In the U.S. and probably many other places, the struggle between BIG and small continues. Now it’s really a matter of global life or death. Most of us have come to accept the fact that giant transnational corporations dominate the economy and our lives. Of course, some of these entities put forth a public persona that suggests that they are patriotic ‘persons.’ They are not.
We glorify BIG football players to the point of almost electing a totally unqualified brain damaged hulk to be a senator. The BIG NFL cares little for the victims of the BIG GAME. We admire the power of BIG corporations, but not big government. Yes, while demonizing big government, big corporations have garnered the right to throw billions of dollars into politics that no ordinary person could even imagine, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision. Big Tech, Big Finance, Big International Trade, Big Weapons, Big Retail. They are all now core components of the dominant institutional complex and culture of industrial civilization. And don’t even mention that Zuckie Big “Metaverse.”
As history reveals, power begets more power and the powerful grow more powerful until something intervenes, most often their ultimate inability to handle bigness itself. In terms of system dynamics, it is a positive feedback loop. Wherever found, such self-amplifying loops tend to grow out of control and eventually crash. Today, we are at a point of peak concentration of power in the world. Industrial civilization has grown exponentially to the point where only forced restraint can deter it from collapsing.
BIG: Better or Worse
Yes, size does matter, and not always in the best way. Many empires have grown, flourished for a while, then crashed. If we take the long view, we might want to ask where the global corporate industrial-consumer empire stands today. We would discover that by projecting its trajectory out a few decades, the collapse of industrial civilization appears not so far away. I think the evidence is strong that we are rapidly approaching the end of the industrial age, as we have known it. The near future will be very different and chaotic, further out, who knows. The big question is just how and to what extent will we humans step up to have a say in our own future. (That would require a subtle combination of realism and hope.)
To have a say at all, we will need to look ‘objectively’ and recognize that physics has a lot more influence on our fate than does our blind will. As an old Montana cowboy once told me, when a horse needs an ‘attitude adjustment,’ a swift boot to the belly will usually do the trick. In human terms, that is equivalent to a ‘reality check.’ One might consider climate science the boot.
If we continue on the path of illusion, that is, the path based on the assumption that our comfortable consumer ‘lifestyles’ can be extended indefinitely into the future without any fundamental change to the way we live, work, and plunder the finite Earth, the result will not be a pretty sight.
BIG tends toward excess complexity and hierarchy, largely because power gives the powerful the advantage of having the power to capture more power. Unchecked, that self-amplifying cycle inevitably leads to giant organizations that are too big to NOT fail. In doing so, they will take us all down with them, unless we break the cycle.
Here are a few examples of ‘too big NOT to fail. There are many more.
Elon Musk’s empire of arrogant (or is it pre-adolescent?) egotism and proto-fascism. When any ‘empire,’ whether political, military, corporate, cultural, or even personal, reaches a certain size it can become very unbalanced. If an autocrat who ‘owns’ it, and in this case acts like a four-year-old brat, he is very likely to exercise power beyond the point where the wellbeing of the empire is damaged. All those who depend on it—in this case for cultural, professional, and political information, as well as for employment—are damaged, then it is time for structural change as well as a deeply placed boot of ‘attitude adjustment.’
Fusion energy production panacea. Hubris is a common human flaw. Scientists are human, so they are not immune. The promoters of high technology and the investments in it that will make them a lot of money, are even more subject to hubris than most of the rest of us. When you count all the energy that went into building up that extremely powerful laser blast that fused the atoms and released a bit more energy than contained in the laser, the total process used far more energy than was gained. “Although the latest experiment produced a net energy gain compared to the energy of the 2.05 megajoules in the incoming laser beams, NIF needed to pull 300 megajoules of energy from the electrical grid in order to generate the brief laser pulse.” (New York Times, Dec. 13, 2022)
Even more importantly, the idea that the eventual (many decades away if at all) commercialization of a process as complex as this, can have any bearing on our immediate climate/ecological emergency is outrageously absurd. But it does serve to divert the attention of the not fully informed. Most scientists recognize that the basic process will take many decades to commercialize, which ultimately may not be practical at all.
The very BIG public utility monopoly Scam. The idea that you can form a publicly chartered private monopoly that will act in the interests of the public ahead of the private interests of it owners and executives, is just as outrageously absurd as claiming fusion is relevant to our immediate climate emergency. I have observed this absurdity play out in both California (PG&E) and in New Mexico (PNM). Private corporations act in the interests of corporate self-aggrandizement and only in the interests of the public to the extent that they are forced to. Delays in converting to clean energy sources are driven by short-term profit motives, not the wellbeing of the people. The people should own public utilities because they are inherently public. Electricity generation should be distributed locally in small networks rather than dependent on a centralized national grid. Distributed power generation would be vastly more secure than the existing centralized grid, which is so vulnerable to domestic terrorists and to extreme weather events.
The Fossil-Fuel Industries BIG Monopoly on Energy. Giant oil and gas interests have taken huge federal subsidies while colluding to deceive the public for decades, leading to the current climate emergency. They have trafficked in political influence to receive massive government subsidies even as they reap enormous profits by destroying the viability of the Earth System. Their political malfeasance is about as strong as their propaganda, which has contradicted the knowledge that their own scientists warned them of decades ago. Like the banks, they appear to be too big to fail, but they will cause their own failure along with the collapse of society itself, unless stopped.
The Big Banks and Financial Firms. All you have to do is to examine the political-financial circulation of elites (the ‘revolving door’) from the Big Banks to Cabinet-level presidential appointments and back to their corporate homes, to see who runs the nation. There is a clear reason why, when the biggest financial institutions in the nation caused a global financial collapse in 2008-2009, the highest federal authorities bailed out the culprits instead of their victims, adding billions to the national debt. Here is a clear case of where BIG is unequivocally BAD. No democracy can run effectively when the financial elites short-circuit democracy by controlling the economy in the sole interests of their own capital accumulation, contrary to the public good.
The same applies to political ‘contributions’ by corporations and the super rich, which I prefer to call by its more accurate name, bribery. With the nation’s highest court ‘legitimizing’ unlimited campaign contributions by corporations (made largely in secret as well) because it deems them to be ‘persons,’ then democracy hardly exists. If they cannot be put in jail like the rest of us, then they are not persons.
Neither will democracy survive, nor climate action prevail until we get over our obsessive acquiescence to the precept that BIG is both inevitable and good.