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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Not So Very Rational (p. 571)

From chapter "Holocausts"

The assembly-line mass murder of the Holocaust is production stripped of the veneer of economics. It is the very essence of production. It took the living and converted them to the dead. That’s what our culture does. It was efficient, it was calculable, it was predictable, and it was controlled through nonhuman technologies. And it was also, as well as being grossly immoral, incredibly stupid. Even from the perspective of pure acquisitiveness and land hunger, it was self-defeating. As German troops froze and starved on the Eastern Front, valuable railroad cars were used instead to move cargos that fed crematoria. The Nazis performed economic analyses showing that feeding slaves just a bit more increased their productivity, more than enough to offset the extra cost of feed. Yet, they were starved. Similarly, slaughtering Russians was foolish. Many Ukranians and Russians greeted the Wehrmacht with kisses, open arms, and flowers, happy to be out from under the tyranny of Stalinism. The Germans quickly began murdering noncombatants to make room for the Germans who would move in after the war, or because they were told to, or because the Russians were inferior, or for any of the reasons given for these slaughters since the beginning of civilization’s wars of extermination. And so Russian noncombatants fought back. They blew up trains, they killed German officers, they picked off individual soldiers. They hurt the Germans. For all their vaunted rationality, the Germans weren’t so very rational, were they?

Of course, we’re different now. We have rational reasons for the killings. There’s no silly talk of master races and lebensraum. Instead, the economy is run along strictly rationalist lines. If something makes money, we do it, and if it doesn’t, we don’t (ignore for a moment that to divorce economics from morals and humanity is as evil as it is to do the same for science). But the U.S. economy costs at least five times as much as it’s worth. Total annual U.S. corporate profits are about $500 billion, while the direct costs of the activities from which these profits derive are more than $2.5 trillion. These include $51 billion in direct subsidies and $53 billion in tax breaks, $274.7 billion lost because of deaths from workplace cancer, $225.9 billion lost because of the health costs of stationary source air pollution, and so on. This is to speak only of calculable costs, since other values—such as a living planet—do not, because they’re not calculable, exist. The fact remains, however, that it is manifestly stupid to destroy your landbase, regardless of the abstract financial reward or esteem you may gain. Yet, our culture spends more to build and maintain commercial fishing vessels than the fiscal value of the fish caught. The same is true for the destruction of forests. In the United States, the Forest Service last year not atypically lost $407 million on its timber sale program, or about $779 per acre deforested. Or, take aluminum, to give a more detailed example of how these subsidies actually work. Aluminum is central to the modern economy. Its strength, durability, conductivity, and lightness of weight make it ideal for use not only in pop cans and silicon chips, but especially in airplanes, automobiles, ships, railroads and other vehicles. It is commonly used in electrical wire.

Without massive public subsidies, the aluminum industry would cease to exist. These subsidies take the form of governmental funding of infrastructure necessary to the industry, military purchases, below-cost energy sales, and, of course, the human misery and human (and nonhuman) lives destroyed by the industry.

Because war is a big consumer of aluminum, during World War II the federal government built much of this nation’s aluminum smelting capacity, and financed even more through grants and vast low-interest loans. After the war, private aluminum corporations such as Alcoa retained full use of these smelters, despite their spotty record of assisting the U.S. war effort. They never repaid the public for the construction of the smelters.

The military continues to be a large purchaser of aluminum, contracting for 93 percent of this nation’s shipbuilding and 66 percent of its aircraft. This demand creates much of the market for this metal.

It takes nearly twenty times more energy to extract aluminum from ore and process it than it does for iron. Currently, it takes between fourteen and twenty-five kilowatt-hours to smelt one kilogram of aluminum. Consequently, governments all over the world have subsidized electricity sales to huge aluminum companies, tying the price of electricity to the worldwide price of aluminum. Right now it takes about two to five dollars’ worth of electricity to produce a single pound of aluminum, which then sells for about $.70. In the Pacific Northwest, aluminum smelters consume one-third of the region’s cheap electricity—cheap because the hydropower dams were built at taxpayer expense decades ago. Of course, you could argue that these smelters create jobs—which is a feeble and foolish argument that could have been made as well for the producers of Zyklon B—but if you divide the number of jobs in the aluminum industry in the United States by the size of the subsidy, you discover that tax payers pay $135,000 to $150,000 per employee: We’d all be better off handing the money directly to individuals, giving them sledgehammers and dynamite, and pointing them toward the nearest dam.

The energy subsidies extend far beyond below-cost energy sales: Aluminum is the prime, if not sole, reason for the construction of a large percentage of dams worldwide. These dams are often built over the strenuous objections of the people who will be displaced. In the 1950s, for example, British Columbia gave Alcan the rights to the Nechako River, a tributary of the Fraser River, for hydroelectricity, to build the world’s largest aluminum smelter. The Cheslatta peoples were relocated from the area flooded by the dam’s three hundred- mile reservoir. In 1988, Alcan announced it would divert even more water (it already takes 30 to 70 percent of the Nechako River’s flow) in a second phase of the project. The Canadian government exempted the project from environmental assessment requirements. In 1995, after years of challenges by indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and government scientists, the Kemano Completion Project was canceled by British Columbia. While receiving these subsidies, Alcan owes $888 million in deferred taxes.

Uganda, Central Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, Sarawak. In each of these nonindustrialized nations, dams, ports, roads, and railways have been built with public money to benefit transnational aluminum companies such as Alcoa, Reynolds, and Kaiser (purchased in 1988 by MAXXAM (the company deforesting where I live) with money gained through the Savings and Loan scandal). Locals who object are overruled, whether they are indigenous peoples forcibly relocated or killed, or the head of the Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA, who was fired after she refused to allow Alcoa to clear-cut the Saraca-Taquera National Forest where a bauxite mine was to be located. This suggests yet another way the aluminum industry is subsidized: The forced removal of people from their homelands often requires the use of the military, again paid for with public money. Here’s my question: If the land is to be taken for use by an aluminum corporation, does this qualify as lebensraum?

Large as these subsidies—below-cost electricity and military purchases and protection—are, they’re trivial, compared to the largest public offering to the aluminum industry, which is paid not so much in dollars as in lives and misery. One typical example should suffice. In the 1950s and 1960s, the World Bank financed the giant Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, in Ghana. The explicit purpose of the dam was and is to generate electricity for the huge Valeo aluminum plant, owned by the American companies MAXXAM and Reynolds. The factory, which receives tax breaks as well as below-cost energy, does not smelt local ore: Valeo smelts imported alumina which has been previously refined in Louisiana from Jamaican bauxite. The dam, which flooded 8,500 square kilometers (5 percent of the country), destroyed seven hundred and forty villages and displaced eighty thousand people. The poor, who do not even receive electricity from the dam, now suffer in tremendous numbers from endemic onchocerciasis (river blindness, which affects a hundred thousand people, rendering seventy thousand of them totally sightless), and from schistosomiasis (eighty thousand people have been permanently disabled by this parasitic waterborne disease carried by two species of snail that are now the most common molluscs in the Volta reservoir).

Here in the Pacific Northwest, dams are causing the extinction of the greatest runs of salmon on the planet. During runs, one hundred thousand salmon, weighing up to one hundred pounds a piece, ascended the Columbia River every day. Now, sixty-seven of one hundred and ninety-two Pacific salmon populations are already extinct, and another seventy-six are at risk. The primary cause of extinction for these fish is that dams block their journeys to and from the ocean.

The oil and gas industries, mining, banks, agricorporations, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, operas (Seattle, which doesn’t have enough money to house all of its residents, and which periodically breaks up homeless tent cities and shanty towns, is building a new concert hall, with Seattle taxpayers contributing $18.5 million toward purchasing the land and office building, $12.5 million for construction and site preparation, $14.7 million to build a new parking garage, and $500,000 in city management costs, for a total of $18,480 per seat), none of these industries could exist without massive influxes of money. In other words, none of them make even fiscal sense. This is to not to speak of the fact that they are killing the planet. I guess for all our vaunted rationality, we’re really not so rational at all, are we?