The Dark Twin

The thing we love about the industrialization of everything, the reason we tolerate its destructive rampages, is the notion economy of scale. This is the theory that when you mass-produce something, each something in the mass will cost less. What we need to keep in mind is that economy of scale has a dark twin that is equally powerful and seldom discussed — elevation of risk.

For example, within the past few months people around the world have been sickened and killed by salmonella in their peanut butter, melamine in their milk and E. coli in their spinach. A year ago, Topps Meat Company went out of business after having to make the largest recall of contaminated meat in history. This month, Peanut Corporation of America went down after its tainted peanut paste was blamed for nine deaths and 636 cases of food poisoning in 43 states. Yes, it too was the worst case of its kind in history. The cases are coming faster and faster, and each seems to set a new benchmark of size or lethality or mendacity.

These are not aberrations, or accidents. They flow from the nature of industrialized agriculture, or industrialized anything else, as it seeks economies of scale and simultaneously elevates risk. The reason the economies of scale look so good, when they show up in the profit statements or in the dividend checks, is that no accounting has been done of the risks. Thus does Exxon record the largest profits in the history of mankind and leaves it to others to figure out how to keep global warming from extinguishing mankind. That’s not Exxon’s problem, and it’s not on Exxon’s books.

Each individual principle of industrialization carries this dark twin. Centralization of production requires transportation of raw materials and workers to the work place, and products to market, elevating everyone’s exposure to the risks and consequences of mass travel in fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. Centralizing also concentrates waste — the effluent from any one of today’s hog- or cattle-feeding lots is as noxious and voluminous as that of a small city. But as the air darkens, the waters sour and the animals themselves sicken, no entries are made in the books that show nothing but profits — thanks to economies of scale.

Specialization, expressed in industrial agriculture as monoculture, is contrary to nature’s preference for diversity; nature knows how risky specialization is. Plant a thousand acres of a particular kind of wheat and you drastically increase the risk that some critter or fungus or disease with a special liking for wheat will come along and wipe you out. On an old-fashioned, diversified farm, with some animals and vegetable and various crops, the risk of getting wiped out was minimal.

The world’s masses will always need some mass production. But it is dangerous to their survival to see industrialization as the only answer to any need, and to ignore the dark side of economy of scale.

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