Coal and tobacco industries kill more Americans each year than they employ

A new study outlines why the tobacco and coal industries warrant "corporate death sentences."

Image source: 1968 / Shutterstock / J Mark Dodds
  • A study developed a formula to identify industries that do more bad than good.
  • The U.S. coal and tobacco qualify as having a net negative value to society.
  • Should we tolerate any industry that makes a profit?

Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University has raised an interesting question: If "The unwritten rule with industry is you get to make money if you're a benefit to society," what about an industry that creates more damage than good? Should such an industry be allowed to continue operation, or should it be shut down?"

In a study just published in Social Sciences on February 18, researchers led by Pearce found: "In the singular search for profits, some corporations inadvertently kill humans. If this routinely occurs throughout an industry, it may no longer serve a net positive social purpose for society and should be eliminated."

This said, his team's research has resulted in a non-political, objective method for determining whether an industry warrants a "corporate death sentence."

The factors that go into the equation

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Pearce cites a very simple way to assess whether or not an industry does more bad than good: Does it kill more people than it employs? Pearce's calculus is based on what he suggests are three unassailable premises, as stated in his paper:

  1. Everyone has the right to life. This is explicitly called for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly. In addition, it is intuitively obvious that the right to life is the primary right as it is necessary to be alive to enjoy any other right (i.e., the right to work).
  2. Everyone has the right to work. This is explicitly called for in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Corporations are large companies or groups of companies authorized to act as a single legal entity (person) to efficiently generate profit for the benefit of humans, and one of their primary additional benefits is job creation. Thus, corporations help facilitate the right to work.
  3. Human law should give corporations the right to exist if they are beneficial to humanity. Corporations are human constructs created by law to benefit humanity. Thus, in the simplest possible case, corporations can be viewed as good as they create profit and jobs, unless their operation interferes with the right to life of humans they are meant to benefit.

"If we know that life trumps employment because you have to be alive to work," Pearce tells Michigan Tech News, "then for a company or industry to exist it must employ more people than it kills in a year. What this paper has done is set the minimum bar for industry existence."

Pearce acknowledges that, as the paper says, "There are benefits corporations can provide that go beyond employment (e.g., products that provide a benefit, gifts to charity, etc) and also that there are corporate harms that are less severe than death (e.g., adverse ecosystem impacts that harm nature and nonhuman species, which only indirectly effects humans)." Still, those pluses and minuses are difficult to quantify due to inadequate data and the fact that longer data periods are required for smoothing out fluctuations in such numbers.

"Surprisingly," says Pearce, his analysis "showed that there are at least two industries in America right now that are killing more people annually than they employ." That would be the coal and tobacco industries.

Numbers tell the story

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Pearce became interested in developing such a metric while working on a previous study that involved calculating the number of American lives that could be saved in switching U.S. production of electricity from coal to solar.

Of the coal- and tobacco-industry case studies his new research scrutinized, Pearce says, "After running the numbers, the results are shocking. Every coal mining job in the U.S. demands literally one American life every year. For tobacco jobs, it is four times worse. The study concludes both industries warrant corporate death penalties."

The coal industry:

  • The industry employs 51,795 people based on data from the United States Energy Information Administration.
  • The total number of annual U.S. premature deaths from coal-fired, electricity-based air pollution is 52,015, using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

The tobacco industry:

  • The industry employs 124,342 people based on data from the North American Industry Classification System.
  • The total number of annual U.S. deaths from direct and second-hand smoke is 522,000 using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

Life (for workers) after death (of an industry)

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Pearce and his co-authors suggest that while not painless, the dissolution of these industries might actually work out well for the people displaced. His team has written previously of the income and health benefits to be enjoyed by coal workers who are retrained to work in the solar energy industry. They've also written about how current tobacco farmers can earn more and reduce a number of risk factors by repurposing their fields as solar farms.

Corporate charter control

The paper suggests the revocation of companies' corporate charters as the most workable means of executing an industry. The charters allow these entities to do business. They could be revoked at the federal level, or in any of the 49 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that retain the right to nullify a charter.

Obviously, the larger issue is summoning public opinion and legislative support for such a mechanism.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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