FEBRUARY 1, 2012 5:45PM

"Where There's Muck, There's Money"

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Back to Basics #24

              This will be a quickie, so to speak, recommending four works of importance about the environment and politics:

                          * Naomi Klein's recent "Capitalism vs. Climate" (28 Nov. 2011);   

                            * Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History (2003); and, pre-eminently,

                          * Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth's prophetic 1952/1953 SF satire, The Space Merchants — and Pohl's sequel The Merchants' War (1984).

                  All of these works make the point summarized to me by a Yorkshirewoman's quoting the traditional bit of hopeful working-class cynicism, "Where there's muck, there's money."

                  Nowadays, if there's serious pollution, there are opportunities to clean it up for serious profit — but if you were living in the muck back when the saying got started, and certainly if you're living in the muck now, there's money all right, but not in your neighborhood.

                  What these four works do is draw the connection between "muck" and "money": how industrial society has produced wealth in the sense of goods and services, but also money, and a lot of muck.

                  And that's industrial society in a large sense, not just Western capitalism: in spite of the title under which the article ran — and titles are part of "The Divine Right of Editors," not authors — Naomi Klein is well aware that "[…] Soviet-era state socialism was a disaster for the climate. It devoured resources with as much enthusiasm as capitalism, and spewed waste just as recklessly […]."

                  What is pre-eminently great about the Merchants books is their drawing the connections among consumption and pollution, pollution and population. The radical rebels in the Merchants books, "the Consies" (Conservationists) want population control and reduction of consumption. Hence, as odd as it sounded in the 1950s, and as much as it's still news for many of Klein's readers, Conservationism is a radical doctrine, dangerous to capitalism, industrial Socialism, and consumerism.

                  It's well known in the Sci-Fi scholarship biz that science fiction is generally bad at predicting the future: SF frequently uses straight-line extrapolation of trends, and social development doesn't often go in straight lines.

                  Sometimes, though, there is a logic in situations that has pretty much inevitable consequences.

                  Thomas Malthus was wrong about inevitably starvation with exponential increases in population and linear increases in food production, but Pohl and Kornbluth are right that you can't have decent human life with constant increases in consumption and dumping waste in a world of finite resources and finite ability to handle waste.

                  A world taken over by hucksters generally and advertising agencies in particular — the world of The Space Merchants — is a disaster.

                  It's a world Americans should recognize in the early 21st century.

                  So start with The Space Merchants and move toward the later works: The Space Merchants has priority, and it's funny.

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