Monthly Archives: July 2017

Rough Cut: The Devil’s Family Tree & the House of Butterflies

Six years ago, in my first draft of Fruit of the Devil, I described my protagonist’s research into the multinational corporate persons who control global chemical-intensive agriculture. The passage is obviously too long to include in my novel, but a friend recently encouraged me to resurrect this buried limb of Fruit of the Devil, and to call it “The Devil’s Family Tree”.

The information seems important, even if it’s too much to stuff into a novel. So here, to the best of my research ability, is how I believe that methyl bromide, brilliantly marketed as an “essential” agricultural pesticide, is really a nothing but a toxic waste product of the petrochemical industry. How did they get us to buy that, and Eat it on our food?????? Methyl Bromide hasn’t gone away yet. And the strategies these corporations use to dupe the public are well-honed and still being used. I think we need to know how they’re playing us.

(This might be a good time to listen to Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain Gonna Fall.)

“The soil is, as a matter of fact, full of live organisms. It is essential to conceive of it as something pulsating with life, not as a dead or inert mass.” Albert Howard, The Soil and Health, 1947

 

The Devil’s Family Tree: Who are the Multinational Corporate Persons that control our world?

Chapter 55. Monday, April 18, 1999. Passover Begins at Sundown.

Aurora sat propped up in her big bed, with several fat pillows stuffed behind her back. It was raining hard. It had been raining all weekend, without any breaks in the storm. Aurora leaned back against her pillows and enjoyed the sound of the rain on the roof. Suddenly, the sound shifted, like gravel falling from the sky. Hail!

Blue jumped off the bed and went to the glass door. As he watched the falling hail, the tip of his tail twitched. Aurora stood next to the large black cat, looking out. The hail subsided, turning into a pounding rain. The frozen beads on the ground and on the hot tub cover quickly melted. Aurora crawled back into bed,  snuggled the comforter up around her, pulled her knees up to her chest and settled back against her pillows to resume her research.

Like following a thread through a labyrinth, she read over the material again. It was complicated. Bit-by-bit, the muddied waters were beginning to clear. She was beginning to understand who, hidden in the tangled web of interlocking corporate directorates, was responsible for methyl bromides’ persistence as an agricultural pesticide, in blatant disregard of all the legislation requiring its phase-out. She was starting to see how the system was being manipulated, and who was pulling the strings.

Who Are the Bromide Barons? Just three corporations account for most of the world’s methyl bromide production. The Great Lakes Chemical Corporation and Albemarle in the US, and a Tel Aviv-based subsidiary called the Dead Sea Bromine Group control over seventy-five percent of global production of the pesticide. Their affiliated corporations in France and Japan, together with North Sea Bromine, Alumina Belgique, and Dubai Potash are responsible for the remaining production. The global bromine industry is an oligopoly, Aurora read, controlled by Albemal and the Dead Sea Bromine Group.

Another downpour of hail battered the roof like machine gun fire Through the glass door Aurora watched frozen white beads beat up the ragged daffodils. The hail turned into sheeting rain again, and she went back to her reading.

These three companies are joined by Trical Corporation in California, which, together with its affiliated companies, dominates methyl bromide fumigation in the United States. A number of large agribusiness corporations, such as Sun Diamond Growers Cooperative, as well as the large California strawberry shipper-cooler conglomerates also play a central role in the political-economic battle over methyl bromide.

These key players have worked together on local, national and global initiatives, including propaganda, intimidation, and outright buy-outs of politicians, to fight the phase-out of this acutely toxic, ozone-depleting chemical. The Barons of Bromide strive to perpetuate methyl bromide use through industry associations, such as the Methyl Bromide Working Group, the Methyl Bromide Global Coalition, the Crop Protection Coalition, and the Agricultural Workers Committee.

Aurora had been over this material before, but she still felt like she was missing something. She sensed there was something more, something bigger driving all of this. Albemarle and affiliates controlled most of the world’s methyl bromide production. But who, she wondered, was the wizard in the closet behind Albemarle?

She climbed out of bed, wrapped herself in a warm fleece bathrobe decorated with polar bears and penguins, snuggled her feet into fleece slippers, and headed for the kitchen. Blue padded next to her, apparently hoping that, if he stayed tight on her heels, she would remember to feed him. She looked down at the fat cat and laughed.

“OK. Breakfast time. Here you go.” The sound of the cat kibble pouring into the bowl made a counterpoint to the rain on the roof, now a gentle, steady patter.

Aurora topped off her mug with hot Earl Grey tea, toasted an English muffin, spread with butter and olallieberry jam, sat down at her kitchen desk and turned on the computer. She  typed in “Albemarle”, and clicked on “Search”.

Albemal began in 1887 as a US paper manufacturing company. Paper manufacturing, Aurora knew, was a dirty, highly polluting industry. She and her students had recently read a book by Lynne Cherry, A River Ran Wild, telling the story of a paper mill’s destruction of the Nashua River in Massachusetts. How it had come to light that the river was so polluted it was spontaneously catching on fire, and this had led, after a protracted struggle by the public, to the passage of the US Clean Water Act in 1965. Growing public awareness and concerns about the environment had ultimately led to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“In 1921, a team of chemists performing research for General Motors discovered tetraethyllead (TEL) had antiknock properties as a gasoline additive. As a result, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in Richmond, Virginia began production of tetraethyllead in 1937. TEL remained the primary product of the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation through the next four decades. When the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation expanded its product line (particularly to include MMT), its name was changed to the Ethyl Corporation. The Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Company borrowed $200 million in 1962 and purchased Ethyl Corporation, a company more than thirteen times its size.”

So Albemal, a little Arkansas paper company, merged with the Ethyl Corporation in 1962. Ethyl? Gasoline? Paper and petrochemicals? Aurora read on. In ’68, the Ethyl/Albemal company acquired a bromide chemical plant in Arkansas from Dow Chemical. Dow Chem, the ozone eating chlorofluorocarbon manufacturer?

Albemarle continued to expand and diversify into chemicals, plastics, aluminum and energy, netting millions in profit. In the ‘90’s the company sharpened its focus on its core chemical businesses, forming an alliance with a Japanese chemical company, Dead Sea Bromine, and Dubai Potash. It also acquired an oil fields chemicals plant, giving Albemarle access to customers in the North Sea. Oil fields chemicals? In 1997, Albemarle restructured into two business units: Polymer Chemicals and Fine Chemicals.

So Albemarle Paper merged with Ethyl Gasoline? Aurora remembered hearing something about Ethyl gasoline when she was a child. She Goggled “Ethyl”, and read:

“In 1920, the DuPont family consolidated its grip over General Motors. During this period, a team of scientists perfected an anti-knock gasoline additive that boosted octane content. After first marketing the “no knock” tetraethyl lead (TEL) in 1922, GM- DuPont formed a 50-50 joint venture with one of the most powerful petroleum corporations on the planet – Standard Oil – and its New Jersey subsidiary, which later became known as Exxon, to produce and market the chemical. The new company was called the Ethyl Corporation.”

So, Albemarle Paper Company became the world’s largest producer of methyl bromide, after a merger with Ethyl no knock gasoline, which was created by General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil. Bells and whistles started going off. Standard Oil!? Oh, my God. One of the most powerful petroleum corporations on the planet was somehow behind methyl bromide. The wizard, the puppeteer pulling the strings of the TriCal King of Poisoners, was now standing just behind the curtain, and his face was covered in oil.

Aurora kept reading.

“Almost immediately, Ethyl ran into trouble. Scientists raised concerns that automobiles running on leaded gasoline were ‘a serious menace to the public health.’ In 1924, the story broke that 80% of the workers who produced tetraethyl lead had either been killed or were suffering acute poisoning. Employees suffered such severe nerve damage and extensive hallucinations at one refinery that it was dubbed ‘the House of Butterflies.’ Ethyl, supported by its owners – DuPont, General Motors, and Exxon/Standard Oil – fought back against concerns of scientists and the public.”

Corporate publicists contradicted a growing body of scientific evidence with a bold public relations and lobbying campaign, hiring a journalism professor from Columbia University to place favorable articles in newspapers, and run full page ads touting the product in Life Magazine and other popular journals. General Motors’ director of research told the American Medical Association that, ‘there is absolutely no danger of acquiring lead poisoning, even through prolonged exposure to exhaust gases of cars using Ethyl gas.’ ”

“There’s absolutely no danger… Our product is perfectly safe. Don’t worry about a thing. We’re the experts. Trust us. We’ll keep you safe.” Where had she heard that before? “Noooooo problem. Don’t worry your little head about the pesticides. We’ll take care of you.”

Aurora addressed Blue, who was meticulously cleaning his paws and whiskers. “Can you believe this, Blue? Way back in 1924, Standard and Ethyl Big Oil were already colluding with General Motors and DuPont Chemical, creator, along with Dow, of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, to spin junk science and propaganda. Way back then, they were already successfully manipulating the public into believing that their poisonous concoctions were safe. They’ve had decades to perfect their propaganda. No wonder they’ve been able to trick the public into believing that growing food with poisons is good for us.” Blue blinked his big yellow eyes, said Meow, then sauntered off to the window seat to watch the rain. Aurora turned back to the computer screen.

“The campaign to promote Ethyl and protect its market share was highly successful. A Surgeon General’s panel of scientists called for further study, but the required studies were never conducted. General Motors produced high-compression engines that ran only on leaded gasoline, further assuring Ethyl’s successful capture of the market share. By 1940, 70% of all US gasoline contained deadly Ethyl. Competitor’s products were driven out of the market – the same fate that befell the refrigerants that were rivals of GM-DuPont’s chlorinated fluorocarbon ‘Freon’. ”

“Hum,” thought Aurora. “Required studies were never conducted. Well, that’s familiar. Just like the way they’ve never bothered to complete the tests on methyl bromide that were required by the California Birth Defects Prevention Act. How do they get away with that?”

The rain got louder. Aurora  stretched, and gazed through the sliding glass door. Rain was coming down in solid sheets, blowing nearly sideways. The patio and the garden paths were flooding. All the trees were blowing wildly. She shuffled into her living room and watched through the bay window.  The water had risen almost to curb level. Something orange bobbed on the water flooding toward the storm drain.

Continuing her house inspection, she opened the door from the laundry room off the kitchen into her garage, which she used as an art studio. The floor was still dry. She checked the whole house, looking for signs of moisture on the ceilings, and along seals around doors and windows. Everything looked dry and snug. She turned on the gas wall heater that warmed her cottage. The gas ignited and the heater made a comforting purring sound. Aurora suppressed her misgivings about the environmental impact of heating her house with gas and sat back down at the computer. She continued reading, wondering how long she had before the power went out.

So Ethyl, Albemale, and methyl bromide. Ethyl/Albemarle’s involvement in the methyl bromide business had its roots in Ethyl’s leaded gasoline business. When tetraethyl lead was invented back in the 1920’s, it turned out that the product left a corrosive byproduct in the engine. The solution that Ethyl’s scientists found was to add a chemical called ethylene dibromide (EDB) to the mix. Ethyl first produced “no knock” EDB in 1934 by extracting bromine from sea water in a joint venture with Dow Chemical. This process was replaced in 1969 by a joint venture between Ethyl and an Albemarle subsidiary located near an Arkansas salt marsh. The new process used concentrated brine drilled from deep beneath the salt marsh to make bromine.

In 1972, the same year it banned DDT, the US government finally ordered the phase out of leaded gasoline in the US. Since the House of Butterflies story had first been suppressed, it had been a run of almost fifty years that deadly ethyl gasoline was successfully marketed in almost every tank.

Ethyl/Albemarle quickly responded to the government-mandated phase out of Ethyl with a three track strategy. First, they continued to aggressively claim that leaded gasoline emissions posed absolutely no human health hazards. Although studies found that, after elimination of TEL leaded gasoline, the level of lead in American’s blood fell as much as 75%, Ethyl/Albemarle continued to dismiss all evidence of the hazards of tetraethyl lead.

Second, they globalized production and distribution, developing international markets for leaded “anti-knock” gasoline. To compensate for the decline in the domestic consumption of tetraethyl lead, Ethyl globalized leaded gasoline. Consequently, TEL is responsible for nearly 90% of airborne lead pollution in Third World cities today.

Finally, Ethyl/Albemarle diversified their US production. Faced with a steadily diminishing market for leaded gasoline, they sought to find other uses for the vast salt brine reserves they had been using to produce the ethylene dibromide (EDB) additive to TEL. They marketed EDB as an agricultural chemical, encouraging its use in grain storage silos and as a pesticide applied directly to crops. In 1983, the US Environmental Protection Agency banned EDB as a pesticide, finding that it posed an unacceptable cancer risk. Cakes, breads and cereals containing EDB were recalled from supermarket shelves.

Despite the setback, Ethyl/Albemal rapidly expanded their bromine production, ultimately cornering all of the US bromide production and one-third of the bromide production world-wide. They developed a bromide product line that included flame retardants, drilling fluids, water treatment chemicals, cleaning solvents, glass making, detergents, pesticides, photographic chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

To the rhythm of the falling rain, Aurora heard inside her head that song from the Dr. Seuss movie, The Lorax, that she showed to her students every year. The song about all of the many, many uses that could be made out of Thneeds, those things that the Onceler made out of chopped down trees. …drilling fluids, water treatment chemicals, cleaning solvents, glass making, detergents, pesticides, photographic chemicals, pharmaceuticals And thneeds are what everyone, everyone needs!” The Lorax

She went over the material again in her mind, wondering why she’d never heard this story before. Everyone should know about this, she thought. People should know how our lives and our world are being manipulated. So, it took from 1924 to 1972 for the government to finally ban leaded gasoline, even though the science proving that leaded gas was a deadly toxin had been available from the beginning. And, once it was finally banned in the US, the companies just sold it overseas, plus they remixed the same chemicals and re-marketed them under a different name for different uses, including as agricultural pesticides. The people that do these things must be so cynical, thought Aurora.

A bolt of lightening lit the sky, followed by a satisfying crack of thunder. Thunderstorms were fairly rare on the Central California coast. Aurora hurried to the window to watch for another lightening flash. Another bolt forked across the dark sky. Aurora counted the seconds. … one thousand five. Caboom! went the thunder, followed by a downpour. Aurora returned to the computer.

One of their products, a highly profitable brominated fire retardant called tetrabromobisophenol-A (TBBA), they sold to the electronics industry for use in the manufacture of fire-resistant epoxy circuit boards and personal computer housing. A by-product of TBBA is methyl bromide.

OK, thought Aurora. So, here comes the methyl bromide.

In a brilliant marketing move, Ethyl/Albemarle promoted methyl bromide, the toxic waste from the manufacture of TBBA, as a substitute for the carcinogenic pesticide EDB, which the government had mandated to be phased out. Methyl bromide quickly became a strategic product for Ethyl/Albemarle.

“Oh, perfect. So, methyl bromide is toxic waste that they figured out how to sell us as a substitute for a banned carcinogenic pesticide. Cute. These people are clever as hell, Blue.” The cat was still watching the rain. He didn’t bother to turn around and look at her, but simply flicked the tip of his tail in response.

Albemarle produced methyl bromide under a licensing agreement with Dow Chemical. Monsanto, the giant corporate arm that controls a large share of the powerful berry cooler-shipper business, assured the ongoing demand for methyl bromide in the California berry industry, which accounts for 80% of all US strawberry production.

“Monsanto? The entire Devil’s Family is in the room now. Of course. You could have guessed that, right, Blue? ” Blue flicked his tail and batted at Aurora’s hand, then left the room. Aurora squinted at the computer screen.

Today, with the rapid growth of the computer industry, demand for TBBA is increasing world-wide. In response, Albemarle is increasing its TBBA production, and with it, the amount of methyl bromide byproduct generated. If ever the International Montreal Protocol’s ban on methyl bromide is actually enforced in the US, methyl bromide will cease to be a highly profitable pesticide, and instead will become, for the Ethyl/Standard Oil/General Motors/DuPont/Exxon/Dow/Monsanto/Albemarle cartel a toxic waste disposal liability.

Holy shit., Batman. Monsanto, General Motors, Dow Chemical and Standard Oil. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Aurora stood before the screen as the curtain lifted. She could finally see who was pushing the buttons, pulling the levers and dancing the puppets on the strings. The wizard had a face. But not a human face. It was the face of one of the oldest and most powerful petrochemical corporations on the planet. Standard Oil, with the tentacles of an ancient and evil octopus.

Lightening and thunder cracked the sky. The surge protector clicked off. The computer monitor flickered, and went black. Aurora tried a light switch. The electricity was down. She groped her way into her garage and flipped the switches on the circuit breaker. No power. But the gas heater continued to purr. Aurora unrolled her yoga mat. She kicked off her slippers, pulled off her robe and nightgown, tossing them on the nearest chair, and began a naked sun salutation. She spent an hour practicing yoga, as the thunder and lightening continued. Then she took a hot shower, grateful for her gas water heater, but thinking she should look into solar water heating. Somehow, she had to get off her fossil fuel gas and oil dependency.

Dressing in comfortable sweats, she sat cross-legged on floor pillows and meditated in the gloamy light, focusing on her breathing while she chanted her Mata Amritanandamayi mantra. By the time she finished meditating, the squall had passed. She checked the lights. On. She felt grateful to whomever the heroes were who were out there in the deluge doing the difficult and dangerous work of restoring electricity to neighborhoods with downed power lines. What a wonderful thing, electricity. Living in the age of fossil fuel. An age ushered in, to a large extent, by the big oil companies…

There were so many contradictions to come to terms with, living in these times. Where did her electricity come from? Every year, she asked her students that, and together, they discovered the answer for their locality. Moss Landing. The Moss Landing Power Plant, across the highway from the Moss Landing Harbor. It had generated electricity for Pacific Gas and Electric customers by burning oil up until the 1970’s, and then had converted to natural gas.

Thank God there were no longer dirty oil tankers coming into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to refuel the power plant, with their ever-looming threat of oil spills. But still, gas was a fossil fuel, too. A non-renewable resource. It was becoming more and more clear, Aurora thought, that any process involving the extraction of materials from the earth – coal, oil, gas, blood diamonds  . . .  all of it, when you scratched the surface, turned out to be dirty, destructive, and toxic, and controlled by people willing to do anything – lie, steal, cheat, destabilize countries, ruin watersheds, and even knowingly let people die – just so they could make their obscenely huge profits. Why? Was it the amassing of more and more wealth that these people were addicted to? Or was there something else driving the insatiable desire of these hungry ghosts? Power, lust?

Standard Oil and methyl bromide. Well, that was certainly interesting. So, the petrochemical industry, the oil companies, actually owned the pesticide industry. The Methyl Bromide Barons essentially worked for the Frankenstein ghost of Standard Oil. Maybe the CEO’s of all the corporations were one and the same people. Interlocking corporate boards of directors.

It was time to figure out another way. To get free of pesticides, and clear of as many petrochemicals as possible. Although they seemed to be everywhere, in everything she touched, from food, to clothing, furniture, plastics, and gasoline. Aurora resolved once and for all that she was going to find out how to at least get her energy – her light, heat, transportation – through sustainable, renewable means, as much as she could. For starters, she was going to look into putting solar hot water and electricity on her house, as soon as possible. Eventually, maybe should could get an all electric car to plug into her home solar system. She didn’t want to be a participant or an enabler of this country’s fossil fuel addiction any longer.

The phone rang.

Aurora didn’t pick it up. She let the machine take it and listened to the auto dialer’s message. The fire department was letting everyone know that, due to the unusual El Niño conditions, severe storms were expected to continue for the next three days. Flooding was expected in most areas. Residents who needed sandbags could pick them up at the nearest fire station. And there were flood evacuation centers at the following locations…..

Aurora made herself a tuna sandwich. Blue circled her ankles like a shark. Taking her sandwich plate to her desk, she googled Standard Oil.

The first hit was a link to an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Dismantling of the Standard Oil Trust”.

Aurora clicked on the link, and read: “The saga of Standard Oil ranks as one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the U.S. economy. It occurred at a time when the country was undergoing its rapid transformation from a mainly agricultural society to the greatest industrial powerhouse the world has ever known. The effects of Standard Oil on the U.S., as well as on much of the rest of the world, were immense, and the lessons that can be learned from this amazing story are possibly as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Standard Oil Company was founded by John D. Rockefeller in Cleveland, Ohio in 1870. In just a little over a decade, through a variety of cutthroat and often violent strategies, it had attained control of nearly all the oil refineries in the U.S.

During this period, a brilliant inventor, Rudolf Diesel, was promoting his diesel engine, which ran on clean peanut oil. Diesel was mysteriously murdered, and his plant seized and burned. Immediately after Diesel’s murder, Standard Oil rolled out a petroleum distillate called diesel gasoline to take the place of clean bio-diesel. The mysterious death of Rudolf Diesel cleared away one of Standard Oil’s most serious competitors.

(Josh Tickell gives an excellent portrayal of Diesel’s mysterious death in his film FUEL.)

By 1878 Rockefeller had attained control of nearly 90 percent of the oil refined in the U.S., and shortly thereafter he had gained control of most of the oil marketing facilities in the U.S.

Standard Oil initially focused on horizontal integration (i.e., at the same stage of production) by gaining control of other oil refineries. But gradually the integration also became vertical (i.e., extended to other stages of production and distribution), mainly by acquiring pipelines, railroad tank cars, terminal facilities and barrel manufacturing factories. It was the first of the great corporate trusts.

A trust was an arrangement whereby the stockholders in a group of companies transferred their shares to a single set of trustees who controlled all of the companies. In exchange, the stockholders received certificates entitling them to a specified share of the consolidated earnings of the jointly managed companies. The trustees elected the directors and officers of each of the component companies, and all of the profits of those companies were sent to the trustees, who decided the dividends. This arrangement allowed all of the companies to function in unison as a highly disciplined monopoly. The unified organization of the trust finally made the disciplined regulation of production levels possible, thereby giving its owners complete control over prices. Massive and unprecedented profits of Standard Oil were made possible by this control over prices, the huge economies of scale attained from the control of almost all oil refined in the U.S. and the ability to pressure railroads and other suppliers of goods and services into giving them bargain rates.

Rockefeller became the first billionaire in the U.S. However, even this unprecedented wealth and power was not enough. Rockefeller and Standard Oil needed ever more. The company thus expanded into the overseas markets, particularly Western Europe and Asia, and after a while it was selling even more oil abroad than in the U.S. Moreover, Rockefeller, in addition to his role as the head of Standard Oil, also invested in numerous companies in manufacturing, transportation and other industries and owned major iron mines and extensive tracts of timberland.

The astonishing success of Standard Oil encouraged others to follow the Rockefeller business model, particularly in the booming final decades of the 19th century. Trusts were established in close to 200 industries, although most never came close to Standard Oil in size or profitability. Among the largest were railroads, coal, steel, sugar, tobacco and meatpacking.

This dominance of oil, together with its tentacles entwined deep into the railroads, other industries, influential private foundations, and even various levels of government, persisted and intensified, despite a growing public outcry and repeated attempts to break it up. There was widespread disgust and revulsion, not only among the many people who had their businesses or jobs wiped out by the ruthless predatory tactics of the trusts, but also by countless others who were affected by the increased costs and reduced levels of service that often resulted from the elimination of competition.

The monopolization of the economy became a major topic for the independent print media, which helped to create a widespread awareness not only of the effects of this consolidation but also of the techniques that were being used to attain it, including the extensive use of fraud, political corruption and physical violence.

The media attack on monopolies and corruption reached a peak from 1902 to 1912, which is often referred to as the muckraking decade. The muckrakers helped bring about an unprecedented era of reform. The U.S. Supreme Court was finally able to act decisively in 1911. Pioneering legislation was passed, aimed at restoring free competition to the economy and at protecting the food supply along with other measures designed to stop the excesses and abuses of corporate greed.

1911 was also a pivotal year for the petroleum industry in another respect. It was the year in which the U.S. market for kerosene (until then the main product from oil refining) was surpassed by that for a formerly discarded byproduct of the refining process — gasoline.

Wind rattled the windows. Rain hammered on the roof. Another squall was hitting the coast. Aurora got up and put her sandwich plate in the sink. She clicked on the gas under the teakettle. While she waited for the water to boil, she watched the storm through the window. A large branch broke off a cedar tree across the street and fell onto the neighbor’s yard, barely missing the car in their driveway. A tall palm tree down the block was bending sideways. Huge palm fronds flew through the air. Rain lashed against the front of Aurora’s house, blowing off the bay at nearly gale force. The street was a muddy, turbulent river. Water was rising up over the sidewalk. This has to be a hundred year storm, Aurora thought. She couldn’t remember anything like it.

The Muckrakers. Aurora remembered having learned about muckrakers when she was in high school. The conditions today seemed so similar to back then. Globalization of the economy was leading to monopolization and control by big corporations, job loss, exploitation of workers, fraud, political corruption, predatory lending all over the world. Just like Standard Oil took over the U.S. economy a hundred years ago, the World Trade Organization was becoming even more powerful than sovereign nations today, in its control of the global economy. And the US Supreme Court had given corporations the legal status and constitutional rights of “personhood”. Where was the independent media? Where were the muckrakers? Why wasn’t the public being made aware of what was happening?

The teakettle whistled. Aurora made herself a cup of instant Miso soup with seaweed and shitake mushrooms. Stirring the savory soup, she took her cup back to the desk, woke up the computer, and continued reading.

In spite of the outraged public sentiment awakened by the muckrakers, it took the government a long time to take effective measures to deal with the abusive tactics by Standard Oil and other monopolies. The strong desire on the part of the monopolies for preventing government intervention undoubtedly played a major role in this delay.

But the vehement public opposition to the trusts, especially among farmers who protested the high charges for transporting their products to the cities by railroad, finally resulted in the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. This was the first measure enacted by the U.S. Congress to prohibit trusts. The Sherman Antitrust Act, based on the constitutional power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, authorized the Federal Government to dissolve the trusts. It was passed by an overwhelming vote of 51-1 in the Senate and a unanimous vote of 242-0 in the House, and it was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison.

Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, preferred regulation to dismantling. He attempted to steer a middle course between the socialism favored by some reformers and the laissez faire approach advocated by the Republicans. His hand was strengthened by an increasingly outraged public, which, although leery of government intervention in the past, had become far more supportive of it because of the seemingly endless growth in the numbers and power of the monopolies.

Several steps were taken by Roosevelt during his first term that proved highly successful despite intensive efforts by big business to block them. They included: (1) Convincing Congress to establish a Department of Commerce and Labor, the first new executive department since the Civil War, in order to increase the federal government’s oversight of the interstate actions of big business and to monitor labor relations. (2) Setting up the Bureau of Corporations in the new department in order to find violations of existing antitrust legislation. The Bureau soon began investigations into the oil, steel, meatpacking and other industries. (3) Instructing his attorney general to launch a total of 44 lawsuits against what were determined to be harmful business combinations, among which was the Standard Oil Trust.

The Court ordered the Standard Oil Trust to dismantle 33 of its most important affiliates and to distribute the stock to its own shareholders and not to a new trust. The result was the creation of a number of completely independent (although eight of them retained the phrase Standard Oil in their names) and vertically integrated oil companies, each of which ranked among the most powerful in the world. This decision also paved the way for new entrants into the industry, such as Gulf and Texaco, which discovered and exploited vast new petroleum deposits in Texas. The consequent vigorous competition gave a big impetus to innovation and expansion of the oil industry as a whole.

Historians of the future will likely continue to view the dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust as an important milestone in the unending struggle to restore and preserve free competition in the U.S. economy. Yet, they will no doubt note developments in the second half of the 20th Century turning the tide again in favor of transnational corporate control of the U.S. and global economy and a new era of monopoly creation on a global scale. And they might also be far more concerned than their predecessors about the failure of the market mechanism, and of society as a whole, to address an issue of at least equally great importance: namely, the inexorable rush to consume and deplete what increasingly appears to be the very finite resources of planet earth, virtually regardless of the consequences.” 

The Dismantling of the Standard Oil Trust Created May 21, 2004. Updated October 12, 2006. Copyright © 2004 – 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.

Aurora’s eyes grew heavy. She shut off the computer, moved the sleeping cat over and flopped down on the couch, pulling a blanket over herself and Blue. She picked up her new book from the coffee table, opened it, and began reading. The Heat is On: the Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription by Ross Gelbspan. The rain fell softly. In a few minutes, Aurora was asleep.

She was underwater, wrestling a giant octopus. It sprayed black, oily, toxic ink into the water. Through the shadowy muck she could make out many other writhing figures – humans, penguins, polar bears, enormous salmon with human faces, strangling and struggling in the tentacles of the monster. She was drowning.

Sources:
The Barons of Bromine Corp Watch  – This information is referenced and quoted with permission from The Bromide Barons by Joshua Karliner, Alba Morales, and Dara O’Rourke, of Corporate Watch, San Francisco, 1997.
Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of the Evolution of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries by Alfred Dupont Chandler
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albemarle_Corporation
The Dismantling of the Standard Oil Trust Created May 21, 2004. Updated October 12, 2006. Copyright © 2004 – 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? And where have you been my darling young one? I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’, I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world. And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, It’s a hard rain a-gonna fall.” Bob Dylan

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