"In fact, not all money is good money. We're on the email list of a German organization, Coalition Against Bayer Dangers (CBG), devoted to exposing the history of another contributor to the local economy, the Bayer corporation."
The Berkeley Daily Planet, April 25, 2007
Editorial: It's Too Easy Acting Green, and Other Arias
By Becky O'Malley
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of imported tschotchkes, have a house full of them. (For the Yiddish-challenged, that's all the little bits of useless decorative stuff you either love because your mother didn't let them into your childhood home, or hate because she did.) But still, in the context of our PC-plus city's Earth Day festival on Saturday, I did wonder. The Planet had a table there, and we spent an hour or so alternately sitting and walking around, chatting with vendors and visitors. We noticed quite a few stalls with merchandise which originated in Asia or Latin America which was delivered in big vans, panel trucks or SUVs. What's wrong with that, you might ask?
Well, energy consumption-all the stuff that we love to bring in from far away, but at what cost? Even our local pols see no contradiction in jetting around the world on their long vacations, presumably to study sustainability. Of course I'm no saint myself-I bought some lovely earrings at the fair (beads from China, assembled nearer to home.)
And one visitor groused at great length about the seeming need for mega-amps of loud music at an Earth Day event, and I must admit I agreed with him. Whatever happened to the concept of noise pollution? Silent Spring was about not being able to hear the sounds of the birds, but even if we're no longer killing as many of them with DDT we're drowning them out with human-produced sounds at every outdoor opportunity. Or masking them with personal seemingly-embedded earbuds playing synthetic songs. At least the organizers could have hired mariachis, an endangered species, to entertain the crowd-acoustic of course.
Which brings us round to the whole uncomfortable subject of green-washing, a topic which has enormous potential for embarrassment whenever it comes up. For starters, there's that nice new office building which is being built downtown for "environmental organizations." We've printed a lot of their letters, their explanations about why the founding father for whom the building is named is smiling down on their project from heaven or wherever, but no one has explained to my satisfaction why it wouldn't be "greener" just to re-use the several existing buildings downtown with thick walls and windows that open, built of never-to-be-replaced old-growth wood.
And then there's the question of why, just as jobs are moving apace to the suburbs, housing is being crammed into older cities. Or, the other way round, why are many trying to re-zone cities like Oakland and Berkeley, which still have a good number of light industries, to drive out jobs just as people are moving back in? (There was a good article by Eyal Press in a recent Nation about this conundrum.) The standard explanation is that people will live downtown and walk to services, but-reality check-there's still no major inexpensive supermarket near Center and Shattuck in Berkeley, nor will there be in our lifetime. Whole Foods will be the first "supermarket" to locate in Oakland in 25 years and-well-it's Whole Foods, not priced for the working stiff. Also few jobs which will support families, even in subsidized housing.
The big green-washing event of the quarter has been the Faustian spectacle of UC's science faculty enthusiastically selling their souls to the British Petroleum devil. Watching it unfold has been fascinating. The first, non-voting meeting of the faculty senate offered ample material for a terrific opera, with actual and potential beneficiaries of the BP largesse falling all over each other to explain why it's really really fine. They would make a perfect quartet, male and female voices, all full of passion. Berkeley's own John Adams used the Dr. Faustus motif to great effect in Dr. Atomic, and here we have the ideal sequel: Dr. Bionic perhaps? Or Dr. Genomic?
The latest act in the epic was last week, when 186 faculty members out-voted 82 of their colleagues to pass a pre-fabricated compromise endorsing the half-billion dollar contract with faint praise while promising token oversight. Some 2200 (or 1400, depending on how you count) tenure-track and emeritus faculty members were eligible to vote, but only 268 of them bothered to exercise the franchise. Many if not most of the pro voters would have been barred by the conflict of interest rules which govern the Berkeley City Council and other bodies, since they expect to profit financially from the contract.
We had the opportunity over the weekend to talk to one of the "no" voters, an emeritus professor from a scientific field who had previously been part of the unsuccessful attempt to disengage the University of California from nuclear weapons research, along with the late Nobel Prize winner Owen Chamberlain and others. Most of his vote-no fellows last week were from the humanities or the soft sciences, not the hard sciences.
He said that in the earlier case, as in this one, most of the support for retaining the contracts which were challenged on an ethical basis came from researchers who were afraid of losing their own funds, including some in different fields. But even he is not completely convinced that the BP deal will turn out badly, since he worries about global warming and hopes some science somewhere will provide a solution.
The official university administration argument was that academic freedom is now defined as the freedom of academics to take anyone's money. This is a curious recent gloss on the old idea of libido sciendi, lust for knowledge, to which Christopher Marlowe attributed Dr. Faustus's downfall. There's an equation in here somewhere, I'm sure. Knowledge is power, but also money is power, so maybe there's an added touch of libido dominandi, lust for power, in what the pro-voting scientists want.
And for some of course, money is just money, and what's wrong with that?
In fact, not all money is good money. We're on the email list of a German organization, Coalition Against Bayer Dangers (CBG), devoted to exposing the history of another contributor to the local economy, the Bayer corporation. Here in a nutshell is what they charge on their web site:
"Bayer has a long history of giving profits precedence over human rights and a sound environment. During the First World War the company invented Chemical Warfare (moisture gas) and built up a School for Chemical Warfare. Bayer was part of the conglomerate IG Farben, which worked closely with the Third Reich. IG Farben exploited several hundred thousand slave workers to build up their plant in Auschwitz, took over companies all over Europe and used human guinea pigs for pharmaceutical research. IG Farben's subsidiary Degesch manufactured Zyklon B, the poison gas used in the gas chambers. In the late '30s organophosphates (sarine, tabun) were introduced, after the war marketed by Bayer as pesticides (E 605, Folidol, Nemacur, Fenthion). IG Farben's managers were convicted as war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. After the war IG Farben was broken up into BASF, Bayer and Hoechst (now called Aventis), and the three firms still cooperate closely and exert a large influence on German and European politics."
We have no first-hand knowledge of Bayer's current policies and politics, though perhaps we should, but the IG Farben story is well-documented. Its research funding during the second world war was the very definition of "bad money," and the German academics who took it were clearly in the wrong.
There are now several similar advocacy organizations devoted to collecting and exposing what they consider to be British Petroleum's environmental crimes. It's at least a theoretical possibility that they're on to something, that BP money is bad money. The token oversight created by the official compromise won't provide much of a barrier in the very likely case that the researchers' libido sciendi gets out of hand. We'll probably have to wait for Dr. Bionic see how this particular Faustian bargain turns out.