Personal, Social & Corporate Responsibility in a Common World

Vol. 14, No. 1


Guest Editors' Commentary

Exploring opportunities for eco-sound food habits: Households and researchers in partnership

Responsibility in a common world: My brother's keeper?

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM
, Vol. 14, No. 1.

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

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Neoliberalism, Microbes, and Peace: A Human Ecological Perspective


Sue L. T. McGregor, Janice Doull, & Larry Fisk

Dr. McGregor is Coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program for the Department of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Dr. Doull is Associate Professor, Biology Department, Mount Saint Vincent University

Dr. Fisk is Professor Emeritus, Mount Saint Vincent University


The nature of the current links between neoliberalism, microbes, and peace needs to be understood so that peace, security, and justice prevail with environmental integrity. This paper draws links between these three unlikely bedfellows by arguing that embracing a particular ideology explains the sanctioning of patterns of behaviour and lines of thinking that affect, and are affected by, peace in a society. Adhering to the neoliberal ideology provides justification for exploiting both people and the ecosystems of the world. This exploitation leads to oppression and povertization of people and to the destruction of ecosystems. We provide a detailed examination of the impact of the synergy between neoliberalism and microbes on peace, justice, and security within families, society, and the environment. We conclude that peace, neoliberalism, and microbes are inextricably linked and that where there is neoliberalism there can, ultimately, be no peace.

The intent of this discussion is to draw links between the neoliberal ideology, microbes, and peace. Stranger bedfellows there may never have been; however, the premise of this paper is that there are powerful connections between these three notions, connections that can be perceived from a human ecological perspective. We argue that embracing a particular ideology explains the sanctioning of patterns of behaviour and lines of thinking that affect, and are affected by, peace in a society. To organize this discussion, neoliberalism will be explained followed by an overview of microbes (viruses and bacteria, good and bad) and different ways of understanding peace.

Once these three separate ideas have been developed, the synergy between them is explored in depth. Our basic line of reasoning is that adhering to the neoliberal ideology provides justification for exploiting both people and the ecosystems of the world. This exploitation leads to oppression and povertization of people and to the destruction of ecosystems. The latter can lead to the freeing of viruses and bacteria (microbes) from their conventional habitats and modus operandi, culminating in old microbes appearing in new places adapting to current antibiotics, or both. The former can lead to unsanitary conditions and overcrowding which create a ripe environment for the proliferation of illness due to viral outbreaks of infectious diseases. Microbes are also being used as biological weapons in instances of conflict, outbreaks of violence, and dissidence, jeopardizing peace. Indeed, we hope to show, from a human ecological perspective, that embracing the neoliberal ideology justifies, what seems to be, totally unjustifiable, culpable behaviour, all in the name of profit, power, and control.


Neoliberalism comprises two notions: "neo" meaning new and "liberal" meaning free from government intervention. Adam Smith who advocated for the abolition of government in economic matters so that trade could flourish first introduced Liberalism in the mid 1770s. The mindset of liberal economics held for almost 200 years and was temporarily replaced in the 1930s by Keynesian economics that saw a place for government intervention. In the 1970s, economic liberalism, or the cry for deregulation, privatisation, and deletion of government intervention in the market economy resurfaced with a vengeance; hence, the name renewed liberalism or neoliberalism (Martinez & Garcia, 2000). Economic liberalism is different from political liberalism that is concerned with liberating people from oppression, poverty, etc. and with other social issues although economic liberalism is concerned with liberating capital (Shah, 2001). Susan George (1999) tells us that the “idea of neoliberalism” gained worldwide prominence because its authors at the University of Chicago (e.g., Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman) created a huge international network to develop, package, and push their ideas and doctrine. They have made neoliberalism seem as if it were the natural and normal condition of mankind. They have succeeded in convincing us that neoliberalism is the only scientific description of reality (Bourdieu, 1998).

The authors of the idea of neoliberalism were economists. Although some people still consider economics a social science, Moquin (1994) holds that economics, which was originally part of the social sciences, set itself off as a separate discipline in the 18th century when Adam Smith wrote the seminal work on capitalism and liberalism, The Wealth of Nations. This paper assumes that neoliberalism is part of economics but is not part of social or natural sciences. Economics is a science that is concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, especially with the allocation of scarce resources to meet unlimited human wants. Social science (anthropology, psychology, sociology) is concerned with society, humanity, and transformative relationships between their members. Natural science is concerned with matter, energy, and their transformative interrelations (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics). This range of interests is why there are a lot of questions that are important to social scientists and natural scientists but not for economists (Rösch, 1998).

Neoliberalism is a phenomenon of the rich, western nations (Treanor, 2003) that has had overwhelmingly negative consequences for both western nations and the poor regions of the world. The process of globalization driven by neoliberalism entails: (a) eliminating commercial trade barriers and borders, (b) establishing an infrastructure for universal telecommunications, (b) fostering the information super highways, (d) the omnipresence of the financial centres, and (e) the ratification of international agreements of economic unity (Marcos, 1997). The globalization of the neoliberalism ideology is pervasive and all encompassing; it is the ruling order of the entire world. The global financial system and the transnational corporations (TNCs) are the motivating power of neoliberalism (Lauesen, 1996), and their phenomenal, almost inconceivable, power in the marketplace is made more alarming by the basic assumptions of the ideology they embrace. De Angelis (1996) claims that this neoliberal power moves around the world with no one controlling it, in the form of capital in excess of thousands of billions of US dollars each day! Indeed, Lauesen describes neoliberalism as the common enemy of global citizens. "The theoretical assumption of neoliberalism is that the free functioning of the market forces leads to a better utilization and allocation of resources, guarantees a better satisfaction of the requirements of consumption and bigger balance of the foreign trade, and altogether produces higher economic growth and therefore development" (Strum, 1998, p.1). Anyone embracing neoliberalism takes sides with the principles of the market economy. The only minimalist role of the state is to make sure the rules of the market economy are followed and to make sure the market can function efficiently. There is no concern for the connections and dependencies between social equity, participative democracy, sustainability, and economic growth. The following discussion will elaborate further on this central point of neoliberalism.

One basic assumption of neoliberalism is that human beings will always try to favour themselves. As they do this, they need have no concern for others or the environment. This absence of concern can exist because each person is assumed to act absolutely independently of others and is assumed to be restricted only by the natural surroundings and NOT by any other human being (Rösch, 1998). The tenets of neoliberalism have absolutely no concern for the impact of current decisions and patterns of behaviour on others elsewhere, not yet born, or the ecosystem. Other values of neoliberalism are ownership of private property, competition and an emphasis on individual success measured through endless work and ostentatious consumption (Acción Zapastista de Austin, 1996). These values reflect three basic tenets of neoliberalism: (a) the necessity of free markets (where we work and consume), (b) individualism, and (c) the pursuit of narrow self-interest rather than mutual interest, with the assumption that these three tenets will lead to social good.

A major aim of neoliberalists is the deregulation and privatization of all public and state-owned enterprises (often comprising schools, universities, health care, radio and television, public infrastructures such as roads, and public transportation such as airlines and trains). Enterprises run by the governments are unacceptable interventions of the state in the economy of a country because the state is seen as part of the economic problem rather than part of the solution. Rather, the public sector (government) has to be reduced as far as possible to create a free market. In a free market, all decisions about what to produce, how, and using what resources are made by business, NOT by government. The free market regulates itself in order to create social justice (equal treatment for all). This perspective justifies high social and environmental costs of private enterprise activity, actually seeing them as unavoidable and to be expected. Anything that reduces government regulation that could diminish profits is justified under neoliberalism including eliminating policies that protect the environment, human rights, or labour rights (Martinez & Garcia, 2000; Rösch, 1998).

Neoliberalists see no need for government to implement policy to ensure fair redistribution of the nation's wealth thereby narrowing the gap between the haves and have nots. Any transfer of monies by the state from one social group to the other (e.g., from tax dollars to welfare recipients or those receiving unemployment benefits) is seen to hurt the rules of the market which say that only those who are part of the transaction should benefit from the transaction (Strum, 1998). Consequently, social policies are totally meaningless for neoliberalists since they are seen as a type of discrimination for those who do not get to benefit from them. Neoliberalists assume that all members of society should be treated equally with no preferential treatment. Social policy that targets certain groups in society (e.g., welfare recipients, children, aged) is seen as preferential because only certain people benefit; that is, not all are seen to benefit from the government intervention. Because it is assumed that any policy made by someone embracing the neoliberalist ideology will benefit everyone equally, neoliberalists do not have to consider any social consequences of their actions (Rösch, 1998).

Also, neoliberalists eliminate the concept of the public good and the community and replace it with individual responsibility. Advocates of neoliberalism believe in pressuring the poorest people in a society to find their own solutions to their lack of health care, education, and social security all by themselves. They are then blamed and called lazy if they fail (Martinez & Garcia, 2000).Remember that neoliberalism focuses on the individual. People embracing the neoliberal ideology truly believe that ethics, morality, and social ideals are the responsibility of each individual person, not the state and certainly not private enterprise (Rösch, 1998). Also, under neoliberalism, people do not care about the social conditions of production but they do respect private property and they do get their personal identity through private consumption. They live to buy (Lauesen, 1996). Transactional corporations live to sell, be damned the social, equity, or ecological consequences and feel quite justified in doing so.

In a compelling analysis, Marcos (1997) suggests that the end of the Third World War (a.k.a., the Cold War) led to the opening of new world markets that have no owners. The struggle to gain control and ownership of these world markets has produced the Fourth World War: the Neoliberal Financial Bomb. National capitalism was replaced by global, financial capitalism that has shaped a new world order that has no place for democracy, liberty, equality, or fraternity. As the Fourth World War rages on, the labour force is being rearranged around the new market of world labour, the ecosystem is being exploited for the inexhaustible quest for more resources, and communities are being attached to commercial trade zones rather than national states. In fact, the national governments are now in charge of administering the businesses in the different regions of the world that is the complete adoption of the neoliberal ideology. Under the call of neoliberalism, markets facilitate the circulation of money and merchandise, with the former accounting for more than thousands of billions of dollars a day. Nowhere in this scenario is there a legitimate role for the welfare of people, communities, or societies nor for the state, save to ensure that it can enforce the rules and logic of the free market for economic profit. The neoliberal system sees the world market as a single company, one that bases its production on the labour of children, women, and migrant workers. The neoliberal system strives for homogenization of the entire social world thus creating its version of social justice with the real fallout being no protection from poverty, food insecurity, inequities, conflict, or injustices. Also, neoliberalism favours an anti-union climate, reductions in salaries, and reductions in social costs (education, health, housing, and food) (Marcos, 1997).


How do we make a smooth and legitimate shift from an exposé of the underpinnings of neoliberalism to the study of microbes? Well, just as the social sciences do not see “eye to eye” with neoliberalists, neither do the natural sciences (or at least those who do not embrace the neoliberal ideology). Of special interest in this discussion are the transformative interrelations between microbes, humanity, and the ecosystem, all seen as resources to be used in the global financial, neoliberal machine rather than to be respected and treated with stewardship for future generations.

Peace, neoliberalism, and microbes are inextricably linked. Microbes form the basis of all ecosystems but our callously utilitarian view of the environment is quite simply killing the planet and, consequently, us. Pirages (1997) reminds us that, despite impressive technological advances, the contemporary world is very much affected by human interactions with nature. He writes, "ecological factors continue to shape human societies, human conflicts, the international distribution of power, and the nature of emerging global issues.” In the following discussion, we hope to make two main points. First, although some microbes cause nasty diseases, the majority are not pathogens but live in our environment where they are essential in the cycling of nutrients throughout the biosphere. Second, peaceful coexistence within our environment is a prerequisite to our survival. Continued environmental destruction both creates and puts us at peril from emerging infectious diseases leading to situations conducive to lack of peace.

But, before we begin, what exactly is a microbe? Put quite simply, a microbe is an organism that requires a microscope to be seen. Although this broad definition encompasses members from every kingdom of organisms, for this discussion we will restrict ourselves to two major groups, bacteria and viruses. A bacterium is a small simple cell often in the form of a sphere (coccus), a rod (bacillus), or a spiral (spirillum). Bacteria are ubiquitous. We find them on the human body (where they form, what is called, the "normal human flora"), on plants and animals, in soil, in Arctic snows, deep down in the oceans, and deep in the earth. Bacteria are the ultimate recyclers. In order to replicate, they carry out reactions that "transform" raw materials (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, hydrogen, phosphorus) into forms that all organisms can use. In doing so, they are adapted to many environments, some so extreme, for example hot sulphur springs, they were previously thought to be devoid of life. They, thus, play an essential role in, what ecologists call, the "biogeochemical cycles" that recycle nutrients in the environment. These activities are essential to the maintenance of life on this planet. As an illustration, Childress, Felbeck, and Somero (1987) describe bacteria that live deep in the ocean where there is no light for photosynthesis. These bacteria make their energy through hydrogen sulphide oxidation and, by carrying out this unusual reaction, replace plants in forming the first level in a food chain that supports large animals, giant clams, and metre-long tube worms.

So, bacteria are the ultimate recyclers; but their contribution goes farther. Every student of microbiology learns about the "normal human microbial flora," the bacterial inhabitants of our skin, hair, mouth, lower gastrointestinal and urogenital tracts—bacteria that keep us healthy by preventing the growth of pathogens. The importance of this healthy flora is underscored by Rook and Stanfor (1998). They implicate our obsession with "cleanliness" with the increase in the developed world of asthma and other allergic and autoimmune phenomena. Their idea, called the "hygiene hypothesis," attempts to explain this trend by pointing out that, throughout its development, our immune system is bombarded with "germs." The immune system relies on this constant barrage to form and maintain its vast and complex networks of cells and messenger chemicals. Deprived of such an onslaught, the immune system can turn on itself producing allergies and autoimmune phenomena. Our hygiene fetish could even be pushing up the incidence of more serious autoimmune diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis (Hamilton, 1998). This thesis is gaining credence in the immunology community and complements a recent work by Tomes (1998) who describes how women, at the turn of the 19th century, were put in charge of the battle against bacteria in the home. This development grew into a huge marketing phenomenon that we still see today. Entrepreneurs invoked only those lessons of sanitary science and the germ theory that justified the sale of their particular product. Many businesses sought not only to appeal to what public health experts might regard as reasonable fears but also to exaggerate and intensify these fears in unscrupulous ways.

What about viruses? Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and are considered to be subcellular; that is, they consist of only nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) protected by a protein coat. Due to their simplicity, they must live inside of cells, plants, animals, and bacteria. They are too small and simple to accomplish the energy transformations performed by bacteria. How do they contribute? Oceanographer Curtis Suttle (1999) gives an example. He argues that viruses control life in the oceans (where they are present in concentrations of up to 100 million per teaspoon) by replicating and killing cells thereby regulating population numbers and maintaining biodiversity.

We see then that bacteria and viruses are essential to life on Earth: they recycle nutrients, create biodiversity, and form normal flora on plants and animals thus preventing the growth of pathogens. We cannot, therefore, cast all microorganisms as "bad,” worthy of purging with "antibacterial soaps.” Having said this, however, it is no secret that some bacteria and viruses cause hideous diseases in humans, plants, and animals. In the following discussion, we attempt to demonstrate that the pathogenicity of microbes as a group is enhanced by various destructive human activities: overcrowding and poverty, warfare and environmental destruction, activities resulting from economic growth, development and technological progress. These are all fuel for the engines of neoliberalism.

Just as Western medicine was making confident statements in the late 1960s about "the conquering of infectious disease” (Stewart as cited in Garret, 1994), two scary things began to occur: (a) bacteria were showing signs of "resistance" to various antibiotics and (b) "newly emerging" diseases were beginning to appear in human populations. The former problem came about largely because the ability of bacteria to mutate and develop "resistance" to various antibiotics was grossly underestimated (Davies, 1994). Bacteria cannot only develop an inheritable resistance to streptomycin, tetracycline, etc. (and these are, by the way, microbial products to begin with). The genes encoding these resistance determinants are very mobile and can easily be handed on to other bacteria. Our lavish use of antibiotics has thus created the emergence of bacterial superstrains in the form of old enemies (such as the tubercle bacillus) that are now multiple-drug resistant and, therefore, creating infections that are very hard to combat.

The second development has been termed the “revenge of the rainforest” (Marshall, 1994). He is referring to the simple fact that, as human populations increase, and we invade previously unexploited environments, the intrinsic viruses living within animal populations (e.g., mice, primates) "hop out" of their regular hosts, where they produce nothing more than cold-like symptoms, and cause devastating diseases in their new human hosts. Thus, we see the emergence of "new" infections including Ebola, Lassa, and Marburg.

A related phenomenon is described by Diamond (1998) in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo?" asks the author's New Guinean companion, Yali, referring to the vast consumerism of Western societies. The answer to this question becomes the central theme of the book. One of his primary lines of arguments links the rise of agriculture and urbanization with the development of "crowd" infectious diseases, many of which flourish in densely populated areas with poor sanitation. Diamond points out that (a) agriculture sustained higher human population densities, (b) that these populations were centred in cities, and that (c) the rise of agriculture was accompanied by domestication of animal populations which served as reservoirs of various "crowd" diseases.

His last point refers to the deliberate exposure of populations to pathogens as an act of warfare (Diamond, 1998). Biological Weapons Pose Challenge for Microbial Community ran the title of an article by Ronald Atlas (1998), co-chair of the ASM Public and Scientific Affairs Board Task Force on Biological Weapons Defence. In it he describes, what he calls, the "misuse" of microorganisms as weapons of mass destruction. The article goes on to propose guidelines to prevent both development of these weapons and the terrifying prospect of their falling into terrorist hands leading to unrest, violence, and warfare.

Long before scientists discovered that germs are responsible for diseases and that antidotes could cure these diseases, society strived to improve working and living conditions and important dimensions of human security to ensure peace and a healthy populace (Chernomas, 1999). Since then, we have moved from (a) a coexistence with the microbes, (b) through increasing of their disease-causing capacity, (c) through misuse of antibiotics and environmental destruction, and (d) to deliberate exploitation so as to enhance the suffering of others. A chilling thought.


As a preface to linking peace with neoliberalism and microbes, we must have an understanding of what is meant by peace. Peace is more than the absence of war. Peace requires special relationships, structures, and attitudes to promote and protect it (Gregor, 1999). Peace implies that love, compassion, human dignity, and justice are fully preserved. It entails appreciating that we are all interdependent and related to one another and are collectively responsible for the common good ("Declaration on the role," 1994). Peace generates equilibrium in social interactions, so that all the members of society can live in harmonious relations with each other. Where there is violence, injustice and absence of liberty, there is no peace (CCTP, 1998b). Fisk (2000) notes that there is negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of war or other forms of violence like terrorism and warfare, i.e., anti-militarism. People being socialized to achieve negative peace are taught the importance of, and skills necessary to, put out fires, stop conflict, after it has broken out (CCTP, 1998a). Positive peace represents the presence of economic, political, and cultural practices that contribute to the safe, fair and healthy living of citizens. Positive peace is society building by diminishing violence. This discussion will embrace both aspects of peace since the presence of negative peace negates the possibility of positive peace or, conversely, the presence of positive peace should mitigate conditions that could lead to negative peace (e.g., war, civil unrest, violence, disorder, riots, and abuse).

Fisk (2000) also set out a three-way distinction between: (a) education about peace, (b) education for peace, and (c) peace through the education process. Education about peace refers to accumulating knowledge, facts, and ideas about things that affect peace: social justice, tolerance, gender equality, social literacy, just and peaceable living, human rights, environmental security, human security, morality, diversity, and conflict and dispute resolution. Education for peace refers to a process wherein people learn ideologies, values, attitudes, moral standards, sensitivities to others, and new perceptions such that they are moved to take different actions than they did in the past. Fisk describes gaining peace through the education process. From this perspective, he appreciates that education, done right, will lead to a collection of individuals who strive for wisdom, clarity, cooperation, democracy, human potential, and a critical awareness of life's conditions. Education done right will lead to people who appreciate that the world is full of uncertainties but who have faith in the possibilities of the future. Education done the right way will sensitize people to appreciate that they have to face their own limitations, develop capacities for trust and commitment, and be willing to let go of their preconceived notions and values for the sake of new and greater knowledge and insights. People who work for the larger truths by diligently verifying facts and findings and who know it is necessary to live with uncertainty couched in human potential will have been educated to respect, strive for, and settle for nothing but peace and the fair, safe, and healthy living of all citizens.

Exploring the Synergy Between Neoliberalism, Microbes, and Peace


This in-depth discussion draws insights from all three of Fisk's (2000) ways to understand peace. Foremost, it is concerned with the notion of transforming society to a point where a culture of peace develops on a global level. This transformation involves a process, a way of life that promotes personal and societal well-being through developing empathy for others thereby creating a harmonious society. It also involves coexisting and developing mutually strong economies while maintaining national and personal security (Johnson, 1998), a scenario that is jeopardized by armed conflicts that are "ill-disguised neo-colonial [and neo-liberal] agendas using non-Western societies as pawns in the struggle for political and economic control [italics added]" (Dallmayr, 1998, p.13).

Progress toward a sustainable economy and human security is a central concern of this discussion because the absence of positive peace (including economic and political structures that ensure lack of violence, unrest, and war) can occur due to actions taken by those embracing the neoliberal philosophy. In principle, those people adhering to neoliberalism do not place any concern at all on social justice, harmony, environmental integrity, gender equality, social literacy, human rights, human security, morality, or diversity (the touchstones of peace) save that these factors do not impinge on resource procurement and allocation, economic growth, technological progress, development, and profit maximization. They feel justified in taking this position because of the underpinnings of neoliberalism: (a) individualism (each person is assumed to act absolutely independently of others and is assumed to be restricted only by the natural surroundings and NOT by any other human being), (b) a free market economy with no government intervention whatsoever, and (c) individual self-interest rather than mutual or societal interest.

Concern for equality, justice, gender, rights, and morality is foreign to anyone embracing neoliberalism. The only legitimate role for government is to make sure the free economy can run unencumbered. Ironically, neoliberalists will argue that healthy economic development is essential to peace, security, human rights, social justice, cultural pluralism and diversity, and democracy. These same people think neoliberal economics is regarded as the key to all doors for trade (finances and merchandise) and find it natural to measure the worth of men, women, and children by their effectiveness as an economic tool. This view is in total opposition to peace proponents who envision a world where economic, political, and social institutions exist to serve humanity not the other way round (International Movement for a Just World, 1997).

These two different views of the role of people in a healthy economy affect how we define poverty, progress, culture, freedom, and democracy and affect who has the power to determine and influence these values (International Movement for a Just World, 1997). Unfortunately, the neoliberal viewpoint prevails in today's world, leading to disrespect for a culture of peace except to guarantee that there is free trade, economic growth, and technological development. Those people embracing this paradigm feel justified in neglecting and exploiting labour and the environment and undermining social institutions, principles, and programs conducive to peace, including popular movements against oppressive institutions, if these actions lead to individualism, self interest, and a free market. This outcome is ironic since one could think that TNCs need "positive peace" in order to ensure productivity, a steady supply of healthy, human labour, and safe trade routes and healthy markets for their merchandise. But, instead, many TNCs use negative peace as a market for their capital to finance weapons, wars, and technology-based warfare, and some use negative peace for a market for trade of war-related merchandise, including virus-based goods and services. “Biological warfare is the intentional cultivation or production of pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses...for the purpose of producing disease and death of people [emphasis added]” (Rogers, Whitby & Dando, 1999, p.70).

To aid in the development of our discussion, we will draw on the human ecological perspective, which respects the inherent interdependence and reciprocal relationships between the human organism and its human built, socially constructed, and natural environments (Bubolz & Sontag, 1988). In this instance, we are concerned with the link between humanity, peace, the neoliberal global market (socially constructed environments), and one aspect of the natural environment, microbes. To reiterate, our basic line of reasoning is that adhering to the neoliberal ideology provides justification for exploiting the people and the ecosystems of the world that leads to the freeing of viruses and bacteria from their conventional habitats and modus operandi such that humanity is getting ill and the ecosystem is being raped, events that are inherently impacting peace and security of people and nations.


The militarization of societies, in response to the weapons industry and the increased social unrest, is a permanent characteristic of neoliberalism. Worse yet, under neoliberalism, the weak state tends to dedicate important human and nonhuman resources to the protection and subsidy of corporations and to deny protection to marginalized groups and the vulnerable ecosystems (Rodriguez, 1994). Under neoliberalism, the state is not the source of power; rather, power is held by the corporations and the financial centres of the world, comprising financial institutions that lend money to businesses. Their power exists because the capitalist (neoliberalist), who buys and sells money (called currencies), can sell a country’s money if he does not like the policies put in place by the country. He especially is inclined to do this if those policies infringe on profit, property ownership, or movement of goods and services. It is noteworthy that neoliberalists do not oppose government policies that favour subsidies or tax breaks for businesses. They do not, however, like government to spend money on social services or community because they do not concern themselves with the social conditions of their labour pool except to guarantee minimum wages, unorganized labour, and no worker conditions that interfere with production and profit. Recall that positive peace represents the presence of economic practices that contribute to the safe, fair, and healthy living of citizens. Lack of sanitary and safe working conditions can lead to "crowd" infectious diseases that flourish in densely populated areas with poor sanitation leading to civil unrest and lack of peace. This is another example of the implicit link between neoliberalism, peace, and microbes.

Related to the globalization of finance (moving money around the world in addition to moving goods and delivering services) is the potential for financial crisis (Singh, 1999). If too many capitalists pull out, a nation is left with a financial crisis that can lead to civil unrest, maybe war, and resultant threats to health, access to education, safety and sanitation, employment, etc. This threat is heightened because neoliberalists, who provide the finances that could lead to the crisis, are less and less accountable to governments, are accountable only to their shareholders to increase profit, have little or no development or environmental agendas, and have no responsibility for public participation in their transactions (Singh). This lack of accountability, coupled with an ideological inclination to devalue the human, social, and ecological sides of production, does not bode well for the presence of positive peace or the reduction of contagions or pathogens due to production activities.

Marcos (1997) characterizes neoliberalism as the Fourth World War and uses, as evidence, the conflict that has been provoked by the collapse of some nation states (e.g., Czechoslovakia, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, and USSR). Recent examples of this are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted after the bombings in the United States in September 2001. This prevailing absence of positive peace has lead to pockets of misery, dehumanized collections of people living in dire poverty, poor sanitation, ecological disasters, and inadequate shelter, clothing, or food. This situation is a breeding ground for the outbreak of "crowd" infectious diseases that emerge in conditions of densely populated, unhealthy, unstable areas. The link between neoliberalism, microbes, and peace becomes painfully evident, again.

It may seem contradictory but neoliberalistic globalization actually produces a fragmented world, full of isolated pieces, often in conflict with each other. Acción Zapastista de Austin (1996) discusses neoliberalism and violence explaining that neoliberalism seeks to disempower marginalized and fragmented groups by converting their differences and diversity into antagonisms along the lines of income, race, gender, and ethnicity. Neoliberalism's divide and conquer tactic, by turning people against each other, is completely justified given that it assumes that everyone acts independently of others and only in their own self-interest. Central to this antagonism is violence, which is especially manifested in situations characterized by poverty, hunger, urbanization, undereducation, disenfranchisement, and exposure to avoidable diseases. Violence is a form of negative peace.

One of the points made in the section on microbes is that our invasion of previously unexploited environments (especially the rain forest and deserts) has led to the release of latent viruses and bacteria which are harmful, sometimes lethal, to humans. Neoliberalists can justify extracting resources that used to be held in stewardship because they assume that high environmental costs are unavoidable, even to be expected, in the pursuit of profit and property ownership (Martinez & Garcia, 2000). Neoliberalist proponents assume (a) that the action that yields the greatest financial return to the firm or the individual (in the form of consumerism) is the one that is the most beneficial to society and that (b) ever-higher levels of consumer spending advance the well-being of society by stimulating greater economic output (Robbins, 1999). So, if economic growth requires unsustainable and unecological practices to gain scarce resources, it is justified. Perpetuation of this practice has already led to the release of pathogens, to a decline in the ability of the rain forests to provide clean air, and the destruction of the main source of the plants used for our modern day antibiotics! Indigenous peoples affected by these corporate practices not only get ill but also are often compelled to rebel against capitalist methods that take away their culture, traditional ways, and sustainability. Rebellions, uprisings, and protests work against positive peace, and lead, at best, to negative peace or lack thereof. Again, the link between microbes, peace and neoliberalism makes itself known: economic goals can often conflict with larger societal goals, including positive peace and ecological soundness.

Another point relevant to microbes is that human actions are crucial in each of the four steps necessary for someone to die of an infectious pathogen: (a) contact with an animal or water supply (called a vector) that carry (b) the pathogen which is capable of killing and manages to (c) invade our body’s immune system in (d) the absence of any measures to prevent the death from occurring. Contact is contingent on such things as changing or disturbing the natural or social environment with the latter referring to overcrowding and the former referring to such things as farming, clear cutting, and road building. Capitalists often use these tactics to access resources. Any steps to make the transmission of the pathogen easier can lead to the invasion of the human’s immune system. Poverty, overcrowding, lack of good sanitation, lack of potable water, lack of health and safety standards in the work place, and exposure to noxious fumes and chemicals (all part and parcel of the labour and living conditions conducive to much of third world working conditions) can lead to illness and disease contagion. Finally, microbes are very adaptable, which means that, even if we have developed antibiotics, through the gains of capitalism, we have also set ourselves up for new diseases because of overuse, misuse, or new versions of the pathogens (Robbins, 1999). If not managed properly, the culture of neoliberalism is conducive to a negative link between peace and microbes. Robbins illustrates that urbanization had led to yellow fever, malaria, cholera and the plague; that war and civil disorder have led to waterborne diseases and diphtheria; and that poor sanitation and hygiene have led to diarrheal diseases, river blindness, dengue, Guinea worm disease, and salmonella.

Unremitting poverty, despair, oppression, and exploitation (characteristics of many sweat shops and factories in third world countries) can lead to ill health and unrest (lack of positive peace). Because of neoliberalism, governments are finding it increasingly difficult to pursue independent policies for education, welfare, and health because these policies are often seen to be inconsistent with the interests of those controlling the capital, namely presidents and CEOs of large transnational corporations (TNCs), companies that operate in more than one country at a time (Singh, 1999). If a nation state feels that it cannot entrench policies that protect the environment, personal and income security, and health without jeopardizing the inflow of monies for factories, wages, and export, then unrest, injustices, illness, and disease soon follow. Again, the links between microbes (that cause disease), peace, and neoliberalism become too evident. Korten (1999) strongly argues that the alternative to liberalization and the new global economy is a global system of healthy market economies that function as extensions of local ecosystems to meet the needs of people and communities. Achieving this goal is compromised by the prevalence of the neo-liberal mindset that favours reducing government’s role in the public life of people so that the market can function on its own. Government’s support of wage control, worker and human rights, health (the microbes again), and environmental integrity is seen by neoliberalists as a barrier that prevents the free movement of capital (money), goods, and services. Lack of free movement compromises profit, returns on investments, and property ownership, hallmarks of neo-liberalism.


Where there is war, violence, injustice, exploitation, absence of liberty, and curtailment of popular movements (including movements related to labour, consumer, women, children, environment, and civil rights), there is no peace. We are hard pressed not to say simply that where there is neoliberalism, there can ultimately be no peace. It is interesting to note that the Industrial Revolution marked the first time that the private market (the playing field of neo-liberalists) was elevated to the central organizing principle of society. In earlier times, the market was just one of many forces around which society was organized including: religion, family, customs, traditions, and laws. The advent of science, technological evolution, capitalism, neoliberalism, and globalization has reinforced the paramount place of the market in our daily life to the point that peace, security, health, safety, and environmental integrity have become severely compromised (McQuaig, 1998).

McQuaig (1998) refers to our perceived “collective impotence” in being able to influence this juggernaut but dares us to rise up to the challenge. Heeding her challenge is crucial because “population growth, hunger, poverty, environmental devastation, disease, ethnic conflict, and oppression of indigenous peoples—all, in one way or another, find their origins in the drive of capital to profit, to keep the profit and to minimize the risks of capital investment” (Robbins, 1999, pp.111-112). The nature of the current links between neoliberalism, microbes, and peace need to be understood so that peace, security, and justice prevail with environmental integrity. To paraphrase Robbins: making the world safe for neoliberalism need not make the world unsafe for people. Appreciating the underlying neoliberal mindset of those in power better enables those with less power to gain a stronger voice. Also, Robbins reminds us that we have to understand the dynamics of the global system if we are to change it for the benefit of humankind and the ecosystem. We hope this paper, grounded in the human ecological perspective, has contributed to that understanding.


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