On Supermarkets and Sociopathy

No matter what the company vision statement says, all corporations exist to make a profit.  As several psychology publications have noted in recent years, granting legal personhood to these businesses amounts to creating a sociopath with a lot of money and power.  Sure, corporations are made up of individuals, perhaps not a single one of them sociopathic.  You would certainly find most corporate employees to be reasonably good people, no matter what business they’re in, because people are emotionally complex.  They have many different motivators, profit being one of them, but never the only one and usually not the strongest.  The corporation considered as one body, however, it is not an emotionally complex beast.  It came into being for the purpose of turning a profit, and is systemically designed to do just that, from its laborers obligated to their duties for their wage to its executives each beholden to their investors.  Unlike a person, the corporate body has no family, no friends, no remembered history, no sense of place – in short, none of the mechanisms of conscience. It does, of course, have many individual consciences within it, and those individuals, when they come together in a company, can do some really admirable things.  Corporations do a lot of good in the world through charitable causes, and sometimes, with the right people at the helm, can even drive their industries in positive directions.  I credit those instances to strong-willed, idealistic people imposing their ethical compass on a naturally amoral, profit-driven system, and those folks are commendable.  But when that sort of idealism doesn’t take hold in a company, there’s nothing to rein in the beast, and anybody who keeps up with the news is well aware of how ugly business can get.

One exemplary instance of the corporate beast behaving in its natural manner was brought to light by the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina this February, courtesy of Duke Energy.  If common sense tells you that keeping toxic coal byproducts stored as slurry in unlined lagoons next to a river is a bad idea, that’s because it is.  Duke’s continuation of such flawed waste management practices seems incredibly stupid, but it isn’t.  It is malicious, or at least inexcusably apathetic.  Sociopathic, one might say.  The coal ash spill in North Carolina was not the first of its kind; a coal plant in Tennessee experienced a failure of one of its lagoons in 2008 that dumped over 100,000 tons of coal ash into a nearby river.  Duke was warned about the danger of its leaky lagoons, and threatened with lawsuits many times over them.  The ethical (and rational, long-term) response would have been to take immediate action to move the waste and store it in a safer manner – but that would cost the company lots of money, and since consumers would loudly object to having their energy prices jacked up because of Duke’s poor decision-making, the company might be forced to dig into its profits to foot the bill.  Instead, Duke cozied up to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and got some regulations changed so it could delay action.  This was made possible by a very industry-friendly (read: industry-funded) state legislature.  The truly troubling thing is not merely the amount of corruption on both sides of that deal, but the fact that Duke Energy, viewed as one “person,” merely acted rationally in its own interest, it’s only interest, its profits.  Arguably, this is what all corporations will always do when they are not reined in either by the internal guidance of ethically-minded individuals or impartial government regulation in the public interest.  As this incident shows, neither of those safeguards are guaranteed.

This understanding of corporate behavior bears especially heavily on the fight for sustainable, just food.  Consider the good food movement’s favorite punching bag, Monsanto.  Monsanto is not satan incarnate.  It is, however, a corporation, and like all corporations, it exists to make money.  It wants to secure big, consistent profits.  Monsanto would like nothing more than for every farmer in the world to be entirely dependent on its seed and chemicals, just like Coca-Cola would like nothing more than for all the options on the beverage aisle to be Coke products, and Lockheed Martin would like to build every jet in the United States Air Force fleet.  But what is good for Monsanto’s bottom line is not necessarily (usually isn’t) what is best for farmers, the land, or the eater, in much the same way as what is good for Duke Energy’s bottom line is not what is good for the town of Dan, Virginia’s drinking water supply.  Hypothetically, in a free market, everyone from producer to consumer acts in their own interest, sets their price, and everyone’s wants are reasonably balanced.  But that isn’t what actually happens, because the agribusiness corporations controlling today’s market are simply too big and too few.  In the book Stuffed and Starved, economist Raj Patel illuminated the food-supply bottleneck, where a few multi-national firms buy products from multitudes of producers around the world and sell to a few processors, who sell to a few supermarket chains, who in turn sell to millions of customers.  The companies at the bottleneck (perhaps better visualized as a clenching fist) are able to squeeze producers to near-bankruptcy, forcing small farmers into using unsustainable practices to make ends meet or else forcing them off their land altogether in favor of larger, more “efficient,” high-input capital-intensive operations, all the while jacking up prices at the checkout and turning massive profits.  There is so much more for food activists to worry about than Monsanto.  Granted some corporations practice better ethics than others, it isn’t productive to demonize one corporation while ignoring the inherent, systemic problems of entrusting your food supply to large corporations in general.  In fact, Cargill, ConAgra, Pepsico and friends are probably more than happy for you to dump your hate all over their spectacularly PR-challenged peer, and leave them alone to do business as usual.  We really can’t afford to do that.

The inherent problem with a food system controlled by corporations is that the corporations’ bottom line is profit, whereas good agriculture’s bottom line is, always has been, and always will be, health – the health of the soil, the ecosystem, and the eater.  When profit becomes the bottom line of agriculture, food comes to be treated as a commodity, and the land as a strip mine.  Unlike gold or crude oil, food is of universal, direct importance to the integrity of one’s body and being.  If we, as a society, affirm the right to life, (and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for that matter), then by extension we affirm a right to food.  I would go a step further and say we affirm a right to healthful food, and a reasonable degree of free choice about what kind of food to put in one’s body.  Aside from clean water and basic shelter, no other material goods fall under that promise of a right to life.  Food is not a commodity.  Healthful food is a biological necessity, and a basic human right that ought to be defended by any state founded on democracy, liberty, and self-determination.  If America is to live up to her promise as that kind of nation, we have to drastically re-structure the system that feeds us.

If it is difficult to imagine an alternative system in which food is not treated as a commodity, it is because American consumers have become comfortably accustomed to relying on corporations for life’s necessities.  As Wendell Berry noted in The Unsettling of America, the average suburban American “can provide nothing for himself except money.”  Paying someone unseen to provide us with all the basics of life, and then some, affords today’s middle-class citizen a great deal of leisure and luxury that wasn’t available to previous, more agrarian generations, but luxury has its cost.  We can see it in environmental degradation, the mistreatment of rural workers, the endless proliferation of empty-calorie junk food that fuels diet-related-disease epidemics wherever the foods are introduced, and the homogenization of the food available to consumers (if you think you have lots of choices, look at any small-farm seed catalog; the vegetable varieties will blow your mind).  Going forward into an era of increasingly destabilized climate, depleted soils (peak phosphorus is a thing), and the increasing economic stratification of society that already has resulted in “food deserts” in the inner city, we need to seriously reconsider entrusting the provision of our food to profit-driven, demonstrably sociopathic entities.

So where does this leave us?  Clearly much political work must be done to extricate corporate power from the governmental bodies that regulate agriculture and trade, but the simplest way to start de-commoditizing food is available to anyone willing and able to forego some convenience in favor of better living: cut the middleman out of food supply lines wherever possible.  When a multitude of producers can sell directly to the multitude of consumers, they are able to compete with one another on the basis of selection and quality rather than who can produce the most of a standardized crop for the lowest price.  Consumers regain real agency in choosing the food they eat and producers are more likely to get a fair price for their crop.  Farmers markets and CSAs are the forerunning models for that sort of direct marketing, with food hubs, new small grocers, and even grocery trucks coming up in the ranks.  Buying direct from producers usually entails buying local, which cuts out the middleman in excessive transportation, and ensures that farmers don’t have face unfair competition from other farmers working in completely different environmental and governmental conditions.  Eating less-processed foods also cuts out a middleman.  Reclaiming the skills of cooking from scratch will be vital to future food security and food justice, not to mention the preservation of all things truly delicious. (Lays chips are not truly delicious, they’re just beguilingly salty.)  Of course, the way to cut out the middleman entirely is to grow your own.  With a little knowledge about biointensive/permaculture methods, and/or indigenous growing methods of your region, it’s astounding how much food can be produced from a tiny backyard garden plot.  Don’t have any garden space or enough cash for the farmers’ market?  People like Ron Finley are doing some really bold, inspiring things about that.  Guerrilla gardening, they call it.  Where there’s a will there’s a way.

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