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Tobacco, the Fossil Fuel Industry, and Capitalist "Morality"

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Maria Bartiromo was a long-time financial market analyst for CNBC who recently left that channel and transferred over to the Fox Business Network. She appeared occasionally on CNBC's pre-market-opening show, "Squawk Box." On one of those occasions, she was engaged in a discussion about the problems that capitalism is facing. I believe that it was in the context of what one of Squawk Box's co-hosts, Andrew Ross Sorkin (also of The New York Times), was saying about the subject. In the course of it, she uttered a quite remarkable phrase, hailing what she termed "the moral imperative of capitalism."

The phrase came to mind in considering the current battle over climate change and what, if anything, to do about it. It is already affecting us. And of course, the degree of potential damage to the Earth as know it, physically, and for many of its species including ours in terms of long-term survival, is accelerating at ever-increasing rate. Indeed, there is a newly discovered major threat, the melting of a significant part of the Antarctic Ice Shelf, about which, apparently, nothing can be done. That is, in this case, even if there were a will, there is no way. For example, major parts of the State of Florida and of New York City, may well eventually be under water. Not fun, I should think. Nevertheless, there are some folks who view this outcome from different perspective.

Of course, in the United States in particular there is a very large, very well-funded, and therefore very loud chorus that denies that global warming and one of its major consequences, climate change, is even taking place. And if it is taking place, human beings have nothing to do with it, and even if we did, doing anything to moderate the future certain changes, like enacting a "carbon tax" would just "ruin the economy" donchaknow. So where, you might be asking at this point, does the concept of "morality" come into all of this? Well, one kind of behavior that virtually everyone, atheist, theist, and everyone in-between, believes is immoral is stating as fact and truth something that you know to be false. This is where the "tobacco" in the title above comes in.

Henry Fonda for Camels.  And yes, while Fonda was an A-list actor, that well-known B-list actor, Ronald Reagan, did cigarette ads too, for Chesterfields.
Henry Fonda for Camels. And yes, while Fonda was an A-list actor, that well-known B-list actor, Ronald Reagan, did cigarette ads too, for Chesterfields.
(Image by dok1)
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As long ago as 1604, King James VI of Scotland, I of England proclaimed that the smoking of tobacco is a "custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." German scientists had discovered the statistical relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in 1930, leading the Nazis (believe it or not) to enact the world's first national (except for members of the armed services) anti-smoking program. In the United States the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health came out in 1964 and one has been issued every year since. Since then there has been an ever-widening set of connections between smoking and disease.

Nevertheless, it was not until the late 1990s that the tobacco industry came around to admitting the connection. Now why did they do that? They had been engaged in a denial program for a very long time. What science convinced them that they had been wrong all of those years? Well, as it turned out is wasn't that they suddenly saw the light on the science. Rather, during what's called "legal discovery" in the case against the tobacco industry for legal and financial liability that most of the States' Attorneys General engaged in during that time, it turned out that the industry had known the truth as early as the 1950s. So they were lying all of those years, and millions died. And there was a carefully orchestrated campaign to deny, obfuscate, and confuse the public about the ever-gathering storm of evidence about the relationship between smoking and an ever-growing range of diseases, even while the truth was known to them. Why did they do that? To make profits, of course, profit-making being the primary goal of the capitalist system. So is this the "moral imperative of capitalism," Maria, lying to make money?

And so we come to global warming and climate change. The possible effect of "greenhouse gases" was first postulated by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1895 Towards the end of the last century, as what Arrhenius has predicted was coming to pass, the greenhouse-gas generating industries developed what became a the constant onslaught of exactly the same kind of science-denying, science-doubting, propaganda that was run all of those years by the tobacco industry. Indeed, the same public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, which produced what has become known as the "Manufactured Doubt" campaign for the tobacco industry, is up to their eyeballs in it for global warming climate change (as well as, before that, during the asbestos and "Ozone Hole" controversies).

There is no doubt that anthropogenic global warming/climate change are taking place. The true controversies now are over how fast the problems are developing, how serious they will be, and what can be done to slow down the rate/diminish the negative outcomes, and so on and so forth. According to the worst predictions, the process could lead to Elizabeth Kolbert's "Sixth Extinction," of our species and many others.

In terms of capitalist morality and Bartiromo's "moral imperative of capitalism," the only question is just how many of the leading deniers know that, in their never-ending quest for ever-increasing profits, they are lying. Do you really think that the Koch brothers and their anonymous brothers throughout the fossil-fuel industry, all smart and well-educated, don't know the truth? I could imagine that folks like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who are both stupid and ignorant, might really believe the lies they are spewing. But do you think that the law-school graduate Marco Rubio, who has even tried to dance around the issue a bit before coming down on the side of denial, who comes across as a really smart guy, doesn't know the truth even as he denies it? And he is just one example.

The tobacco and fossil fuels industries, killers both (and the latter on an incomparably grander scale), were/are lying to keep their respective drives alive, in their never-ending pursuit of profit under capitalism. It does make one wonder just which "moral imperative of capitalism" Ms. Bartiromo was talking about.

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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