Life in the Zone of Exclusion
In the years after the explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986, many people lived illegally in the zone of exclusion. Some said they were too old to leave and couldn’t give up the simple life they loved. Others were refugees from the civil wars and societal collapse that occurred in the early 1990s in the former Soviet republics. It seems outrageous that they would choose to live with the dangers of radiation, but for them it was a rational choice about how to survive in the short term. Necessity made them disregard the long-term risks. One’s first reaction is to feel amazement and pity, but if one looks at their situation as a metaphor for how everyone must live in the 21st century, it is clear we all live in a zone of exclusion that differs only by being more abstract.
As capitalist social structures emerged in the 16th century, its institutions increasingly demanded short-term gain over long-term health. They had the irrational motivations of an addict, always seeking short-term relief and short-term gain at the expense of enduring health of both people and the environment. Short-term motivations were required of both the individuals leading these institutions and the individuals victimized by them. Society became an addict, an exclusion zone of slavery, labor for hire, fear of bankruptcy, bad food and environmental degradation, a zone where the only relief from this anxiety was the pursuit of power and fleeting pleasure. Unlike the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion, its boundaries can’t be seen on a map, but we live in it all the same. This essay describes the origins of the addicted society through a discussion framed by role of sucrose in the 16th century and that of fructose in the 20th century.
The candid truth: “This is the price of the sugar you eat in Europe”
In Voltaire’s novella Candide (1759), the protagonist travels to South America and encounters a disabled man who tells him what it is to be a slave:
For clothing, they give us a pair of linen drawers twice a year. When we work at the sugar canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off a leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price of the sugar you eat in Europe.
Voltaire might have been the first intellectual to raise the consciousness of Europeans this way, making them see the connections between the suffering of others on the opposite side of the world and the simple luxuries they took for granted. Thirty-five years later, the French revolutionary government was the first state in Europe to abolish slavery, though Napoleon re-instated it eight years later.
When did the Anthropocene begin?
When did humanity start to go off the rails in its plunge toward ecocide? There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the Anthropocene, the label that signifies the point at which homo sapiens started to have such an impact that the planet moved into a new geological era. Scientists don’t agree about when it began. Perhaps it started when humans went from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, but for the first ten thousand years after that, we didn’t have much effect on the climate and other species, and our waste products were almost entirely recycled. It is more common to set the start of the Anthropocene at the time when fossil fuel exploitation (coal first, gas and oil later) began in the early 19th century. Some scientists say that the Anthropocene began in the nuclear era, after 1945, because a new geologic era requires a detectable change in soil layers, and it was the fallout from nuclear detonations that became the marker of change.
Putting the semantic debate aside, I argue here that the Anthropocene could be regarded as an accelerated change in the way humans treated each other and their natural environment in the pursuit of short-term gain. The story of fossil fuel use since the Industrial Revolution is well-known, and it is well-known that it put massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we seldom think about sucrose, another carbon-based fuel that humans began to exploit three centuries earlier in what is called the “early modern” period when the structures of capitalism were formed. In this earlier stage, we didn’t burn fuel in human-made machines. The machines were human beings, some of them slaves who made a cheap and “efficient” fuel while the rest were the emerging proletariat who burned the fuel in their bodies. The use of this fuel didn’t end with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but it was overshadowed by the rise of machines that could run on fossil fuels. Humans continued their habit of sugar consumption and learned how to consume other types of sugar besides sucrose, and those new habits had further disastrous effects that are finally evident in the context of the corona virus pandemic that began in 2019.
This is not a new field to research. The significance of the sugar trade was common knowledge in the 19th century when innovations in refining technology or changes in tariffs could change the fates of nations. It has been studied by historians, economists, and anthropologists such as Sidney W. Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.I’m writing this essay now because it seems this history has been forgotten in the 21st century even though sugar and the social structures and energy systems that grew around it still have an enormous impact.
For other sources, readers can refer to How Sugar Changed the World for a brief overview of the rise of sugar colonies. Another excellent resource is Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 film Queimada starring Marlon Brando and Evaristo Márquez. The story about a British agent provocateur’s exploitation of a slave revolt in a Portuguese plantation colony was so shockingly anti-imperialist, and such a clearly veiled critique of the US war on Vietnam, that it had a very short run and was seldom viewed again until it was released on DVD in 2004.
The early period of capitalism and energy exploitation can be best understood by prefacing the subject with some quotes by sociologists who have written about energy. In an introduction to an essay entitled Energy and Democracy, by Joe Costello, Yasha Levine wrote:
It’s obvious that we have figure out new ways of living that don’t totally depend on the death-drive, hyper-industrial technologies that surround us today. It’s also obvious that in order to do that we’ll have to return, at least in some aspects, to slower, more local, pre-industrial modes of living. But I’m not so sure we’re capable of making this kind of transition, without being forced to by some kind of massive collapse or calamity that will be outside of our control. Our politics, our culture—everything’s too locked into the present way of doing things.
The essay referred to quoted two important earlier sociological works on energy. Vaclav Smil wrote in Energy and Civilization:
The adoption and diffusion of new energy sources have been the fundamental physical reasons for economic, social, and environmental change and they have transformed virtually every facet of modern societies: the process has always been with us, but its pace has been accelerating. Prehistoric changes brought about by better tools, the mastery of fire, and better hunting strategies were very slow, unfolding over tens of thousands of years. The subsequent adoption and intensification of permanent farming lasted for millennia. Its most important consequence was a large increase in population densities, leading to social stratification, occupational specialization, and incipient urbanization. High-energy societies created by the rising consumption of fossil fuels became the very epitomes of change, leading to a widespread obsession with the need for constant innovation.
But one fundamental reality had not changed: all of these clear and impressive historical trends tracing the rise of new sources, new superior performances, and efficiency gains do not mean humanity has been using energy in a progressively more rational manner. … Indeed, higher energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. The historical evidence is clear. Higher energy will not ensure a reliable food supply; it will not confer strategic security; it will not safely underpin political stability; it will not necessarily lead to a more enlightened governance; and it will not bring widely shared increases in a nation’s standard of living.
The essay by Joe Costello also quotes the writing of Ivan Illich published in 1974:
Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity… Over-industrialization enslaves people to the tools they worship, fattens professional hierarchies on bits and on watts, and invites the translation of unequal power into huge income differentials. It imposes the same net transfers of power on the productive relations of every society, no matter what creed the managers profess, no matter what rain-dance, what penitential ritual they conduct.
This profound control of the transportation industry over natural mobility constitutes a monopoly much more pervasive than either the commercial monopoly Ford might win over the automobile market, or the political monopoly car manufacturers might wield against the development of trains and buses. Because of its hidden, entrenched, and structuring nature, I call this a radical monopoly. Any industry exercises this kind of deep-seated monopoly when it becomes the dominant means of satisfying needs that formerly occasioned a personal response. Traffic serves here as the paradigm of a general economic law: Any industrial product that comes in per capita quanta beyond a given intensity exercises a radical monopoly over the satisfaction of a need.
Joe Costello adds to this:
All utilized energy organizes society. The resulting organization, in part, defines political structures, whether they’re democratic or tyrannical. Any society wanting democracy needs to create democratic energy systems. Today’s centuries old Agrarian era structures of government and the Industrial era mega-corporations straddling atop them are simply incapable of creating the necessary processes, values, and organization of a new energy era. We have no democratic politics today. If democracy is to arise anew it needs new organization, democratic organization that understands energy use and technology.
Sidney W. Mintz’ book Sweetness and Power tells how over four centuries of European history (roughly 1500-1900) sugar went from being a rarity to a luxury and finally a cheap necessity, a caloric supplement that was essential fuel for the proletarian workforce. Plantation owners and empires grew wealthy as the supply expanded and the number of slaves growing sugar and the proletariat consuming sugar grew simultaneously. Mintz wrote, “Slave and proletarian together powered the imperial economic system that kept the one supplied with manacles and the other with sugar and rum; but neither had more than minimal influence over it.
In 1800, world sugar production was 250,000 tons. By 1880, it had risen fifteen-fold to 16 million tons. By 1914, production was 3.8 million tons, then in 1945, 30 million tons. From 1900 to 1970, production increased by 500 percent and sucrose contributed an estimated 9% of all calories consumed in the world.
Economists in the 19th century noted that the working class in some locales was being worked to extinction. They warned the ruling class that the future strength of British industry was in peril. The workers’ lives were so miserable that they could not raise healthy children to be the next generation of factory workers or miners. Sugar was obviously a partial solution to this desperate situation. As long as workers were burning the calories in their muscles, the damage wrought by nutrient-empty calories was less apparent than it is now. Sugar consumption and dietary habits continued to progress in the same direction in the 20th century, and new problems developed when the sugar-eater became unemployed through de-industrialization or a sedentary worker in the age of machines powered by oil and split uranium atoms.
Mintz points out, “There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts, or to ruin their teeth. But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of intraclass struggles for profit.” These changes happened slowly over centuries, with no individuals able to see what the outcome would be in the next century. Yet the opportunities for exploitation and profit were apparent every step of the way, as were the horrible circumstances.
Still in the 21st century, sugar plantation workers die young from kidney disease caused by dehydration and mineral insufficiency, so the toll must have been enormous among slaves in earlier centuries. Slave revolts happened. Europeans campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. However, the system was never stopped or replaced by an alternate political economy. There was no colonial revolution that cut ties to the global system and reverted to local self-sufficiency. When the Haitian Revolution first succeeded in the 1790s, its leader, Toussaint Louverture, had the unfortunate task of telling the freed slaves to go back to the land and bring in the sugar harvest. Without the essential commodity, the revolution would be unable to defend itself against the imperial powers. The Hawaiian Kingdom, before the US occupation, also became dependent on a plantation economy. In more recent times, after the 1959 revolution, Cuba continued to export sugar to the Soviet Union. Cuba finally developed self-sustaining agriculture after it lost its supportive arrangement with the Soviet Union.
In the 20th century, authoritative voices in science and government finally stopped saying sugar had beneficial medicinal effects. Its impact on metabolism was understood. The mechanisms of type 1 and type2 diabetes were understood, and the discovery of insulin’s role made type 1 diabetes a manageable disease. Nonetheless, the pathological food culture and energy system continued to evolve in a negative direction. The modern condition is familiar and summed up well in sources such as the following published by Organic Consumers Association:
The pernicious but profitable U.S. food and farming system feeding our supersized/supersick nation continues to be subsidized with billions of dollars in public funds. These bi-partisan, ongoing subsidies guarantee the profits of Big Food and Big Ag, chemical, pharma, and genetic engineering transnationals, with little or no consideration for the catastrophic damage to public health, the environment, climate, and the livelihoods of food workers, small farmers, and rural communities—both at home and abroad.
Health damages that are directly caused by America’s food and farming system include a chronic disease epidemic (cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, et al.) that has doubled since 1980, as well as the extraordinarily high hospitalization and death rates triggered by COVID-19 and its underlying chronic disease comorbidities.
Environmental damages include excessive greenhouse gas emissions (more than a third of which come from our food system); water pollution; and loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
These collateral damages (estimated at more than two trillion dollars a year) are categorized as “externalities,” costs or damages to be paid for by consumers and taxpayers, rather than the debts owed to society by polluters and perpetrators of so-called “modern” food and farming. Things are so dire that now, even the global elite, in this case The Rockefeller Foundation, are sounding the alarm on the multi-trillion-dollar collateral damage of Big Food and Big Ag.
The age of high-fructose corn syrup
The modern age of Big Oil, Big Ag and Big Pharma spread worldwide and developed over a long time, but the key inflection point of the modern period came in the United States during the Nixon and Ford administrations (early 1970s) when Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture. In concert with the entire neoliberal economic agenda, Butz put US agriculture on a “free-market” path of maximum production. Previous policies, first put in place to avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, controlled supplies, moderated prices, and prevented over-exploitation of soil. They didn’t function perfectly, and they often had the apparently absurd effect of paying farmers to not produce, but in retrospect, it is clear that Butz’ policies were a disaster for public health. They paved the way for big business to take over agriculture and drove the small farmer out.
This history and its devastating effects were portrayed in the documentary film King Corn (2007). The filmmakers went to Iowa in the springtime and planted an acre of corn, illustrating along the way the bigger picture of how corn has penetrated the culture and afflicted human bodies. The following excerpts of interviews in the film tell the story:
We happen to have a kind of subsidy system—and we haven’t always had it, only for the last 30 years or so—that rewards the overproduction of cheap corn. All that cheap, surplus corn goes somewhere. And in fact, a lot of it’s going into our bodies.
Loren Cordain (University of Colorado):
The meat that we eat in this day and age is produced in the feedlot. It’s grain-fed, and we produce a characteristically obese animal, and animal whose muscle tissue looks more like fat tissue than it does lean meat of wild animals. If you look at a T-bone steak from a grain-fed cow, it may have as much as nine grams of saturated fat whereas a comparable steak from a grass-fed animal would have 1.3 grams of saturated fat. This is the meat that we eat in America… Hamburger meat is really not meat. It is rather fat disguised as meat. 65% of its calories are from fat.
Corn is the crop we’ve spent the most money on over the past 10 years. And so, we’ve got mountains of grain all over the Midwest because the subsidy programs keep the production going full blast. There is a role that the subsidies have played in making the raw material available for an overweight society. We subsidize the Happy Meals, but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones. There is a very specific history to this… you really do have to go back to Earl Butz and the revolution in farm policy that happened in the 1970s.
Well, [the corn subsidies are] the basis of our affluence now. The fact that we spend less on food is America’s best-kept secret. We feed ourselves with approximately 16 or 17% of our take-home pay. That’s marvelous. That’s a very small chunk to feed ourselves. And that includes all the meals we eat at restaurants, all the fancy doodads we get in our food system. I don’t see much room for improvement there, which means we’ll spend our surplus cash on something else.
Another important fact explained in the film is that the subsidized corn is produced by energy inputs from the subsidized fossil fuel industry that are needed to make fertilizer. There is very little about modern agriculture that is small-government, free-market, or neoliberal. The process for manufacturing ammonia fertilizer was co-invented by Fritz Haber, who was also called the “father of chemical warfare” for his development of chlorine gas during World War One.
The Haber–Bosch process is said to be responsible for feeding nearly half the world population. The energy inputs needed to feed the world pose an obvious dilemma for those who want a future without fossil fuel. Researchers work on ways to improve the efficiency of production and make a “green ammonia,” but there is no getting around the fact that this process requires significant energy input. Haber himself cautioned that a certain humility was necessary in trying to improve upon nature’s way of transferring nitrogen from the air to the soil: “Nitrogen bacteria teach us that Nature, with her sophisticated forms of the chemistry of living matter, still understands and utilizes methods which we do not as yet know how to imitate.”
A century later, it is apparent that mass production of corn aided by manufactured ammonia has come with mineral depletion of soil and less nutritious corn. The kernels of corn consist mostly of starch and have a lower protein and nutrient content than they used to.
King Corn describes how the abundance of corn led to the surplus going into animal feed and fructose production. Corn is not the natural diet for cattle, but it is fed to them anyway. Before they die from digestive problems, the corn-fed cattle have to be fattened up faster and fed more medicines to make them tolerate the corn, but this became an excellent method for extracting short-term profit. It delivered cheaper and more processed foods to the next livestock in the production process—the human, who should be viewed not as the ultimate beneficiary but rather as a resource exploited by those who own capital in the food and pharmaceutical industries. The consumer of meat and high fructose corn syrup is entertained and distracted, and lives a contented life quite removed from the wretched suffering of a slave, but he or she is subjected to psychic and physical suffering, and when it becomes unbearable, there are drugs and vaccines that can be given, which are further opportunity for corporate profit. These therapies produce side-effects that add to the spiral of declining health, and so it goes until the resource is exhausted. Capitalism has run out of other resources to exploit, and because of the threat of nuclear holocaust, it can’t resort to war in a time of crisis, so it has turned to this last frontier, the human body. Although the human does not experience the tortures of plantation slaves of centuries past, and may instead live in an air-conditioned cubicle, he or she is nonetheless being destroyed physically and spiritually. Chronic disease can be tolerated for a long time, and solutions can be forestalled, at least until a virulent pathogen appears to turn it into an acute emergency. Yet even when that occurs, the pathogen is seen as the cause rather than the underlying illnesses that have been worsening for decades. I suspect the victims of this process intuit on some level what has been done to them. When they reject vaccination against Sars-Cov-2, knowing full well that with their “comorbidities” it could save their lives, they seem to be making a last stand—a desperate self-destructive protest against what has been done to them over the long term.
In addition to cheap, corn-fed beef, fructose production from corn (HFCS—high fructose corn syrup) was also given to the human consumer. Even though we have always eaten some fructose in fruits and absorbed it slowly with fruit fibers, the rapid ingestion of large amounts in soft drinks and juices was not something that the human body was adapted to. If one consumes sugar in food, one will at least sense when the stomach is full, but drinking calories produces no signals of satiation. An article in Healthline detailed how fructose is metabolized in the body:
… even though fructose doesn’t raise your blood sugar right away, it may have more long-term negative effects. Your liver has to convert fructose into glucose before your body can use it for energy. Eating large amounts of fructose on a high-calorie diet can raise blood triglyceride levels. Excessive fructose intake may also raise the risk of metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The directors of King Corn interviewed Earl Butz in a seniors’ residence shortly before he passed away in 2008. He expressed pride in policies which, he asserted (see the quote above), led to greater efficiency and cheaper food, allowing for a greater prosperity in which Americans were able to spend their money on other things besides food. The film’s most powerful statement comes in a brief shot with no words spoken. The elderly but very slim Mr. Butz had to conclude the interview because his grandson was coming to take him to a family event. The filmmakers waited in the parking lot after the interview and photographed the obese grandson helping the grandfather into his car. That shot laid bare the Secretary of Agriculture’s true legacy.
I began this essay by saying that the inhabitants of the earth are living in an abstract Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion. It started to form in the years just after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, when investors in Europe started to finance sugar plantations and the slave trade in the new colonies. This was the start of a new energy paradigm which later integrated itself with the energy paradigm of fossil fuels and uranium. With the rise of automation and non-human machines, the energy source circulating in human bodies triggered a new catastrophe—a long list of chronic illnesses with insulin resistance as the root cause.
This essay has illustrated the process by which humanity became enclosed in the technological zone of exclusion from the natural world. I will conclude with a brief analysis of food prices in the United States to make the point one final time. Corn-fed meat and high fructose corn syrup are now what tea and sugar were to the proletariat of the 19th century. At McDonald’s in the United States, a large soft drink costs $1.59 (140 calories per 12 ounces). A Big Mac (550 calories) costs $4.89 while a side salad (15 calories) costs $2.30. Put another way, half a Big Mac costs the same as a salad but provides 15 times as many calories as the salad. All these items are, of course, cheaper if you buy the set that includes some deep-fried, salty carbohydrates. How did the food market become subsidized and structured to produce such distortions? With prices like these, the oligarchy could just as well completely subsidize McDonald’s as well, considering the enormous cost of the subsidized water, corn, fertilizer, and fossil fuels needed to produce meat. In conjunction with poverty-level wages, low-quality food could be provided free to the captive labor market, but that would make it too obvious that they were being fed like prisoners. The illusion of a free market and free consumer choice needs to be maintained, but the working-class citizen lives essentially in a cage of poverty in which nutritious foods are unavailable or unaffordable.
Reclaiming human dignity must begin with rejecting the false prosperity endorsed by Earl Butz and engaging in radical reform of the way we produce and consume food. The death toll among the chronically ill during the 2020-21 pandemic should have made this necessity clear. The crisis of chronic illness had been a prominent topic in the media for years, but no one imagined a novel respiratory virus could tip the scales and kill so many so quickly. As the saying goes, “I did Nazi that coming.” But instead of recognizing the crisis as a systemic problem long in the making, the knowledge system of the oligarchy (media, academia, government authorities) has deflected all attention toward vaccines, away from prevention and holistic treatment, and focused public anger on the danger posed by the healthy minority who resist government coercion, dispossession, and restriction of liberties.
. Anne Wilson Schaef, When Society Becomes an Addict (Harper One, 1987). This author articulated this concept of the individual addict being an inevitable product of a society that functions like an addicted individual.
. Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Penguin Books, 1986).
. Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017).
. Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (Harper and Row, 1974).
. Yasha Levine.
 . Mintz, 184.
. Mintz, 197.
. Mintz, 186.
. Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg, Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto Press, 2017).
. Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney, and Curt Ellis (directors), King Corn (Mosaic Films, 2007).
. Claudia Flavell-While.
. Melissa Groves, “Sucrose vs. Glucose vs. Fructose: What’s the Difference?“ Healthline, June 8, 2018.
. Sten Ekberg, “3 X Deadlier than Cancer and Most People Don’t Know They Have It,” YouTube Channel.