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The big squeeze: Geopirating the remaining commons

Pat Mooney

10 / 2010

As the UN General Assembly prepares for the June 2012 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, the global response to the current set of crises around ‘food, fuel, finance and Fahrenheit’ are giving rise to even greater commoditisation of our lives, writes Pat Mooney. In the face of new ‘shock doctrines’ around agricultural erosion, ecosystem collapse, cultural extinctions and gender ‘disappeareds’, Mooney discusses the supposed therapies and ultimate pay-offs.

The UN General Assembly is preparing for a head of state summit on environmental issues in Brazil in June 2012. Dubbed ‘Rio +20’ to privilege the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, some critics are already calling the high-profile event ‘Rio -20’, in just the latest in a succession of global ‘happenings’ that began with the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, trundled on to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and then bumbled into Johannesburg in 2002. Retrospectively, the most famous event in Stockholm in 1972 was a botched bank robbery in which a few employees were kidnapped. Once released, some of the employees appeared to have fallen in love with their captors in a psychiatric phenomenon now known as the ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Looking back over 40 years of UN environmental jamborees however, the real victim of the Stockholm syndrome was the UN itself, and the coterie of civil society organizations kidnapped by the charisma of summitry.

The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 adopted ‘Agenda 21’, including a series of treaties and agreements intended to conserve and restore biodiversity, halt desertification, stop deforestation and safeguard us from climate change. When leaders meet in Rio in 2012 they will be told that the deserts have expanded, biodiversity is collapsing, only a scientifically baseless redefinition of ‘forest’ by some governments allows them to pretend that deforestation is slowing and the climate change biz is booming on offsets and credits.

The new summit will announce a ‘green economy’ offering a technological ‘fix’ for all our environmental and economic woes.

In the midst of crises and chaos, gullible governments and panicked publics grasp at ‘magic bullet’ solutions. But magic has its price – surrendering power, property and/or principles. It is a classic political strategy, most recently described by Naomi Klein in ‘The Shock Doctrine’. When the calamity subsides, the magic is gone – and so is social sovereignty. Our current set of crises – food, fuel, finance and Fahrenheit – are setting us up for a classic coup over those parts of our world – and our lives – that have yet to be commodified. This coup is already well underway and it is projected to culminate in some kind of new global consensus Rio +20 summit.

Here’s an overview of how this massive new shock doctrine is supposed to play out…


When we need it most, we are losing most of our living diversity. 75 per cent of agricultural biodiversity is already extinct. We are losing 2 per cent of crop and 5 per cent of livestock diversity every year. Today’s extraordinarily high food prices may weave and wobble but they may never again dip to late 20th century levels. The demand for land to grow agrofuels, commodity speculation, consumer pressure, water shortages and (most of all) climate chaos ensure that food supplies will remain erratic and expensive.

Industrial agriculture has already made long-term food security a scarce commodity. From 40 livestock species and 7,000 crop species, industry only works with five livestock species and 150 crops (heavily emphasizing just 12 crops). Meanwhile, farmers are spending US$90 billion a year on synthetic fertilizers trying, in vain, to make up for the more than 24 billion tonnes of topsoil destroyed by factory farming every year. Below ground, the same farms are sucking up 25 per cent more water than threatened aquifers can replace. From more than 35,200 marine species, industrial fisheries focus on 336 species. 75 per cent of the global fish stocks are either fully exploited or substantially depleted.

Agriculture is also losing its pollinators: North American grassland bird populations have dropped by one-third since Rachel Carson, in 1962, warned us of a silent spring, and 40 per cent of global bird species are in decline. At the 2012 summit, governments shouldn’t celebrate Rio +20 but rather lament Carson -50.


There is no such thing as marginal land. Salt marshes in the United States account for 20 per cent of all US carbon up-take. Global carbon up-take from coastal habitats is roughly equal to Japan’s annual GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. So-called under-utilised forests and savannas play a massive role in protecting us from global warming. Two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are in danger of collapse.


The world’s indigenous peoples (just 6 per cent of humanity) nurture the more than 50 per cent of wild plant and animal life in forests and savannas and are often the sole protectors of surviving crop, livestock and aquatic species used for food. They also secure the medicines that safeguard the health of 80 per cent of people in the global South.

Yet 90 per cent of the world’s 7,000 remaining languages may become extinct by the end of this century. Humanity is losing at least one language every fortnight.


Women are the guardians of most of this knowledge. But patriarchy prioritises male literacy, meaning that women’s wisdom, embedded in local languages – carrying their precise understanding of specific plants, soils, animals and ecosystems – disappears, denigrated and untranslated.

We’re not just losing the message; we’re losing the messenger – the women themselves. Female infanticide is pandemic. In 1990, Amartya Sen estimated the loss at 100 million lives. In China, the gender imbalance was 108 boys to 100 girls for the generation born in the late 1980s; today’s generation is 124 to 100. Similar ratios are showing up in India and elsewhere around the world. The diversity we most need to protect is that of indigenous and peasant women. Because of this loss, the so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation is the first generation in history to lose more knowledge than it has gained.


Industry (and their governments) argue that to feed and fuel ourselves in the decades ahead, we must move from a ‘fossil carbon’ to a ‘living carbon’ economy. The oft-heard and most alarming statistic is that only 23.8 per cent of the world’s annual terrestrial biomass is being appropriated today – meaning that 76.2 per cent of our land-based biomass remains to be commodified. Rumors of the impending ‘carbohydrate economy’ have been with us for some time, but new crises and technologies now make its arrival opportune. As one Cargill spokesperson puts it: ‘[A]ny chemical made from the carbon in oil could be made from the carbon found in plants.’ At stake are some (or all) of the raw materials for the US$8.5 trillion food/fodder/fibre industries, the US$2 trillion chemical products industry, portions of the US$825 billion pharmaceutical industry and, of course, the estimated US$5 trillion energy industry.

The goal is no longer to produce food or fuel but to create and control as much biomass as possible. Corporate structures are being reconfigured. Major energy companies are jostling for dominance with conventional chemical and agribusiness/biotech companies. Exxon Mobil and BP have recently each invested US$600 million in new biomass strategies. Shell and Chevron are also investing in biomass technologies, while BASF and Monsanto have partnered in a joint US$2.5 billion venture to challenge the energy industry. Unilever and Kraft are looking to algae biomass for their future raw materials. The gene giants have become our new biomassters.


The second magic fix is to control the thermostat to dilute or delay climate change. Lacking the political will to adopt tough policies, northern governments are eager to embrace geoengineering to sidestep drastic changes in consumption and lifestyle. Geoengineering schemes include an astounding range of experiments to transform the biology of large ocean surfaces, restructure clouds and block solar rays through stratospheric barriers. As absurd as this sounds (and the scientists advocating this concede that the risks are extreme and success uncertain), the UK Parliament and the US Congress have recently held hearings sympathetic to all of the proposed strategies.

Arguing that the world’s governments will not achieve a new multilateral agreement to effectively address climate change, geoengineers are calling for a new ‘coalition of the willing’ wherein a handful of governments and industries will use technology to prevent the worst aspects of global warming. They argue that the proof of principle is that we have already geoengineered the planet into this crisis. The governments and industries who got us into this mess, who have denied or delayed action on climate change for decades, who refuse to take substantive action even now and who lack the courage to tell their citizens to take the bus, have neither the intelligence or integrity to be entrusted with control of the world’s thermostat.


Industrial manufacture is moving down to the nanoscale (one nanometre = one billionth of a metre) – the scale of atoms – everything from rocks to rice. When everything in nature is seen as composites of atoms and molecules, the technologies that make iPads could be considered to be the same as the technologies that create life.

Since 2000, governments have spent US$50 billion on nano-scale technology research. Most of the Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry over the past 15 years have been working at the nano-scale. When the Royal Society in the UK conducted its analysis of nanotechnology in 2004, industry reported that there are more scientists in the vicinity of Beijing working on nanotechnology than there are in all of Western Europe – at one-twentieth the cost of Western European scientists. Close to 50 countries now have national nanotechnology initiatives and the race is on to see which countries will not be left behind.

Nanotech’s spin doctors claim that the global market for the (approximately) 2,000 products incorporating nano-scale materials (note: not the sole value of nanotechnology itself) is around US$400 billion. This, the spin doctors say, will jump to US$2.6 trillion by 2014. At this point (while not forgetting the industry’s enormous capacity for hype), nanotechnology could account for as much as 15 per cent of global manufacturing and have the combined market value of the telecommunications and informatics industries and 10 times the market clout of biotech – and still be in its infancy. More money has gone into research in nanotechnology than was spent collectively on the Manhattan and Apollo projects. With so much already spent, governments are still not thinking about health, the environment or livelihoods. Although nano materials are already in foods, pesticides, cosmetics, sunscreens and textiles at a scale that can enter our skin or organs undetected by immune systems, there are virtually no safety regulations anywhere in the world. The huge attractiveness of nanotech for industry is that it multiplies the uses of the Periodic Table and hugely changes raw material requirements. The value of presumed national treasures could rise or fall precipitously with changes in nanotechnology.


To get ‘beyond petroleum’ industry says, we must build unique biomass. For synthetic biologists, life is Lego. DNA’s double helix is just a kind of chemical circuitry that can be assembled with off-the-shelf parts. (1) These engineers (many are not trained as biologists) are attempting to build artificial self-replicating organisms that can do almost anything.

Not only can ‘synbio’ build DNA, it can also teach the cell’s machinery to read DNA differently. (2) Scientists at Cambridge University have cajoled cells to read DNA’s four-letter nucleotides in larger sets or codons. (3) Instead of just 20 amino acids from which to build different proteins, this more literate DNA can theoretically have 276 amino acids to mix and match, with the potential to construct proteins that don’t exist in the natural world – the building blocks for unbelievably different life forms. Scientists have already constructed five- and six-base double helixes.

A few months ago, J. Craig Venter captured world headlines by announcing that his private-sector scientists have managed to build ‘Synthia’ – the first-ever synthetic, self-reproducing microorganism. Many scientists regard Synthia as the most significant scientific accomplishment since the splitting of the atom.

Meanwhile, iBoL (the international Barcode of Life) consortium is mapping the genome of every known species, placing the electronic map on the internet and depositing a sample in the USA. Once mapped, it will be possible for researchers – armed with Craig Venter’s self-replicating technology – to download a genetic blueprint, tweak it at will and construct new life forms. Some argue that gene banks, zoos and botanical gardens – and conservation programmes – are redundant. It is theoretically possible to create (and patent) more unnatural biodiversity in a test tube than there is natural biodiversity in the Amazon.


For industry, the alluring side effect of the new techno-fixes is that almost anyone, using almost anything, can be massively destructive. The state’s inevitable reaction is to seek massive control over everybody.

Are the tools of destruction so readily available? Carbon nanotubes are only airfreighted in minute quantities because they tend to explode in larger packets. Aluminium oxide, routinely used by dentists, also explodes in nanoparticle form. (The US Air Force is experimenting with aluminium oxide to ignite bombs.) Gold nanoparticles, between seven and twenty-one atoms, can be used as catalysts. So what? According to one of the most watched videos on the internet, if you drop Mentos Mints into a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke, it too will explode. But out of all of these potentially explosive materials – aluminium oxide, carbon nanotubes, gold, Mentos Mints and Coke – only Coke can’t go through airport security. Quantum effects offer the potential to change all of the characteristics of all nature’s elements when particles are reduced to the nanoscale. This changes almost everything. Russia has already exploded the first nano-bomb – flattening buildings – the world’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon.


The new nanoscale technologies create – and require – social monitoring. And the cost and labour of monitoring can be borne by consumers. The most obvious example is Facebook, with 400 million plus members. Whatever doesn’t make it into Facebook or MySpace can probably be found on one of the two blogs per second being launched on the internet. Privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’. Meanwhile, YouTube is uploading 10 hours of personal video every minute. This year, according to some analysts, there will be as many functioning cell phones on the planet as there are people. Most of them come with cameras and a disturbing number use GPS (global positioning system) to advertise their location. And they tweet their purchases, politics and paranoia to friend and foe indiscriminately. Computer algorithms are not only sorting out who is buying what, but mining the massive data cloud to identify emerging trends and tensions that might become threats and revolutions.


New work in genomics and neurosciences create new profit opportunities as well as new control strategies. The public goal is to cure disease but the private opportunity is to enhance human performance while increasing control. An estimated one in 10 people have some mental or physical abnormality that someone else thinks needs fixing. Add to this the one in six couples that experience difficulty conceiving, and then add to that those parents wanting to select the sex of their next child and the market for performance enhancement is almost limitless. Private clinics now claim they can test embryos for 150 different genetic disorders. But we just can’t seem to get a handle on poverty, pollution or patriarchy!

Enhancement, of course, will be pricey … and perpetual. Implanted cognitive chips will allow families to pay for upgrades for their children. (Failure to upgrade could leave a version 2.0 child to duke it out with a 2.3 sibling parented by 1.0 losers!) Enhancement will come with an introduced Terminator sequence that will render the parents sterile until they renew their licence for the next generation. Those who refuse – or can’t afford – to be enhanced will become outcasts. If someone has a cognitive chip in their brain, who has the remote control?


Collusion between elites in industry and governments is hardly new. But the high-risks involved in shock therapy require extraordinary levels of industry/government coordination. Governments want the techno-fixes (and plausible denial); industry wants its investments secured, its liabilities controlled and unfettered monopoly over natural resources.

With the new techno-fixes, size matters. The value of global annual corporate mergers in 1975 was approximately US$20 billion. Before the recent financial crisis, global mergers soared to almost US$4.5 trillion. Industry may well opt more for alliances or consortia in the years ahead in order to avoid unwelcome scrutiny.

Intellectual property and other forms of technological monopoly are already forcing new alliances. In recent years, patents have been granted that subsume one-third of the Periodic Table; two-thirds of industrial manufacture; and almost all agricultural species. US patent 5,874,029 covers methods for particle nano-isation. The invention can be used in the pharmaceutical, food, chemical, electronics, catalyst, polymer, pesticide, explosives and coating industries – just about the whole economy. US patent 5,897,945 claims nano-rods containing any of 33 elements – over one-third of the working parts of the Periodic Table. Meanwhile, six agribusinesses have applied for – or obtained – mass-genome plant patents extended to the plant’s commodity use.

Will this global shock doctrine really work? Many of the therapies and payoffs will fail. However, technological failures can still breed windfall profits. As governments gather in Rio to mark 20 years of failure of leadership and action, we must remember that the only antidote to our 50-year march toward silent spring is another 50-year struggle by an anything-but-silent civil society.


(1) DNA – A self-assembling, cellular molecule that contains the genetic instructions for the development and function of living things. DNA is made up of simple units called nucleotides that are held together by a ‘backbone’ made of sugar and phosphate groups. DNA’s structure is a double helix.
(2) Synthetic biology (also known as synbio, synthetic genomics, constructive biology or systems biology) – The design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesign of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks. Advances in nanoscale technologies – manipulation of matter at the level of atoms and molecules – are contributing to advances in synthetic biology.
(3) Codon – A series of three chemical bases linked together in a specific order. During protein synthesis, it is the order of the codon that determines which amino acid will be added to the protein under construction within the cell. Each codon carries the code for a specific amino acid.

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