The Future of the Adversarial Society

Some twenty years ago, when I was a consultant in Washington, D.C. [i.e., beltway bandit], a chemicals, paint, and coatings company came up with an environmentally safe way to get rid of their hydrocarbon leavings [still bottoms]. They wanted to transport and sell them to a steel company, which would then use them in its smelting process. This had the advantage of first, destroying the semi-toxic waste in a safe fashion that did not harm the environment, and second, providing a cheaper source of usable carbon for carbon steel. Not only that, but the steel furnaces were far hotter than commercial hazardous waste incinerators. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Needless to say, this environmentally beneficial trade-off never occurred.

Why not? Because the U.S. EPA wanted to make sure that the process was 100% regulated, and that meant that the steel company would have had to apply for a hazardous waste disposal permit and submit itself to another layer of extremely burdensome federal regulation. Even then, U.S. steelmakers were having trouble competing, and more federal regulation would have compounded the problem. So, instead of having a cheaper source of carbon and a cleaner environment, the steelmaker paid more for conventional carbon sources, while the chemical company had to pay money to have its still bottoms incinerated in an approved hazardous waste incinerator. This didn’t help the American economy or the environment very much.

Unfortunately, I can now understand the combination of reasons as to why this happened… and why it continues. Most industrial companies haven’t historically acted, frankly, in the best interests of the population and the environment as a whole. That’s understandable. Their charter is to make money for the corporation and its shareholders, and one of the underlying and unspoken assumptions has historically been that corporations will do so in any way that is legal and will not besmirch their reputations. Likewise, because most corporations haven’t exactly been trustworthy or all that responsible for the larger issues, government bureaucrats haven’t been all that willing to trust them without imposing restrictions.

And exactly how did we get to this point?

First is the fact that, no matter what most people in the United States say, they essentially believe in a world of limitless resources. Somehow in some way, they believe, ingenuity and technology will keep things going, and there’s no real shortage, and if there is, it’s caused by government regulations or business greed. Second, we believe that competition is the way to ensure efficiency and lower prices. Third, we don’t trust government.

The problem is that all these beliefs are partial truths. There are great resources, but not unlimited ones. Competition indeed spurs lower prices, but it also encourages cut-throat competition and continued attempts by those who produce goods and provide services to transfer costs to others. Pollution transfers costs to the public, as does deforestation, strip mining, and a host of other activities. And government is certainly an institution to be wary of… but it’s the only institution that has the power to rein in out-of-control giant corporations, or on the local level, lawbreakers.

So… we have a society that is basically adversarial. Even our legal system is designed more like a stylized trial by combat than a means of finding truth or justice. How often does the better attorney transcend the “truth?” We’ve just seen a case where a pair of attorneys kept silent for years even when they had evidence that an innocent man was unfairly convicted. Why? Because our adversarial system would have disbarred them because revealing that evidence would have meant they were not fully representing the interests of their client.

So long as there are “excess” resources, an adversarial society can continue, but how long will a United States, with 5% of the world’s population, be able to continue to consume 26% of world resources? The Wall Street Journal just reported that literally billions of dollars worth of fuel is being wasted at U.S. corporations because cooperative waste reduction and energy efficiency initiatives keep falling afoul of adversarial attitudes between different divisions, differing regulatory agencies, and differing executives. At the same time, over the past five years, the price of energy has tripled…and that doesn’t count the costs of the energy-related war in Iraq, or the recent Russian announcement that Russian oil production has peaked and is declining.

Yet… are we seeing any changes? If anything, it appears as though our society is becoming even more adversarial, and that leads to a last question.

At what point does an adversarial society self-destruct?