On woefully shaky ground

While channel surfing the other day, I came across "On Deadly Ground" starring Steven Seagal. I've never actually watched the whole movie, but once I watched long enough to see Michael Caine playing an evil businessman, an oil company executive. He not only ravages the Alaskan environment with glee, but also kills, maims and tortures humans with abandon.

It appears that Seagal, who produced and directed the movie, wanted to send the message that oil industry execs are of this breed. And who knows? He may even have fooled some into thinking so.

Subtlety is definitely not a priority for Seagal. After Seagal's character kills the bad guys and blows up the oil refinery - which does not seem like a very environmentally friendly way of getting rid of it - the next scene shows him giving a speech in Alaska's state capitol before a group of Inuits. (This surprised me, because I would have thought that blowing up a refinery, let alone killing innocent workers in the process, would constitute a felony and land one in jail.)

His speech is a business-bashing, conspiracy theory-laden, anti-capitalist harangue. Even Ralph Nader sounds tame by comparison.

He says oil companies are in a conspiracy to prevent the development of engines that run on alternative fuels, including "garbage or water." He says big business is primarily responsible for destroying our water, air, and food. Big businesses not only control legislation and the law, but also "influences the media so that they can control our minds." He says on certain days we cannot see 50 feet in front of us, and that the air is a mass of poisonous gas.

The movie's ending reminded me of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," a novel about deplorable working conditions, which concludes with a speech lamenting capitalism. But there the similarities end. Unlike "On Deadly Ground," "The Jungle" has literary merit.

Long ago I, too, was amenable to scapegoating big business for the ills of the world. But later I came to realize that businesses are not so bad after all; they basically act as mankind's life-support system.

Thousands of years ago, when humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, the life-support system consisted of the local animals, edible plants, and other natural resources. The total world population was a few million. But the population eventually grew too large for the existing environment to support.

So humans had to increase the land's carrying capacity by manipulating the environment, i.e. through agriculture. Eventually the world's population grew too large for even agriculture to sustain. That was when they shifted to industrialization. Through large-scale extraction, modification, and distribution of resources, the earth's carrying capacity dramatically expanded.

Social mechanisms are needed to extract the earth's resources, modify them for human consumption, and distribute them. Those mechanisms are called businesses. The only other mechanisms that could conceivably do so are governmental entities, but the Soviet Union and other societies tried that and failed miserably.

There is no question that creating enough goods and services to sustain the world's billions will put stress on the environment. The challenge is to minimize that stress through prudent regulations, while not over-regulating to the extent that our life-support system is crippled.

The fact that human ingenuity has been able to dramatically enlarge the earth's carrying capacity is quite amazing. Big oil and other big businesses are expressions of that ingenuity. While it is perfectly OK to work to improve their impact on the environment, it is not OK to demonize them. They are essential to sustaining humanity as we know it.

• Patrick Chisholm has a master's degree in international affairs/international economics from American University.

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