Category Archives: Politics

Profiting from Gun Violence

Corporate Greed and the American Bloodbath

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

      Like sweeping sand in a sandstorm, gun control efforts are well intentioned but futile, even if enacted. Gun control advocates propose outlawing specific types of guns and increasing background checks for the people who buy them. They might as well try to outlaw sand or try to regulate where the wind takes it. Real reform cannot happen until we sequester the storm at its source. Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders. It isn’t a gun rights issue at all. The issue that matters is corporate greed. Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry will exploit consumers and profit from death as long as it is economical to do so.
      Guns were traditionally marketed as tools for hunting, but sales waned as Americans migrated into the cities and suburbs and lost interest in hunting. With guns no longer needed as tools, gun manufacturers adapted to the changing demographics and began manufacturing new guns and cultivating new markets. These guns are not like your grandfather’s hunting rifle. To increase the appeal of guns, the industry began manufacturing civilian models of military and police guns, promoting gun use as symbols of power and masculinity. These guns are marketed to young men to make them feel more powerful, and then to homeowners and women to protect them from people who shouldn’t have guns, and even to children for “recreation.” It is a successful strategy. This market has ballooned at a 27 percent annual rate in just the last five years.1
      One study commissioned by the shooting sports industry suggested recruiting children ages 8 to 17 years old, who already have shooting experience, to serve as “peer ambassadors” to entice other kids into the sport. The industry-supported Junior Shooters magazine has featured the Bushmaster AR-15 as a great weapon for target shooting. Children were encouraged to share the story with their parents, enticing them with this teaser, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!” According to the editor, Andy Fink, semiautomatic firearms are not weapons unless they are used against other people, and there is no legitimate reason why children shouldn’t learn how to safely use an AR-15 for recreation.2 The AR-15 is the assault rifle used by Adam Lanza to gun down twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

            Urbanization has made men like Lanza increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by savvy marketing firms. Young men do not have the opportunity to build rippling muscles and self esteem by doing traditional work – building fences, swinging an axe, or taming a wild horse. Instead, boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, shooting people in video games, using virtual guns that are often the same or similar to actual models pushed by gun manufacturers. They spend thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. I have met young men with that background, and they often talk of becoming Army Rangers. They want to go to war so they can use their “skills” in the real world.

“Alexa.” An “ex-girlfriend turned zombie” on display as a target at the NRA convention. Source: New York Daily News

      Adam Lanza had no prior criminal record. But he spent a great deal of time alone in his basement immersed in Call of Duty, scoring points for kills. Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, quickly and publicly blamed the video game industry for the Sandy Hook tragedy. But behind the scenes, the gun and video game industries are often in bed together. Gun manufacturers have allowed video game producers to portray real-life gun models in video games, and video warfare gaming sites have featured advertising for gun and ammo manufacturers. Restless young men, having spent hundreds of hours immersed in simulated warfare, were tempted by advertisements to buy real weapons. The direct advertising was discontinued after complaints, but video games still feature authentic gun models and condition users to kill.
      Even without marketing, men are susceptible to the false sense of power that comes with a gun. I still remember listening to the stories in the boys’ locker room in junior high. Kids bragged about how they blew away some coyote or varmint with a gun. The bigger the gun and the more they decimated the creature, the bigger the brag, as if there is something profoundly manly about being able to squeeze a trigger. Hunting to feed one’s family is one thing, but guns can distort a user’s personality, contributing to a fundamental disrepect for life. As a hiker, I often encounter “sportsmen” who go out in the woods to drink beer and blast away at the trees, rocks, and wildlife for entertainment.
      The gun industry knows how to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful. Fortunately, most young men, confined to the cities, don’t have the opportunity to exercise their manliness on the local wildlife. Unfortunately, the gun industry is flooding our cities and towns with weapons and ammunition, putting them in the hands of testosterone-hyped young men with no outlet to use them, except against other people.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry (and it's non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry (and it’s non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

      For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security. As Wayne LaPierre, vice president for the National Rifle Association, said after the Sandy Hook massacre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”3 What the gun industry wants is for every law-abiding citizen to own a gun, or better yet, a whole gun collection. Be trained and prepared for self-defense. Keep one behind the counter to defend your business. Keep a gun in your car, or get a permit to carry a concealed weapon and keep it on you at all times. Arm our pilots, our teachers, and our taxicab drivers. Legalize guns on college campuses, and make sure everyone has one for self-defense. Because a world that is awash with guns requires that everyone be armed to defend themselves against people with guns.
      There are already an estimated 310 million guns in the United States,4 approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. The problem with the gun industry, as with all corporations, is that there isn’t an end to it. It wouldn’t matter if there were 310 billion or 310 trillion guns in the country. The nature of corporations is to expand and sell more products this year than they did last year. A banner sales year for guns only requires newer and better marketing schemes to con people into buying yet more guns the following year. But more guns will never make us safer, and gun violence doesn’t necessarily turn people against gun ownership.

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.  Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.

Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.
Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

      One would think that gun violence and massacres like Sandy Hook would be bad for the gun industry. Publicly, industry representatives lament such tragedies, and privately, they must worry about the impact on the corporate bottom line. But strangely, even mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked immediately after the massacre, before the children’s bloody corpses were laid to rest. Presumably, consumers buy additional guns and stock up on ammunition because they fear new gun control legislation.
      Fear of gun control is perhaps the gun industry’s best marketing tool of all. The NRA fans these flames of fear, manipulating gun owners until people wildly exclaim that, “The government is going to take our guns away!” even though no such legislation has been proposed. It’s absurd.
      As one fed-up gun-toting Wyoming mother lamented, “I am tired of going to the local ammo supplier and finding out that every bullet they had sold out as quickly as they put them on the shelves. I am tired of listening to hateful rhetoric about how the President is coming to take everything down to our pea shooter away. It’s ridiculous. We know that the only people who stand to profit from this are the ones who sell guns and bullets. They have motive, means and opportunity. All they want is our money.”5
      Keeping gun control in the news as much as possible is good for business. And fortunately for the gun industry, it’s a win-win situation, whether or not gun control legislation is enacted. If defeated, the battle continues. If approved in some miniscule way, the battle continues. And even if specific gun models and clip sizes are banned and background checks required, the impact to gun sales and gun violence won’t be significant.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

      As gun advocates like to say, “If you outlaw guns, then only outlaws will have guns.” But Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.
      Nancy Lanza was not a bad person for buying a semiautomatic rifle. She never could have predicted how the weapon would ultimately be used. And that’s the problem. Merely buying and owning the AR-15 made the Sandy Hook massacre possible. And it will happen again. The gun used in the next massacre may be properly locked away in someone’s gun safe right now. No person can absolutely gaurantee that their gun won’t be used to commit murder, any more than they can guarantee that they themselves won’t one day suffer from severe emotional stress and mental illness. Even well-trained and properly certified police officers and soldiers go rogue now and then and start killing people.
      As long as our society is awash in guns, we will be plagued by gun violence. An estimated half million guns are lost or stolen every year in this country.6 By merely owning guns, well-intentioned gun owners are unintentionally putting guns in the hands of criminals. Ultimately, we are not suffering from a lack of gun control, we are suffering from an excess supply of guns. Out of 12,664 homicides in the U.S. in 2011, 8,583 were committed with guns. Guns were also used in 19,392 suicides in 2010, accounting for about half of the total.7
      In response to gun violence, Chicago enacted the nation’s strictest gun control laws, but to little avail. Guns can be purchased legally only by properly trained and certified, permit-carrying, law-abiding citizens. Everyone else buys guns through the black market, imported from elsewhere or sometimes stolen from law-abiding gun owners. A handgun can be purchased on the streets of Chicago for $40 or $50, or a semiautomatic for $100.8
      Twenty-nine students from Chicago’s Harper High School were shot in just one year, eight of them fatally, which prompted Public Radio International to do an in-depth story for This American Life. Three reporters spent a semester in the community, interviewing students, staff, and parents. For the students, just walking home from school each day required strategy to stay alive. They often walked down the center of the street, blocking traffic, to avoid close quarters with trees or other obstacles along sidewalks where gunmen might be hiding. They walked close enough to each other to benefit from group security, but far enough apart to avoid implying any affiliations that might get them knocked off by one gang or another.9 This is daily life in Chicago, USA, and it is a potential harbinger of things to come as gun manufacturers flood our cities and towns with millions upon millions of new guns. As noted in the story, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida has attended funerals for forty-four slain children in just four and a half years.10

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt  Wuerker

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt Wuerker

      The gun industry, like the tobacco industry, is driven by profit, and both profit from death. The drug war in Mexico, for example, is partly fueled by American-made guns flowing across the border. Between government agents, rival drug cartels, and innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire, more than 60,000 people have died in the battle.11 Murder has become so commonplace in places like Juarez, that residents have been known to yawn while passing by yet another murder scene. Young children routinely witness the mopping up of blood on the street. The American gun industry quietly profits from the bloodbath and has done nothing to stem the flow of guns and ammunition to Mexico. Every bullet fired ultimately translates to more profit for corporate shareholders.
      Mexicans have responded by glorifying the drug cartels on television, glamorizing a lifestyle of guns, drugs, sex, and money, which ultimately recruits yet more gullible young men into a life of violence. As the violence spills across the border, our southern states are becoming increasingly ghettoized and everyone is in prison. Those with limited means put bars on their own windows. People with more money lock themselves into gated communities, but no one is free.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.  The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.
The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

      It is a stark contrast to the world I grew up in here in Montana, where many people didn’t bother to lock their doors at night. Some didn’t bother to lock their doors when they went away on vacation. But the world out there is steadily encroaching, making Montanans live in fear like everyone else.
      If we are to reverse the trend and regain our security, we must deal with the superstorm at its source. To have any hope of reducing gun violence, we must first stop flooding the marketplace with cheap, mass-produced guns. The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers. But any type of gun that regularly shows up at crime scenes needs to be addressed. What would happen if we were to apply a crime tax to problem gun types, both real and virtual?

Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders.

Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders.

      For example, placing a significant crime tax on handgun sales could reduce demand enough to eventually make them scarce. How much tax would be required on legitimate handgun sales to raise the black market price of a handgun from $40 to $400 in Chicago? Would there be less gun violence if cheap guns were not being passed around the neighborhood? Would there still be an incentive to rob a convenience store if it necessitated a $400 investment instead of a $40 investment? And what if this crime tax were used by law enforcement to aid gun buy-back programs? At what price would gang members be more interested in cashing out gun collections for quick, easy, and legitimate cash? What would happen if we also taxed violent video games and included the revenue in the gun buy-back program?
      Alternately, what would happen if the gun industry were held accountable for crimes committed by their products? If a particular type of gun were implicated regularly in crime scenes, then perhaps the manufacturer should re-examine the gun style, marketing campaign, and/or customer screening associated with that model. If a corporation fails to address the issues, then it should be held indirectly accountable for the resulting crimes. How might a gun or ammunition manufacturer adjust its product lines, consumer screening, education, and tracking, if the company were fined a million dollars for each person murdered by their brand of gun?

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

      I don’t know the best answers for reducing gun violence. What I do know is that the best-intentioned gun control laws won’t make much difference as long as the gun industry retains the incentive to flood the marketplace with millions upon millions of cheap new guns. If we are going to make meaningful change, we must shift the debate from the end user to the true source of the problem: corporate greed. We will never be safe as long as there is profit to be made by conning people into believing they need more guns.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books and the founder of Green University® LLC. Tom is admittedly not a big fan of guns, but he does use them as needed. Tom kills only what he will eat, and he prefers hunting with sticks, rocks, and bows & arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

Learn about nature. Respect nature.
Check out Tom’s book:


Participating in Nature:
Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills


Footnotes
1. Jonathan Thompson. “Which way will the West go on guns?” High Country News. February 04, 2013. http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.2/which-way-will-the-west-go-on-guns.
2. Mike McIntire. “Selling a New Generation on Guns.” The New York Times. January 26, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/us/selling-a-new-generation-on-guns.html?
3. Wayne Lapierre. NRA Press Conference. December 21, 2012. http://home.nra.org/pdf/Transcript_PDF.pdf.
4. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
5. Sarah Zacharias. “Gun Owner Holsters Her Weapon, Challenges NRA.” The Big Slice. April 16, 2013. http://thebigslice.org/gun-owner-holsters-her-weapon-challenges-nra/.
6. “Fact Sheet: Stolen Guns.” The John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/guns_theft_fs.pdf
7. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
8. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
9. Ira Glass. “487: Harper High School, Part One.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.15.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/487/transcript.
10. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
11. “Q&A: Mexico’s drug-related violence.” BBC News. December 24, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10681249.

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Filed under Economics, Gun Policy, Politics

Too Many Jobs?

What if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?

If “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs are beneficial for the economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

      Nearly every politician campaigns on the promise of strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and putting people back to work. Jobs are a big issue in the best of times and in the worst of times. In fact, jobs are often the only issue we hear about in the news. But what if job creation actually makes us poorer instead of richer? And what if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?
      Consider those green “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs that sprouted up in every community as part of the federal government’s effort to create jobs and get the economy rolling in 2009. How many people were employed mining and refining the metal for all the steel posts and aluminum signs? How many people were employed printing and distributing those signs, or mixing the concrete and mounting the signs in place? If these signs were so beneficial to our economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?
      The answer should be obvious. Building signs contributes absolutely nothing towards our standard of living, our quality of life, or the health of our environment. On the contrary, essential natural resources were mined, processed, and used for no net benefit. At the end of the day we are left with fewer natural resources and ultimately higher prices for those resources.
      Similarly, consider something as ubiquitous as junk mail. How many tens of thousands of people are employed to cut down trees, mill them into paper, produce ink, do graphic artwork for catalogs and political campaign brochures, address them, mail them, ship them across the country, and sort them into boxes, only to have most of them discarded and recycled or landfilled without even being looked at? Everyone along the way, from the graphic artist to the accountants and the janitors, are glad to have the work, a chance to earn money and keep food on the table, without anyone seeming to notice that they are functionally employed to do nothing more than consume and dispose of our natural resources.
      But burning up billions of barrels of oil permanently depletes the resource, devastates the landscape and pollutes the water, contributes to global warming, and results in higher prices at the pump. If we have nothing tangible to show for the investment, then we literally make ourselves poorer by working too much, leaving less wealth to pass along to the next generation.

      What if you were offered a job whose sole purpose was to use up our natural resources to ensure that there will be none left for the next generation? Would you take such a job to feed your family? And how would that be different from the work you are doing now?

“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back.” –Henry David Thoreau, 1863

      As Henry David Thoreau pointed out in Life Without Principle in 1863, “Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” In fact, our situation is far worse, because throwing stones over a wall is utterly harmless. But we have millions of people employed directly or indirectly in extracting and processing our remaining natural resources for no other purpose than to dispose of them.
      Junk mail is only one example among thousands. Worldwide, millions of people are employed to convert raw wealth into garbage destined for landfills. Consider the ubiquitous plastic products at the ‘big box’ store. How many hundreds of thousands of people are employed to extract and refine the raw materials, design and make molds, build factories, manufacture, ship overseas, and distribute utterly useless products that we then hire more people to transport to a landfill and bury underground for eternity? That is the fate of any product that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable. If you walk into any big box store like a Wal-Mart or a Target, you will find that virtually every shelf in every isle is filled with cheap plastic crap that was made in China, designed to break or wear out quickly, and is destined to be permanently buried in the ground after a few weeks, months, or at best years. Almost nothing on the shelves will last more than a decade.

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing, natural resources for products destined for landfills?

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing natural resources for products destined for landfills?

      It’s not just plastic crap, either. It is also the appliances that break down within a few months or a few years. From freezers to blenders to food processors, the consumer is better off looking for well-used, forty-year-old American-made appliances, rather than buying brand new appliances that are likely to fail in short order. It is also our disposable tools, the drills, saws, wrenches, and shovels that often break the first or second time you use them, including my all-time favorite, the hammer that bends backwards when you try to drive in a nail!
      The Chinese must think that Americans are the stupidest people on the planet. In an unprecedented transfer of resources, we converted one of the poorest nations on earth into a budding superpower. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and our country is practically bankrupt. The Chinese are literally selling us garbage to bury in our landfills, while diverting profits towards constructing bullet trains, installing solar power, launching a space program more ambitious than our own, buying American companies, and loaning operating funds to our federal government while we dig yet a deeper hole for ourselves.
      At the heart of this problem is not junk mail, big box stores, or the Chinese, but the perceived economic benefits of “planned obsolescence.” In essence, a company that builds a product that is too good is ultimately destined to saturate the market with that product and run itself out of business. If all products were made to last, then people wouldn’t need to buy anything, factories would shut down, employees would be laid off, and nobody would have any money to buy anything, even if they wanted to. Making products that are designed to fail is believed to be good for business, and a sure means to keep the economy rolling.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

      We all know the story of Thomas Edison, and how he tried thousands of different filaments to make a long-lasting incandescent light bulb. Less commonly known is that early light bulbs lasted too long, so long that one bulb has been in continuous use for more than a 100 years in a fire department in Livermore, California. But long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected, as detailed in the documentary Pyramids of Waste (also known as The Light Bulb Conspiracy).
      The documentary details economic theory about the need to make short-lived products to maintain consumer demand and keep the economy rolling. For instance, Dupont chemists were pretty proud of nylons, first created back in the 1950s. But they were sent back to the lab to rework the formula, because the original stockings were too durable to wear out efficiently. The documentary takes the viewer into the university classroom to see how engineers are formally trained to satisfy employers by dumbing-down products to ensure failure. This is the American way to achieve prosperity. Millions of people are gainfully employed mindlessly cranking out and distributing useless or inferior products. Money flows around and around the loop, and we work our entire lives to keep ahead of engineered entropy. Advertisers encourage disposability by seducing consumers to want newer, glitzy products, even if they haven’t worn out older models.

“every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere.”

      This inverted logic might have made sense when markets were finite and our natural resources seemed infinite, but now the reverse is largely true. Resources are limited, and anything tossed in the trash raises the price of our remaining natural resources. For example, copper is becoming increasingly expensive, and every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the global marketplace is hard to fathom. It might be possible to saturate one market, but there are always new markets to reach out to. For example, the Skil Corporation manufactures a quality worm-drive Skilsaw, used primarily in wood construction work. Unlike other tools, a Skilsaw doesn’t break and get tossed in the trash. It is built to last and almost infinitely repairable. It is a successful product because of its durability, and that is a successful strategy for the company, rather than making an inferior product. Unfortunately, durable products are an exception to the rule.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

      We have built not only a disposable economy, but also a disposable country. Even the houses that shelter us from the elements are little more than temporary shanties, dressed up on the surface. Most houses are designed so poorly that they require a constant influx of fossil fuel energy to keep them cool in summer and to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter. Most houses are so flimsy that you could punch a hole in the wall with a fist. From leaky water heaters to failing asphalt shingles, from carpets that must be replaced and bathrooms that rot out, houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage. Look around you at the millions upon millions of houses, and consider that almost none of them were engineered to last more than a few decades without major repairs. But all that work is supposedly good for the economy. It keeps people gainfully employed converting raw wealth into more garbage for the landfills.
      By the same reasoning, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are often considered good for the economy, because people find work cleaning up the mess, rebuilding infrastructure, and replacing merchandise. Every major oil spill is recorded as a positive economic entry in our national accounts due to the jobs and income “created,” while completely ignoring resource loss or damage. According to this kind of logic, America would be richer than ever if we just burned down every house, office, and factory and demolished all our possessions!
      Never mind that carbon emissions are spiking upward when they should be tapering off. Never mind that global warming is happening faster than predicted, or that cumulative factors could potentially lead to a runaway greenhouse effect. With the economy in the doldrums and unemployment levels high, all other concerns are secondary. It is imperative that we keep everyone gainfully employed doing important work, like making plastic toys to go with our Happy Meals.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

      We are arguably victims of our own success, and our cultural customs are not unlike the historic potlatch ceremonies of Northwestern Native American tribes, where chiefs demonstrated their great wealth and prestige by giving away their possessions, or better yet, destroying them. In a highly productive tribal economy, where material wealth is functionally meaningless, what better way to flaunt your status than by tearing up blankets, punching holes in canoes, burning down your house, or killing your own slaves in front of honored guests? At the very least, it kept the economy rolling.
      Our industrial economy is so incredibly productive that it only takes a few percent of the population to supply all of our needs, and everyone else therefore must be employed doing alternative, often meaningless work to pretend they are contributing to society.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt… Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money.

      In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt. Advancing to the technology of a livestock-driven agricultural society, a specialist might tan hides or spin fibers to make a shirt every day or two. In an industrial society, a worker may crank out a new shirt in an hour or two, and with today’s automation, it becomes possible to press a button and spit out a whole pile of shirts. Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money so they can afford to buy those shirts. As a society, we unconsciously create meaningless work to keep people busy doing work that doesn’t actually produce anything; it effectively redistributes wealth from those who produce it to those who don’t.
      For example, H&R Block, Inc. has approximately 11,000 company-owned and franchised retail locations in the United States, employing a great many people to help American citizens pay – or avoid paying – their taxes. This is just one company out of hundreds involved in the tax industry. We might be glad to pay a little money for an accountant or a do-it-yourself software package, but that expense is effectively a tax. We could easily invest that money towards something useful, such as paying off the federal deficit, investing in education or the environment, or in a better space program. But instead we redistribute the money to pay for office buildings, desks, computers, lava lamps, cleaning supplies, and employee wages for an army of people who don’t actually contribute to the economy. Most of that work would be unnecessary if we scaled back the IRS, greatly simplified the tax code, and collected “green” taxes against products that are harmful to the planet.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

      The irony is that job creation is intended to sustain the economy, but there is nothing remotely sustainable about employing people to decimate life on earth. There have been five past mass extinctions in the history of life on earth. From asteroid impacts to massive volcanic eruptions that smothered the planet, each event permanently wiped out half or more of all species on the planet. In each case it took tens of millions of years for the surviving species to diversify and fill the ecological voids. Now we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood. We have destabilized the climate, with the forecast calling for more ‘job-building’ natural disasters ranging from floods to droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and now even “superstorms.” Meanwhile, grasslands are turning to deserts, tropical forests are being logged to oblivion, the Arctic ice sheet is rapidly melting away, coral reefs are dying, and the oceans are predicted to be fished out by the middle of the century. We are expected to wipe out half of all life on earth this century, and politicians everywhere are worried about the unemployment rate.
      But the reality is that committing labor and natural resources towards work that doesn’t produce anything ultimately results in a net drag on the economy. It raises costs and makes us poorer. And that is the sad reality of our present economic situation: the faster the economy grows, the more impoverished we ultimately become!
      Conversely, the path to building a sustainable and prosperous economy is to eliminate extraneous work and dedicate our resources towards investments that make a tangible, positive difference in our world. Call it “green prosperity.” The more we invest in conservation and eliminating waste, the wealthier we become.
      Prosperity in the twenty-first century will be created by those who seek profit by making the world a better place. Ecopreneurs will out-compete inefficient, abusive industries by starting green businesses that close the loop on wasted materials, energy, time, money and labor. They will heal wasted ecosystems and restore biodiversity at a profit while delivering useful goods and services to the public. Homeowners too, will profit by seeking ways to eliminate everything from high energy bills to mortgage payments–even eliminating the need for a regular job. But there is no need to wait for such a future to come, for the revolution has already started. The door is wide open, and anyone can walk the path to green prosperity, changing the world every step along the way.
      Taking one small step, an individual can install a solar water heater or hire a contractor to install it for them. The solar water heater reduces a household’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowers the utility bill, and brings a timely return for the investment. By making similar investments and upgrades in a house, a person can trim the utility bill down to almost nothing, and even install photovoltaic panels to run the meter backwards and wipe out the utility bill entirely. In fact, it is a whole lot easier to avoid expenses and debt in the first place than it is to earn a fat paycheck and spend one’s way out of debt.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

      As a young adult, I hated the idea of getting a job and paying bills. I abhorred the idea of spending my entire life working to pay a mortgage, rent, utilities, car payments, school loans, or any other kind of bills. I didn’t mind working, but I wanted it to count for something. I have succeeded in life by avoiding extraneous work, rather than creating it. I successfully avoided paying rent or a home mortgage, college loans, car payments, big utility bills, or any other substantial recurring expenses. Indeed, there is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all, and it was that freedom that allowed me to indulge in my writing until I turned it into a successful career.
      While there are many pathways to eliminating expenses, debt, and the need for jobs, as described in my article Escaping the Job Trap, the reality is that most people will never walk that path on their own. As it is, shockingly few people install solar water heaters or properly insulate their homes, even though the economics are already good, and tax incentives often make it even better. But it takes a certain amount of know-how to install one’s own solar water heater, and a certain amount of knowledge just to competently hire a contractor to do it for you. As a result, there are disappointingly few solar water heaters in operation in our country.
      It would be far better to provide incentives for utilities to install and maintain solar water heaters themselves. For example, if a utility pays for and installs a solar water heater on a home, then the utility should profit from most of the energy savings. The customer could get a small reduction on their gas or electric bill, while the utility would continue to charge the customer as if they were using almost as much power as before. But the energy saved would be sold elsewhere, so that the utility would get paid twice for the same energy. It would be in the utility’s best interest to install identical, durable solar water heaters on every house, in order to reduce maintenance costs.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

      With the right incentives to spur investment in conservation and alternative energies, we could create real jobs and put millions of people to work weaning our civilization off of fossil fuels once and for all. In fact, with appropriate incentives for companies to manufacture long-lasting products and recycle everything, it wouldn’t take long to create a futuristic world where everyone has everything they need, and nobody really has to work any more.
      That might be a little hard to imagine, but it wouldn’t be that hard to achieve with a little commonsense. I know from experience that it is possible to break free from the rat race, live in prosperity with minimal bills, and choose whether or not you work. It is the freedom to pursue your own Dreams and make yourself a better person and the world a better place. We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence. Indeed, re-envisioning the meaning of work is the only chance we have of saving the planet and leaving something for the next generation.

      Thomas J. Elpel founded Green University®LLC in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Roadmap to Reality, and Living Homes.

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Would you Vote for a Guy Who Eats Dumpster Food?

I spent my entire life polishing my public image and resume so that I could get into politics and make a positive difference in the world. But that ended when my twenty-year marriage went down in flames, along with pretty much everything I ever worked for, believed in, and cared about. The experience radicalized my worldviews, and reduced me to scraping by, scavenging for food in dumpsters. Well, not really. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy dumpster diving, and I treat it as a sport. Screw public perception. I will live my life however I want, and if I ever do get into politics, I will proudly put “dumpster diver” on my public resume. But would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

These are some of the goodies we picked up from grocery store dumpsters on our latest run.

Dumpster diving is a sport I primarily engage in on road trips, especially along regular routes, where I already know a few good stops along the way. It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get. One dumpster can be empty, but the next a bonanza with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. Driving home from Washington through Idaho to Montana this week, we hit up six dumpsters en route, and came home with less than usual, but still with more value than what we spent on gasoline getting home. Actually, we only hit two good dumpsters this time, but this is what we got:

4 – 7 oz jars of almond stuffed olives
7 – 6 oz containers of Greek yogurt
1 – 24 oz tub of Greek yogurt
3 – 32 oz chocolate soymilk boxed drinks
1 – 16 oz Synergy kombuchia drink
5 – 32 oz jars of Knudsen blueberry juice
1 – 20 oz ranch dressing
1 – 12 oz organic ranch dressing
6 – 12 oz boxes of granola
2 – boxes of 6 chocolate biscotti
1 – 4 oz apple pie snack
12 – jumbo chocolate cookies
12 – jumbo peanut butter cookies
12 – loaves mixed breads and buns
24 – 16 oz containers of caramel dip

Everything else we left behind, due to lack of space in the car. But we also picked a nice supply of apricots from feral trees along the way, plus 2 ½ gallons of blackberries. All in all, foraging turns a tedious drive into a fun adventure!

One time we arrived home from a five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. We don’t go out of our way to do this. We only stop at dumpsters along the way to other places.

What we find varies tremendously every time. Sometimes we bring home lots of dairy, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Sometimes we bring home lots of fruits and vegetables that are just slightly overripe. Sometimes we find a dumpster full of perfectly fresh meat, and have to go in the grocery store to buy ice to keep it cool until we get home. Sometimes we come home with a bunch of cookies, cakes, cream cheese platters, and other junk food that we really don’t need, but eat ourselves silly before giving the rest of it to the chickens. In one record-breaking run, we finished the five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!

“One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!”

In general, big grocery stores in big towns usually have trash compactors, making them the least likely targets for dumpster diving. But once in awhile you will find a grocery store or bakery that still uses an open dumpster. Really small towns with Mom and Pop grocery stores typically have open dumpsters, but seldom waste anything. Medium-sized towns are more likely to have grocery stores with rich dumpsters and no trash compactors. My friends and I try to be minimally stealthy, not so much because we fear being chased away, but because grocery stores are more likely to put locks on their dumpsters if they perceive a problem. We are very careful to avoid making a mess, and sometimes even clean up trash around the dumpsters.
The groceries we bring home are perfectly good, just discarded because they reached the “sell by” date stamped on the products. This food could and should be donated to local food banks, but isn’t. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage grocery stores to donate surplus groceries to food banks and other non-profit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. The law acknowledges that foods can be safe for human consumption after the sell by date and protects grocery stores from liability in the unlikely case that someone should get sick from donated foods.

“It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get.”

The need for donated foods is great. According to the Foodbank Network, 30 percent of the population here in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, food insecurity is “The inability to access food in a consistent and socially acceptable manner to meet the family’s nutritional needs. Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.” In the face of that, grocery stores still discard hundreds of tons of perfectly good food in trash compactors and garbage cans. It seems like a crime!

I typically get about half of my winter heating wood for free, already cut to length, without having to start my chainsaw, just by picking it up at the dump.

My own interest in dumpster diving is rooted in the pragmatism of my grandmother. Shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s as a teenager and young adult, she didn’t believe in wasting anything. She taught me how to skin and butcher road-killed deer. She ardently believed in recycling and reusing materials and refinishing old furniture. I doubt that Grandma ever dug in a grocery store dumpster, but one of our favorite pastimes together was going to the town dump to dig through everyone else’s garbage for treasures to bring home.
The individual town dumps around here have all been shut down since then and replaced with big dumpsters that are hauled to a regional landfill, but the principal is the same. I stop and check the county dumpsters any time I have an excuse to drive by one. Every year I haul home hundreds of dollars worth of good lumber, insulation, PVC plumbing, garden hoses for my irrigation system, fence posts and wire, bales of straw and hay for mulch, uprooted flowers, free firewood, cleaning supplies, as well as scrap metal for recycling.

“By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center.”

Part of my interest in dumpster diving stems from my interest in sensible resource management and policy. Copper, for example, is quickly becoming a precious metal as demand soars and resources dwindle. Every electrical cord tossed in the dumpster effectively makes copper more scarce and raises the cost we all pay for new copper wiring and plumbing. By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center. By recycling assorted scrap copper, brass, aluminum, and scrap iron, I earned more than $500 last year – and only engaged in the hobby when I happened to be driving by a dumpster anyway. Add in the value of free food from grocery store dumpsters and the building materials obtained from scrap piles at local factories, and my total take in freebies adds up to thousands of dollars per year. By being thrifty, I have managed to live a successful and prosperous life, without being dependent on a regular job. And although I may be a packrat, I am also a neat freak, so I actually put all those treasures to use. Frankly, I think my thriftiness would look pretty dang good on a political resume, and if I were ever elected to office, I would definitely be serious about cutting costs and waste.

These hoses and soaker hoses found in a dumpster were mostly new or only needed simple repairs.

Implementing an effective recycling program is definitely a bigger challenge in rural areas than in cities. Collecting the recyclables is only one challenge. Shipping recyclables hundreds of miles to a processing center is another. The gas and labor can far exceed the value of the recycled materials. Therefore, recycling rates are typically much higher in urban areas. San Francisco, for example, achieved a record-breaking 77 percent diversion rate by 2010, diverting that much of the city’s trash to recycling, composting and re-use – all while saving money and creating local jobs.

Bread baked from bagel dough scavenged from a bakery dumpster.

Our local recycling rate might be closer to 7 percent. We do have recycle bins for such things as aluminum and tin cans, scrap metal, glass jars, and mixed paper. Yet many people drive right past the bins to throw their recyclables in the dumpster. Tragically and comically, some people even sort their recyclables before tossing them out with the trash. It is not uncommon to find a whole garbage bag full of nothing but beer cans, as if the drinker wants to recycle, but doesn’t quite have enough brain cells left to figure it out!
Insofar as policy goes, what I have learned from digging in dumpsters is that most people are basically brain dead and utterly unaware of resource issues and depletion. Sorting cans, bottles, and plastic requires too much thought and effort. Sadly, most people are willing to use up everything on the planet in this generation and leave nothing for the next. It would take a huge rise in social consciousness to significantly boost recycling rates around here. It might be far more simple to mandate that all plastic or paper food packaging sold here be manufactured from 100 percent compostable and biodegradable materials. Instead of asking people to sort out seven different types of plastic for example, they could just brainlessly discard the packaging with their food waste, and yet it would all be compostable. People would still need to learn to separate out cans and glass bottles, but less is definitely more attainable. We could conceivably reach a point where most of our trash is composted and then screened afterwards to separate out any remaining garbage. I also wonder if it would be sensible to employ minimum security prison inmates to help dismantle electronic waste for recycling. It is something to consider.

“I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources.”

As far as food waste goes, I don’t believe in penalties, rules, and regulations. Yes, it seems like a crime for grocery stores to discard perfectly good food when good citizens are going hungry. But rather than penalize them, it would be better to create a competition to see which stores can donate the most food to food banks and to publicly acknowledge and reward them for their actions.
I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources. I might even tell the viewer that they are brain dead if they can’t separate out their recyclables from their trash. I’m just not sure if I could really get elected that way. What do you think? Would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

Interesting Stuff? Dumpster diving is included in the culture and curriculum at Thomas J. Elpel’s Green University® LLC. Learn more about Tom’s efforts to create a better world at www.Elpel.info.

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Filed under Autobiographical, Conservation, Economics, Politics, Recycling, Sustainability