Thursday, March 22, 2012

Two Cultures of Capitalism

March 20, 2012
The title ‘Two Cultures’ is originally from C.P. Snow’s essay delineating the conflict between science and humanities.

I thought about two different cultures Tuesday evening after returning from an informational meeting about the permitting process for the proposed coal export facility at Cherry Point, then turning on the TV and listening to Mitt Romney after his win in Illinois.

Romney’s message: America’s business is business. When government gets out of the way of business, business prospers. When businesses prosper, we all prosper.

According to Dave Gallagher in the Bellingham Herald, Peggy Zoro, the new executive director of the Northwest Economic Development Council in Whatcom County, sees the role of her council as helping businesses and industries remove large barriers that are keeping them from opening or expanding in Whatcom County— such as infrastructure needs or regulations that hurt different industries.

I’m sure the folks who oppose the coal terminal at Cherry Point aren’t against prosperity. It’s how you get to that prosperity that’s different.

Theirs is a prosperity where it’s a little bit clearer how everybody prospers and how nobody gets hurt in the process. It’s still capitalism but the culture is different.

This clash of cultures is what makes the process of doing a full environmental review before approving the construction of a coal export terminal in Whatcom County really interesting. You wouldn’t have this kind of clash of cultures for the coal export facility review in Longview, Washington, or Coos Bay, Oregon.

In Longview, the clock is still set at a time when this state’s economy was based on extractive industries using the shorelines and waterfronts of the Columbia River. That day has passed in Puget Sound and a proposal like a Gateway Pacific Terminal is like a throwback to another time, another age.

The scoping process and the environmental impact statement process and the decision making process are all regulatory safeguards put in place for approving or mitigating development in an extractive economy.

There are no regulatory safeguards developed yet for a new capitalist culture where everyone prospers and nobody gets hurt in the process.

Remember nuclear power in Washington state? In the ‘70s, it wasn’t a safety issue that defeated the building of a nuclear power plant in the Skagit. It didn’t pencil out economically. In the ‘80s, it wasn’t safety or environmental problems that brought the nuclear program of the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS or Whoops, to a crashing halt; it was cost overruns and the cost of nuclear power. The bottom line in a capitalist economy is the time value of money. Period.

Yesterday’s headline: “Worldwide coal slump worsening; Prices fall on global glut of supplies, decreasing demand.”

The battle over a coal shipping terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County is a battle between capitalist cultures. Both sides have smart people and financial resources. The process will take a few years. There will be elections of county officials in the meantime where the coal terminal proposal will be a pivotal campaign issue.

I’m betting the new cultural of capitalism wins in Whatcom County— and the old cultural of capitalism, and its coal terminal,  loses.

Stay tuned.

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike, I think you are onto something here, but you might be surprised by the modern beliefs of some of the folks in Longview who are battling that coal terminal proposal. On nuclear, you are absolutely right that it was cost overruns that killed WPPSS, not the passionate opposition of environmentalists. However, one problem then that still exists today is that these kinds of projects can only pencil out economically if they externalize environmental and social costs, and that is why industry fights so hard to ensure that they never have to take those into account, or worse, have to pay for them. Witness the nuclear industry's failure to deal with long term disposal of wastes. Let us hope the current review of the coal terminal proposals can succeed in bringing externalized costs (and impacts) into the calculations.

    1. I'm willing to be educated about the changes in the culture of capitalism of Longview and learning about its post-extractive economy. I just don't see it when I drive through Kelso/Longview, not in the way I see it when I'm in former extractive waterfront cities like Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Bellingham and even Port Angeles. I'm open to learning.