Debunking Corporate Technology Myths

The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900

By David Edgerton

Profile Books Ltd (2008)

Book Review

This book is is a virtual encyclopedia of so-called “old” technology. Focusing on “use-based” rather than “innovation-based” technology, Edgerton makes the case that no 20th century technology is ever fully obsolete. He also totally debunks the corporate myth that modern society will fall apart without the latest high tech innovations (eg 5G, industrial farming and and GMO crops are common examples). As he carefully documents, there are always alternatives and, more importantly, most are already in common use in developing countries.

My favorite section concerns “Creole technology, ” his term for discarded First World technology given a new lease of life in the developing world. Common examples include corrugated galvanized iron, which has replaced thatched roofs in most developing countries,* bicycles and treadle sewing machines (whose production has soared since the 1970s), irrigation pumps re-purposed to propel motor boats, second hand car axles (repurposed to fit donkey carts in Ukraine and South East Asia) and the Kalashnikov machine gun (invented in 1947 and still the most popular machine gun worldwide).

Another interesting chapter describes the “tropicalization” of motor cars in Africa. In many African countries, car mechanics are so skilled they have learned to build new cars from the spare parts from old ones and, where necessary, local substitutes.

One technology I was previously unfamiliar is that of hydrogenation, a process first developed by French chemist Henri Sabatier at the end of the 19th century:

  • Hydrogenation of animal fats led to the production of margarine, a cheap butter substitute;
  • Hydrogenation of nitrogen (developed by the German chemical firm BASF during World War I, produces ammonia, nitrogen fertilizer and nitrate (a major source of explosives);
  • Hydrogenation of coal (developed by German chemist Friedrich Bergius in 1915) to led synthetic substitutes for gasoline. Without access to oil, the Third Reich relied mainly on coal-based gasoline prior to invading Romania in 1940. East Germany depended on hydrogenated coal to run their vehicles, and South Africa used it after the 1973 oil embargo.

*This is also the most common type of roof in New Zealand.

The Vital Importance of Local Food Production

Feeding Ourselves

Directed by Lisa Safarik (2020)

Film Review

The breakdown of the US food supply chain under COVID19 once again highlights the danger of our globalized food system. Feeding Ourselves reminds us of the importance of local farmers and a strong local food network during periods of national and international crisis.

Cinematographically this has to be one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. For the most part, filmmakers focus on small farmers in British Columbia harvesting their crops, preparing them for market, and undertaking a multitude of tasks to naturally replenish their soils. Small free range meat producers also feature prominently, demonstrating humane and sustainable pastoral management, home kill, and butchery techniques. A few vignettes depict small local food processors, restauranteurs, and farmers markets that bring freshly grown organic products to local residents.

Several of the farmers interviewed predict the imminent collapse of industrial agriculture (so far the COVID19 lockdown and collapse of North American food chains tend to validate these predictions). They feel it’s essential to prepare by creating a strong local food infrastructure.

With youth unemployment levels remaining really high despite the so-called post-2008 recovery, no one is very surprised that so many young people are choosing a career (organic farming) consistent with their values rather than financial gain.

The film also points out the role of factory farming in externalizing the cost of pest control. Industrial farming employs toxic chemicals that generate immense health and environmental costs, owing to their link to cancer, chronic illness, and species extinction. In contrast organic farmers must pay the full cost of human labor required to eliminate pests.

The full film can be viewed free at

Feeding Ourselves: Preparing for the Collapse of Industrial Farming

In Our Hands – Seeding Change

Directed by Jo Bailey and Silvie Planet (2018)

Film Revew

With the COVID19 lockdown already driving shortages in milk, meat, and flour in Britain and impending meat shortages predicted for the US, this documentary offers an inspiring vision for a “normal” in which people produce, process, and consume local traditionally grown food.

The film concerns the Landowners Alliance, an organization of British farmers that is part of Via Compesina, and international organization of more the 200 million small farmers. Contrary to the public image promoted by the corporate agriculture lobby, small landholders still produce 70% of the global food supply.

The film begins by tracing how industrial agriculture has already bankrupted thousands of British farmers. It has done so by monopolizing seed production at the front end and processing, transportation, and marketing at the back end. In this way, they capture so much of the food pound, farmers who persist who persist in industrial farming no longer recoup sufficient revenue to cover their costs.

At the same time, corporate industrial agriculture is also systematically destroying soil fertility and the environment, as well as food security for most residents of the industrial North.

Farmers in the Landowners Alliance support each other by forming coops to save and share heirloom seeds,  farm machinery, and joint processing and marketing schemes that bypass corporate middlemen to sell farm produce directly to consumers.

The organization also promotes organic permaculture (aka polyculture) farming (as opposed to the monoculture cropping practiced by industrial agriculture),** heritage open pollinated grains, and urban farms in Britain’s big cities.

*The filmmakers definite food security (aka food sovereignty) as the right of every human to access healthy food grown on their own land. Under the current global industrial agriculture scheme, 40% of soy and grains produced are fed to livestock. Not only is this unconscionable in the face of growing world hunger (rough one billion out of the seven billion global population), but totally unsustainable in the long run.

**Decades of research reveal that this permaculture farming produces far higher yields (measured in calories per acre) than industrial farming.


Robbing From Nature and People to Produce Profit


Eco Social Justice on the Global Frontlines

Vendana Shiva (2017)

The following is a compelling Earth Day presentation by Indian activist Vendana Shiva linking ecocide and genocide to the brutal “free market” drive to rob from nature and people to produce profit.  This wide ranging talk combines a unique perspective on the violent British colonization of both India and North America, the more recent role of major chemical and food companies (eg Dow, Dupont and Monsanto) in imposing free trade treaties such as GATT and the TPP, and the growing anti-corporate resistance movement in India and elsewhere.

Vendana begins by describing an agricultural conference she attended in 1987, at which the major chemical manufacturers laid out plans to increase their profits by introducing GMO seeds and lobbying for laws and treaties that would prohibit seed saving by farmers. She goes on to talk about Navdanya, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1984 to resist the so-called “Green Revolution” that imposed industrial farming on Indian farmers. In promoting seed saving and other traditional organic farming methods, Navdanya was influenced by Gandhi’s use of sustainable self-reliance as a weapon against colonialism.

At the 1987 conference, the chemical companies bragged the entire world would be growing GMO crops by 2000. Thanks to strong global citizens movements, this never happened. Ninety percent of the world’s food is GMO-free, thanks to wholesale rejection of this technology in Europe, Africa and Asia. Likewise only 30% of the world’s food production is industrialized.

Vendana maintains the primary purpose of industrial farming isn’t to produce food but to increase profit. Due to the massive energy input it requires, factory farming is an extremely inefficient method of food production. Traditional farms producing a diversity of crops will always provide more nutritional output than an industrial farm producing a single monoculture crop.

She blames the forced introduction of industrial farming for India’s high level of malnutrition – 1/4 of the general population and 1/2 of Indian children lack adequate nutrients in their diet.

*GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was the international treaty that created the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 (under President Bill Clinto)n.

The Hidden History of Big Oil

How Big Oil Conquered the World

Corbett Report (2016)

Film Review

This is an extremely gripping documentary about the hidden history of John D Rockefeller and the global oil cartel. Much of this history, including Rockefeller’s early background, the role of the “oilagarchy” in instigating World War I, Prohibition and their total domination of education, medicine, agriculture and finance has been systematically erased from US history books.

I found the beginning of the film, in which James Corbett talks about JD’s father William Avery Rockefeller, most revealing. Rockefeller senior was a notorious snake oil salesman (and cunning sociopath) who changed his name to Dr Bill Livingston to escape the clutches of the law for fraud, bigamy, rape and various other crimes.

The film traces Rockefeller junior’s entry into the oil drilling business in the 1850s with the formation of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. From the very beginning of his career, JD demonstrated the same knack for treachery, deceit and fraud as his father – in dealings with both business partners and competitors.*

The invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1870s put Rockefeller in direct competition with the electric vehicle industry. Even the first electric cars (built in 1884) had a number of advantages over gas-powered cars. In 1900, they made up 28% of the US market. Thanks to the discovery of plentiful oil in Texas, Rockefeller easily flooded the market with cheap gasoline and put electric car makers out of business.

After World War I, he faced similar competition from ethanol-fueled cars (Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on either gasoline or alcohol produced from agricultural waste). Here Rockefeller and his corporate allies demolished their competition by conspiring to instigate a national anti-alcohol movement. The latter resulted in the enactment of Prohibition in 1919 and a total ban on alcohol. In a similar vein, after World War II the “oilagarchy” conspired with General Motors to acquire and shut down electrified public transport systems in at least a dozen cities.

Rockefeller’s transformation of medicine (by funding and acquiring control of medical schools) into a field dominated by synthetic petroleum-based pharmaceuticals is fairly well known. There is less public awareness that he played a similar role in shaping public education (especially the teaching of history) and the replacement of organic-based farming with industrial agriculture reliant on petrochemicals. Rockefeller played a similar role in secret meetings that resulted in the creation of the Federal Reserve, as did Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank in the creation of the World Bank and IMF.

Corbett also traces the creation of parallel oil monopolies in Europe by the Rothchilds, the Nobel family and the British and Dutch royal families. Germany posed a major threat to this global oil cartel with a treaty they signed with the Ottoman Empire to acquire a controlling interest in Iraqi oil development. The threatened competition with established European oil interests set wheels in motion for a British-led war against Germany (ie World War I).

* JD’s favorite motto: “Competition is a sin.”