Science in Society Archive

Why the Planet is Sick

Prof. Peter Saunders reviews Stan Cox. Sick Planet. Pluto Press, London, 2008. pp219.

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Familiar territory with a new slant

There are currently many books on the harm that is being done to our health and to our environment. Most of them cover much the same ground: chemicals, agribusiness, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and so on. This is no bad thing; every author manages to find some new information or put a new slant on things. There is also no shortage of new outrages coming to light, as regular readers of SiS will know.

In Sick Planet, Stan Cox covers a lot of familiar territory and highlights points that others have missed. His targets include disease mongering (the practice of convincing people that they are suffering from some ailment that requires a drug), the marketing of unnecessary food products such as bottled water, the pollution caused by overuse of fertilisers, the hazards of fluoropolymer chemicals such as Teflon, and more.

Because he has spent substantial time in India, he is able to describe some of what has been happening there. The dangers to health caused by the pharmaceutical industry in developed countries are given wide coverage in the popular media; but we are not told about the serious damage being done in the Patancheru area of India where so many of the world’s bulk drugs and intermediate compounds are made. There, sickness rates are more than double the national average, and good farmland is uncultivated because the groundwater has become unfit even for irrigation.

As Cox will convince you if you do not already know, much of what is happening to our planet is due to human ignorance and greed, expressed through the agency of big corporations and with the connivance of governments. Of course ignorance and greed are common human failings, and this might lead us to conclude that there is little we can do to save ourselves. Cox disagrees, and this makes him go beyond what most other writers on the subject have done.

Cox approaches the problems of the planet in the same way an accident investigator deals with a serious incident. If the investigator finds that the cause was human error, he does not stop there because that’s not enough to prevent it happening again. He is supposed to ask why the error was made and why no one noticed it in time to do something about it. If the plane crashed because the pilot pulled the wrong lever, and if the lever he pulled was very close to the one he should have pulled, we can blame the pilot, but if we don’t want similar crashes to happen again, we had better change the layout of the controls.

In the same way, Cox argues, rather than simply blaming corporations and their CEOs for being greedy, we should ask if there is something about the organisation of our society that encourages them to be greedy, and makes it more likely that greedy people become CEOs. He concludes that the root cause of the problem is capitalism.

Capitalism is to blame

Cox draws chiefly on the work of three economists to support his case. He starts from Karl Marx’s argument that growth is essential to capitalism. A capitalist economy cannot tick over in a steady state; it must continuously expand if it is to persist. From Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, he takes the idea that the sum total of our economic activities can only accelerate the thermodynamic decay which is characteristic of all systems. Finally, following William Stanley Jevons, he observes that efficiency generally increases, rather than decreases consumption. If we make cars that get more miles per gallon, we drive more and end up using even more petrol than before.

Now put these three key ideas together. We could restrict our use of resources to a sustainable level; that won’t prevent them from being exhausted in the long run, but it may make the long run very long indeed and ensure that the Earth remains reasonably comfortable in the meantime. Except that we cannot do that under a capitalist system, because capitalism requires constant growth. We might hope that ever increasing efficiency could save us, by allowing the economy to grow without increasing our use of resources, but experience shows that improving efficiency makes things worse, not better. That leaves the conclusion that we have to give up on capitalism.

Is it really as simple as that? You will obviously want to read Cox’s argument in his own words before you decide. I also expect many economists would take issue with him on various points and feel that he has left out far too much. All the same, his conclusions do resonate with what we see around us. We have big corporations striving to get even bigger, to create demand for products we do not need at a time when one in seven of our fellow human beings goes to bed hungry and one in five has no access to clean water, and at the same time resources such as oil are running out. We obviously can’t go on like this, and if it means we have to make a fundamental change in how we organise our economy, then that may well be what we have to do.

What is the alternative?

Here Cox, not surprisingly, is less definite. He favours a form of what he calls eco-socialism. I have to say I find it hard to imagine what this would be like on a planet of perhaps ten billion people mostly living in cities rather than in self-sufficient rural communities; I have even less idea of how we might get there, starting from where we are now.

Fortunately, I don’t think this really matters. Cox advocates policies such as worker ownership, green taxes, stiff regulation of business, redistribution of wealth, and the establishment of local organizations and community initiatives. There are other things we could do as well, such as a massive programme of urban agriculture as in Cuba [1] (Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuels, SiS 37). These are clearly desirable in themselves and would also be important steps towards whatever a post-capitalist world will look like. And as more of them are implemented and people discover that they do not mean the end of civilisation as we know it, they will become the norm and governments will be encouraged to go further. Providing we’re agreed that we are trying to create a new order, not just patch up the old one.

We do not know where we are going or how we are going to get there. But Stan Cox both argues convincingly that we cannot stay where we are and also indicates the direction in which we should be heading.

Article first published 13/08/08


  1. Ho MW. Organic Cuba without fossil fuels. Science in Society 37, 32-35, 2008.

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