Smile Politely

Language first casualty of Olympian campaign

Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent. will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent. certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent., positive audacity; 100 per cent. will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave-trade have amply proved all that is here stated.” (T. J. Dunning, 1860)

Poking around the net for some Urbana information, I open the Solo Cup homepage and find a link in the main bar to “sustainability.”  OK.  I file that in the drawer with the 3,000-square-foot house that is “green” because it uses bamboo flooring.  But it is good to know that our descendents (should there be any) will also have the pleasure of drinking from disposable plastic cups; er, I mean “single-use,” not disposable, and certainly not throw-away cups.

Poking around some more: Plastipak has sustainability too!   Well, hell, we’re all sustainable these days, and BP means beyond petroleum. And corporate welfare and local government hand-outs to businessmen are simply “incentives.”

“It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. … [Doublethink is] to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both.” George Orwell, 1984.

One of Orwell’s strengths is his focusing our attention on these deceitful uses of language, where war is peace. The way to hold those two contradictory ideas at once is to adopt the euphemistic language of deception. The corporate and government invocation of “sustainability” is a piece of this deceit:  It says, “do not worry your pretty little head about this, child.  We are not avaricious polluting capitalists, but responsible citizens who will take care of it.  Now go back to sleep.”  It’s dreamland. The two ideas of capitalist imperatives and social responsibility are contradictory.  If you don’t believe it, I give you BP.

T.J. Dunning’s statement of 150 years ago about capital still applies.  But with the triumph of neo-liberalism (by the way, how’s that workin’ out for ya, eh? Found a job yet?) no one believes it anymore, or chooses to ignore it.  Although with the neo-liberal project floundering around the globe, we might yet get some serious challenges to it. 

Still, 1984 was more than a quarter century ago and we now live in a narcotized world where workers are associates, customers are guests, and we hardly notice these attempts to gloss over and suppress knowledge of the real social relationships between people. And those relations are the same as they ever were since the first dispossession of the English peasantry. And the same as those described by that grumpy old moralist Thorstein Veblen when he called the town of his day, much like C-U today, “the perfect flower of cupidity,” where every social interaction is tinged with the spirit of gain.

It’s via this spirit that I’ve resolved to reach for my revolver whenever I hear the word “sustainable.” What particularly has my ire up is a couple of things in Urbana. One is the hiring of a “public engagement firm, not a public relations firm” a distinction without a difference; one might say a deceit to blow smoke for the Urbana Industrial park development along Olympian Road, is reason enough. “Stakeholders.” “Citizens resolving differences.” “Informed Consent.” Who do they think they’re kidding? It’s like saying sprawl is not sprawl, which the planners say repeatedly. 

The other is a recent meeting in Urbana that had “Sustainability” as its topic, but displayed what “public engagement” really looks like. The meeting, orchestrated by Mayor Laurel Prussing, was a study session of the City Council, Plan Commission, and Sustainability Advisory Commission.  The newspaper account leads with: “The goals of economic development and sustainability do not have to be in conflict.” 

But nothing of the sort was indicated in the account, and by the end Gary Cziko, of the Urbana sustainability advisory commission, was noting the discussion did not address reducing greenhouse gas emissions or sustainability health issues.  “What are we really looking for? What do we really want? Where do the quality of life issues come into this?”  Good questions, Gary, but not the focus of this meeting.  You were being publicly engaged.  You may think you’re a participant in the process that’s the illusion that is being projected, but you were really the audience.

The main presentation looked more like a brief for the Olympian Drive project than anything to do with “sustainability.”  Ed Feser, a professor from the UIUC planning department appeared to be the main event. 

Among his comments:

  • Land use functions and economic development have typically been separated, so the local community needs to bridge the gap. 
  • Many communities strive to achieve new urbanism or smart growth or sustainability, but that can lead to a decline in industry. 
  • Local officials should strive for a diverse economic base with a variety of skills and wages involved. 
  • It’s a good idea to have a good inventory of land available for development.
  • Infill can’t be the only option for some industries.
  • Communities should look at an industrial mix and decide which makes the most sense, which would most likely be successful or viable.
  • Groups can define sustainability in different ways.

Part of Feser’s work is on industry clustering where eco devo types strive to locally cluster a certain type of industry. As one study puts it (pdf): “Industry clusters are formed when competitive advantages entice the growth, relocation or development of similar industries into a locale.  In turn, industry clusters strengthen competitiveness by increasing productivity, stimulating innovative new partnerships, even among competitors, and presenting opportunities for entrepreneurial activity.

So what kind of industries do we have going on here? Several plastic packaging shops linked tied to the food industry. And a big food distribution system, one that is always pointed to as a success of eco devo when the anticipated benefits of Interstate East need to be trotted out. Supervalu and its produce-only-distributor subsidiary A.W. Newell are the jewels in this crown. Newell, which claims to serve a seven-state area, including Chicago and St. Louis, was located in the Apollo Subdivision in 2005 after getting generous “incentives” from the state and local governments.

The Olympian road project has nothing to do with sustainability as an environmental concept it’s quite the opposite. This is not “local” economic development. The economic development crowd in government and the chamber of commerce and the hordes of planners working for them are thinking globally and acting locally.  This is to grab a piece of global economic development. The goal is making CU a regional node of the global industrial food chain and other commodity chains stretching from China to the Port of Long Beach to the Inland Empire Warehouses and on to a cluster of trucking and warehousing facilities here. And if you want to see what a warehousing economy looks like these days with all the low skill jobs that the developers and planners promise, take a look. Maybe the EDC will help lead a unionization drive at Supervalu? 

At times it looks like this thing has already been set up. Recently, a short note appeared in the paper that the Economic Development Corporation, that “private-public partnership” that attempts to lure business here, has been talking to a company interested in a refrigerated warehouse north of the interstate. And the Interstate East industrial development is already “coming soon” according the Atkins web page

It should be obvious from the comments made by Atkins Development executives, the Champaign City Manager, the Mayor of Urbana, the Director of the Economic Development Corporation, the Chamber of Commerce spokespeople that there are big bucks at stake here. It is THE development project.

Are the returns in Dunning’s 300 percent range? No probably not, but the spirit is there. The first casualty is as usual language, which has metastasized into the “engagement” charade. But this will end up with the exertion of raw power. The opponents of this development, who propose a different, sustainable even, model of economic development, are standing in the way of a steamroller. The counter-proposal for a sustainable local development does not even register with the neo-liberal crowd. The mayor of Urbana makes comments about roots and berries and how the opponents can go somewhere else. The director of the Economic Development Corporation says that land north of the interstate is no good for farming anyway because it’s too broken up and small, and only large scale open acreage is profitable; plus it’s only a “boutique” farm up there. And so it goes with anything that does not fit the iron-bound ideology they carry.

The well-known ecological economist and professor of public policy Herman Daly recently addressed this mind-set in an address to public policy graduates, warning them of the determinists who think there is only one possible future, but also of the impossible futures they now believe in “such as, for example, growing the economy forever on a finite planet that is subject to the laws of thermodynamics and ecological interdependence. Our commitment to the fantasy of unlimited growth as the foundation of all national policy should top the list of things to be reconsidered.”

And he warns of the inevitable encounters with the “complacent determinists and nihilists, perhaps disguised as political pollsters, apocalyptic televangelists, cost-benefit analysts, bio-ethicists, evolutionary neuropsychologists, or growth economists. One way or another they will insist that there is no alternative, and even if there were, it would not matter. That such people should bother to argue publically about anything already involves them in a logical contradiction to which they are evidently blind. That makes rational dialog with them unpromising.”

Unfortunately they are a formidable force of businessmen, government officials, academics, and other “experts” and “leaders” who are all in favor of “sustainability” after the returns are deposited.

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