.” Amen. The crux of the problem, she writes elsewhere, is “the Eurocentric concept of property [that] views only capital investment as investment, and hence treats returns on capital investment as the only right that needs protection … not labor, or care and nurturance.”

The battle, then, is ultimately one about politics, which is to say about power and greed—justice and fairness within and between generations and species. It began long ago in the enclosure of common lands, forests, and waters and morphed into the enclosure of everything that could be fenced off to exclude common use, common decency, common justice, and a common future. As Shoshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, it is ultimately a struggle to protect “a peoples’ inalienable right to rule themselves.”

This excerpt from Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy: A Global Citizens’ Report on the Corporate Control of Technology, Health, and Agriculture, edited by Vandana Shiva, foreword by David Orr, appears by permission of Synergetic Press.


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David W. Orr is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, and founder of The Oberlin Project. He is the author of numerous books on the environment, most recently Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward.