Too big to be

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…
1 Timothy 6:9–10.

A Centrifugal governor controls the speed of an engine automatically
A Centrifugal governor controls the speed of an engine automatically

Unlimited growth and power are a cancer on society

Nature, and anyone who has studied systems, know that there should be checks and balances on the growth of any organism. But many economists and politicians seem to be ignorant of that fact, and the results are disastrous.

I’m a cancer survivor. In 2013 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. They removed my womb, said that the cancer was contained within it so no further treatment and no follow up were necessary. And for 5 years I was fine, though perhaps had less energy than I would have liked. Then, suddenly, I became very ill. So much so, that it was clear to me that I would soon die without treatment, and quite likely with. It turned out that the cancer had escaped and survived and grown into a 4 by 6 inch tumour by hiding in the space left by my womb, and was now blocking my colon and eating into my bowel, at least. I ended up having a total pelvic exenteration, and my bowel and bladder have been replaced by bags on my stomach. I’m now getting regular scans.

This just one example of how letting something grow too big without keeping an eye on it and catching it early and dealing with it can lead to much greater harm. But I had learned that lesson a lot earlier. As a computer systems analyst, I observed that it was a lot cheaper to take the trouble to catch mistakes early rather than to try and correct them when the system had gone live. No doubt you can think of examples yourselves, including at the local ballot box.

Nature knows its limits

While there are variations between and within species, all species have limits. Animals can vary in size, but they all have limits. Try to imagine an elephant or a giraffe as big as a skyscraper, or a mouse as small as a flea (or a flea as big as us)! Nature has many mechanisms built in to keep organisms an appropriate size. They don’t always work, or we wouldn’t have cancer. But a lot of cancer is caused by our environment and lifestyle. It’s the same with trees, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and some can survive high up mountains in stunted form, but none are miles high. Lifespans also vary, but eventually everything dies, and when it does, nature recycles it — often a huge variety of species get their share. But we humans have developed unnatural systems and have not built limits on many of them, and produce a lot of waste that nothing can use, including radioactive materials that were safely buried but we extracted them and now they are a dangerous contaminant that could cause harm for thousands of years.

As viruses have found, if they are so virulent as to quickly kill their hosts, they soon die out as they do not get much chance to spread. The resources may still be in the ground in Ukraine, but Putin is destroying the infrastructure with which to extract and transport it.

We aim for unlimited growth in our economies

Our corporations can grow and grow, and our very economy is designed for unlimited growth, despite the Earth’s resources being limited. Just like cancer may grow until its host can no longer support it and live, so human societies have collapsed when they outstrip their resources, and now we look set to destroy the one and only Earth that sustains us. The result is an ever-increasing exploitation and despoiliation of the Earth, which is leading us to climate disaster. And corporations are merging and merging and becoming ever larger and more dominant, leading to oligarchy supplanting democracy and greater exploitation of the people, who have often become their products rather than their customers. Large corporations split themselves up into so many shell companies that they are difficult if not too expensive or impossible to trace responsibility, to tax or to boycott. We the people have no chance.

And it’s not just corporations. Empires like Rome collapsed when they became too big and exhausted the resources of the countries they overwhelmed. And now one man’s power has become so great that he thinks he can re-unite all the old USSR, and to hell with all the people who don’t want that, or don’t want it at the cost of war.

As of 2019, the median net worth for all American families was $121,760. In 2021 America’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, was worth $201 B — $201,000,000,000, over 1,650,788 as much. The average weight for a man is 194.7 pounds. If Bezos weighed 1,650,788 as much, he would weigh around 321,400,000 pounds. That’s crazy. And he’s just one example.

Too big for their boots

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — Lord Acton.

The harm is done when that wealth is converted to power. Throughout history monarchs and other leaders have had the money, whether their own or their moneylenders’, to wage war on whomever they liked. Without the money for a large army, Putin would not have been able to invade Ukraine. He would not have had the resources to convince so many of the Russian people that the invasion was justified. And when somebody becomes too powerful, in politics or industry, they tend to surround themselves with yes man and live in their own bubbles, losing touch with the rest of the world, which makes decisions that are bad for the world or their country or organization more likely. This is as true for classes that consider themselves to be elite as much as for individuals. You’ve probably noticed this for yourself, whether at work or in politics, but the rich are less empathetic than the poor, are more likely to get away with their crimes, and psychopaths are over-represented at top levels.

And it is not just country leaders who want war. As Major general Smedley Butler wrote, War is a Racket and ‘captains’ of industry are not above violent takeovers either.

Similarly, without the spread and wealth of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, so many people would not have been persuaded that an economic system that was good for oligarchs was good for them too. Former prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd called him a “Cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy”.

We have allowed Russia and China to become overlarge parts of our economies, and that hamstrings us when it comes to dealing with their bad behaviour. Without its outsize power due to our dependence on oil, Saudi Arabia would not be able to wage war and starvation on Yemen. Without our dependence on oil and gas we would not need large armies to defend shipping lanes and pipelines. And the larger the country, the more minorities that feel powerless and may even be subject to genocide. Every country should aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, and forge very good relationships with those countries on which they are mutually dependent, since not every country has every resource it needs. Fortunately, wind and solar are now available to countries which do not have fossil fuels or hydro or geothermal, so power need be less of an issue in future. The Ukraine war has brought this problem sharply into focus. For the sake of the Earth we can but hope that it will lead countries to get off their reliance of fossil fuels, but some are wanting to develop more.

It is not only oil and gas pipelines that can be out of commission. More and more we rely on centralized computing, which carries with it risks, as Facebook and Amazon and their customers have found to their cost recently.

Water is another problem, where countries upstream take too much water from rivers, leaving the countries below them dry. And our populations have become so big, and industries (including agriculture) so demanding, that we are draining aquifers dry. Many invasions and wars have been due to resources (Ukraine is rich in them).

With an organization that is too large for one person to have oversight of it all, or one person has great power over it, corruption is far more likely, as appears to have happened with the Russian military.

Sometimes religion is used to control a populace. Whether they knew it or not, missionaries were used as a vanguard to weaken societies so that others could come in and exploit the people. And religion has been used as a justification for war and oppression, for example the crusades.

In the 2008 financial crash and time after time, corporations, particularly banks, have been deemed to be too big to fail and we the people have had to bail them out. This is wrong. They need to be kept small enough to be controlled, and regulated so that they do not take advantage of their too big to fail status to take unnecessary risks.

Some countries have electoral systems that favour only one or two large parties gaining power, which leaves people whose views do not match either party permanently shut out of decision-making, even when such people make up the majority of the people. This is very unfair and undemocratic.

Countries don’t go to war. People do.

While whole populations may rise up and defend their countries, they are far less likely to initiate war — that is done by a powerful few. Wars are not between countries — many of the people do not want it, as we have seen with Russian protests against the invasion of Ukraine, and those who are in favour have often been lied into that view by massive propaganda campaigns by people who can afford to run propaganda machines, at a loss if necessary. And when populations are behind a war, it may be because they no longer have the resources they need to stay where they are — for example if there is a prolonged local drought. This will only get more likely as global warming devastates more countries.

We can do better

We are capable of building systems that regulate themselves. For example, the centrifugal governor invented by James Watt (video) automatically regulates the speed of a machine. Can we not develop automatic economic systems instead of relying on human intervention, particularly by politicians who may have no clue about how economies work? Can we not automatically break up corporations when they get too big? History has shown that when we do so they do fine, though they do have a tendency to try and get bigger again, if we let them. CEOs may say they want a free market, but their behaviour shows they want to head large corporations that have a monopoly or near-monopoly in their sector, stifling competition.

If the power as well as the income of a corporation was spread equally in proportion to each person’s contribution to that income, how many employees would vote to produce a harmful product, or send their boss into space?

With better education, we can use birth control to keep our population down to levels that the planet can support. With better systems of agriculture, we can reduce our dependence on resource-guzzling, polluting fertilizers. By making agriculture and manufacturing and energy extraction smaller scale and more local (including ownership), we could not only reduce transport costs and the vulnerability to shortages caused by long supply chains, but the people who would be affected by any pollution would have a say if it was worth it. There would be no more huge cancer alleys.

As the The Equality Trust has shown, inequality leads to many of society’s ills. And if spreading prosperity around means more people standing up for their rights, we should embrace that, not fear it.

Because some people and corporations are excessively rich, they are able to buy up vast amounts of land and housing, putting it out of the price range of ordinary hard-working people and distorting (extracting from) local economies.

Too big to be; choose sustainability

There reaches a point where big is not beautiful. For too long we have allowed ourselves to be led by people who believe bigger countries and empires and armies are better, or who build bigger skyscrapers or bigger dams or nuclear power plants and other projects. They love size as symbols of their power and importance, when what we need is for everything to be a size we can all relate to and that does not strain the resources available to us. Just imagine how much better off your country would be with a smaller but sufficient army.

There are times when we need to grow larger, but this can be done by temporary alliances for a particular purpose rather than behemoths. Many organizations co-operated to put a man on the moon, many have worked on vaccines and treatments for COVID, and the Allies worked together to defeat Hitler without losing their sovereignty. Just imagine if there were only one vaccine manufacturer, or only one country with nuclear weapons (I’d rather there were none with nukes rather than many, though).

Nature may have beaten us to it by millennia, but if we are as intelligent as we think we are, we ought to be able to work out a far more equitable and sustainable future which does not include the giant tumours that have metastasized our world.

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Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.

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Sue Nethercott

Sue Nethercott

Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.

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