Wal-Mart Weather

Column by George Sibley

Climate – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

CLIMATE — the big global movements of air and water that come down to us in the form of our daily weather — has been much in the news. We’ve always said, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” But, in fact, it seems that every time we’ve climbed into the car to go to the grocery store, or turned on the furnace or a lightbulb, we’ve been unconsciously doing a little something about the weather, incrementally helping to alter the global climate that delivers our local weather — more early snow over here, but less overall; warmer, earlier springs; wetter summers.

The big question today is what we can do about this. Climate scientists themselves seem split, between those who say it is not too late to change our behavior and thereby prevent significant changes, like 20-foot rises in the sea level globally as the polar ice sheets melt; and those who say that we have already pumped enough stuff into the atmosphere so the changes are inexorably underway (witness what is happening in and near the polar zones), and it is too late to prevent significant changes; all we can do is anticipate and adapt to the changes. Mitigation versus adaptation.

I find myself coming down on the side of adaptation in that debate — mostly because there seems to be no cultural will to make any big inconvenient and uncomfortable changes to deal with this, especially at the national level where meaningful change would have to be organized and coordinated. Without strong leadership at the national level, individual efforts are in fact just “personal virtue.” If everyone in a semi-enlightened region like Central Colorado were to decide to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the skies, a year’s worth of effort would probably not balance out the effects of a single morning rush hour in the Front Range.

I don’t think that awareness should keep an individual or a community from trying to do what can be done to lead more intelligent lives — but it probably isn’t going to result in undoing what we did unconsciously over the past couple of centuries. The now inexorably changing climate is going to continue to send us unpredictable weather, and virtuously or otherwise, we’re going to have to adapt our local economic, social and cultural lives.

What I’m starting to realize is that there is a cultural climate as well as a natural climate and that we have little or no control over either one, from down on the ground in Central Colorado or wherever. There is a mega-complex of economic and political mechanisms and machinations that either rain on us or shine on us, but whichever they do, we adapt to them because we can’t change them. Whether it be federal land policies, national monetary policies, global oil markets, et cetera, most of our world is pretty out of our control. Yet for the most part, these are things that we have incrementally been either allowing to happen or actively furthering — the same way we’ve been incrementally furthering climate change.

An example. A couple of years ago, Wal-Mart — that corporate presence we all love to hate, but created by giving it a 30 percent share of retail sales — thought it might like to “upgrade” our distinguished “smallest American Wal-Mart” to yet another generic Super Wal-Mart, just like the ones in Salida and Montrose. Their reasoning is not hard to figure out: their trucks have to go through Gunnison anyway, and Gunnison still has two supermarkets, two independent tire places, two independent florists, and a couple of stubborn clothing stores. All told, it’s the kind of situation that irritates Wal-Mart — dinky little market-shares spread out untidily all over the place, just begging for a nice neat consolidation under one big roof.

HERE IN THE UPPER GUNNISON, we all know there is something wrong about this situation, but we are not sure what it is. So after a couple fist-shaking public meetings, we got down to what a planning consultant told us was the real problem: a matter of design. If we could make Wal-Mart build a SuperStore that looked kind of quaint and small, by disguising it as a lot of little buildings, or hiding it behind some green landscaping, then everything would be okay. So a dedicated group of locals invested hundreds of hours in creating “design standards for big boxes.” But meanwhile Wal-Mart decided it would wait a while.

We declared victory, but we know in our hearts that it was a hollow victory. They’ll be back when they want to be, and they might or might not indulge us by hiding the big box behind trees. But they are the cultural climate and we’ll learn to live with the economic hurricane they bring to the local economy.

Some clarity, for me, was shed on the real Wal-Mart issue by an essay in the July Harper’s Magazine by Barry C. Lynn. It’s called “Breaking the Chain: The Antitrust Case Against Wal-Mart.” Lynn argued that Wal-Mart is just one aspect of the global problem that nothing is being done to address, and that’s the problem of giant global corporations that have been allowed to grow larger than the capacity of any governance to assert any meaningful controls over them.

Not that there is any political will to assert controls. The world has been so brainwashed on the laissez-faire sanctity of “free market competition” that we seem collectively to be blind to the extent — well documented by Lynn — that these corporations kill competition and undermine any market freedom.

There’s not space here to really do justice to Lynn’s analysis of Wal-Mart, which involves analysis of that megacorporation as a “monopsony,” which is the mirror image of a monopoly. A monopoly controls the production of some good or service after having eliminated serious competition, but a monopsony is what results when a “consumer” controls enough of the market for produced goods (like Wal-Mart’s 30 percent of all American sales) so that it can dictate prices and other conditions of production to its suppliers. This is every bit as bad as a monopoly, if not worse, in terms of pushing wages down, undermining internal initiative in producers, and generally killing the creativity that can manifest itself in a truly free and competitive market.

LYNN’S SOLUTION TO THIS, to restore some semblance of competitive enterprise and energy to the global economic system, is to begin coordinated government intervention to break up both the monopolies and monopsonies that are smothering freedom of enterprise, access to real opportunity, and expectations among the masses for anything more than a greater selection of models and colors.

“In a world of rising tensions within and among nations, of accelerating climate and environmental change,” he argues, “we would be wise to design the production systems on which we rely to be able to evolve as rapidly as the human and natural worlds around us evolve. Instead, we have programmed the dominant institutions within our economy to eliminate all the wonderful chaos of a free-market system…. Wal-Mart and other monopsonies are slowly freezing our economy into an ever more rigid crystal that holds each of us ever more tightly in place…. To defend Wal-Mart for its low prices is to claim that the most perfect form of economic organization more closely resembles the Soviet Union in 1950 than 20th-century America. It is to celebrate rationalization to the point of complete irrationality.”

So, ironically, our cultural climate could stand a little “global warming, thawing out these “economic glaciers” that are bearing down on us that local “design standards” aren’t going to touch. But do we have a cultural climate that is likely to begin any kind of warming and thawing of our crystallizing economy? Do we have a government that is likely to do anything other than what the global megacorporations tell it to do? Hardly.

So in terms of our local cultural weather, the forecast is increasingly chilly due to troughs aloft in the cultural climate that we have created incrementally, one sale at a time, just as we’ve created warming in the natural climate, one trip at a time to the Wal-Mart parking lots. But let’s stop pretending nobody is doing anything about the weather.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he was just appointed a director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.