Supping with the devil
Chris Tuppen, a senior manager with British Telecom, was granted space a couple
of years ago in a green pressure group's magazine, he made a plea for business
and the green movement to "settle their differences" and "work
together". But what he was advocating was simply a greener kind of
capitalism: more energy-efficient household appliances, for instance. His
acquiescence in the global economy and the profit imperative over people
"from the corner shop to the largest of multinationals" is typical of
the wrong-headed business approach to the fundamental environmental and social
problems we face today.
talk in the business community about "sustainable development" hides
the truth that corporate greed for economic growth is killing people and the
planet. Business advertising - £9.2 billion is spent in the UK every year -
even shapes the way information is disseminated - or not disseminated - in the
public arena. Oil companies drape themselves in pretty pictures of the
environment even while despoiling it, and biotech giants make specious claims
about using technology to feed the world while filling their pockets.
the business community was at all sincere about working in partnership for a
genuine green future it would reject endless economic growth, the profit
imperative and the deadly deceits of the global capitalist economy. It is a
common ploy to neuter opposition by assimilating it into the "business as
usual" brigade and grassroots organisations should not fall for it.
the UK, there is an influential player in the wider environmental movement
called the Green Alliance, set up by Tom Burke, an environmental adviser to the
previous (Conservative) government. Early in 1999, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
chose a meeting hosted by the Green Alliance to unveil a modest - make that very
modest - initiative to combat global warming. The audience comprised business
representatives, non-governmental organisations, civil servants and journalists.
It was Cook's first major speech on the international environment since
becoming Foreign Secretary 18 months earlier. Under the prosaic title of
"Energy Challenge for Business", Cook announced a green fund worth £500,000
to spend on clean energy projects in developing countries. From one perspective
Cook's climate challenge would kickstart much-needed renewable energy and
conservation projects in poor countries. From another perspective, the fund was
just a tax give-away to western companies to provide them with enhanced access
to energy markets in the South.
to its website, the Green Alliance "enables constructive problem-solving
between government, business and non-governmental organisations on difficult
issues." While I think that some of this can be marginally useful, my own
feeling is that such an approach does not address the deep-seated problems
afflicting society. I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when I was
telephoned by the Alliance's cheery publicity officer. She'd seen a letter
of mine in The Independent which compared the trivial cuts in greenhouse gas
emissions agreed under Kyoto - 5.2 per cent for developed countries - versus the
best estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the
reductions required to stabilise rising temperatures: at least 60 per cent.
"Why haven't you returned the application form I sent you to join the
Green Alliance?", she asked. "You seem like the sort of person we need
on board". An ominous statement indeed.
implicit assumption of the Green Alliance is that big business is essentially
well-meaning - that it wants to work in "partnership" with other
interested parties to "solve" social and environmental problems. Hold
that thought. Now, consider the machinations of the corporate lobby to weaken
environmental, labour and health safeguards through such organisations as the
World Trade Organisation, the World Business Council for Sustainable
Development, the European Roundtable of Industrialists, the Transatlantic
Partnership and other elite groupings. The level of intrigue, deception and
stealth involved in all of this would seem exaggerated even in a James Bond
movie. Under economic globalisation, governments not only bend over backwards to
attract transnational capital and corporations but seem intent on breaking the
backs of their own people in the Sisyphean task of becoming
biotech interests, for example. John Krebs, head of the new Food Standards
Agency in the UK, claimed recently in New Scientist that "the debate about
genetically modified crops has stagnated over the past few years" such that
we need an independent international panel of scientists akin to the IPCC
"to separate the facts from the propaganda". The
"independent" Food Standards Agency was set up by the government as
food scare after food scare piled up in Britain; in particular, the link between
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and new variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nv-CJD) in humans.
international panel of biotech scientists adjudicating impartially on GM crops
might sound nice and cosy, but once again there is a massive false premise.
Namely, that it's impossible to be neutral on a moving train, as Howard Zinn
observes. Professor Krebs, former head of the government's Natural Environment
Research Council, ignores the structure of economic and political power in
society. No mention of the corporations who have been pushing the technology
down the public's throat. Put bluntly, it is a fallacy to assume that good
science will direct society's development when we are already being propelled in
a direction that suits the interest of corporate and political elites at the
expense of everyone else.
the intense backstage business lobbying at the European Union for a biotech
patents directive - all part of a bigger picture of corporate fixing of the
rules to create a deregulated Europe, as Belen Balanya and co-authors from the
Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory convincingly show in their recent
book "Europe, Inc." Brussels is crawling with corporate lobbyists.
Inevitably, there are groups devoted specifically to boosting the biotechnology
industry. The most important of these is EuropaBio, an umbrella organisation of
virtually all the major players such as Bayer, Novartis, Monsanto Europe, Nestlé,
Rhône-Poulenc, Solvay and Unilever. According to the multinational public
relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which was responsible for setting up the
infamous Global Climate Coalition, EuropaBio has an "indispensable direct
role in the [EU] policy-making process".
public opposition to GM food rose to fever pitch, Burson-Marsteller advised the
industry not to participate in public debates. Instead, advised the PR firm, it
should be left to "those charged with public trust in this area -
politicians and regulators - to assure the public that biotech products are
safe". It is one example of governments being used as tools by corporate
interests. Rather than providing profit-making opportunities for corporations
through biotechnological fixes, we should be addressing the fundamental
political and economic conditions that maintain global poverty - in both the
developing and "developed" countries.
one other example of governments as tools of elite interest. Western governments
continue to channel billions of dollars of public subsidies into the fossil fuel
industry while renewable options languish. In the meantime, sea levels and
global temperature rise dangerously, polar ice melts and the frequency and
intensity of catastrophic weather events - floods, hurricanes, droughts -
so where does the Green Alliance's much-vaunted "constructive
problem-solving" come into all of this? What evidence is there that
transnational corporations pay more than lip service to such a notion? Instead,
we need immense public pressure to make business and government do the right
thing. Indeed, the ultimate goal has to be to devolve power to local
communities, something which can only come about at the expense of the existence
of enormous business conglomerates. Susan George rightfully says in her recent
book "The Lugano Report" that "we have to oppose not just what
corporations do, but what they are". In other words, big business is
inherently unaccountable and anti-democratic, and has to be fundamentally
reformed. As green activist Steven Gorelick says in the title of a report last
year, echoing the late E. F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful, Big is
all means, let's work with locally-based small and medium-scale enterprises
which demonstrate the capacity for ecological development and social justice.
But the large corporations will have to be fought tooth and nail if there is
going to be a healthy future for planet and people. Sadly, as long as the Green
Alliance and others of their ilk fail to tackle societal problems at a root
level, fail to work solely with progressive grassroots organisations, and fail
to challenge the inherently unethical agenda of western governments and big
business, they remain a part of the problem.
what happened when I emailed all of this to the Green Alliance's well-meaning
publicity officer? My message bounced back after 30 days with a rider saying
that the message hadn't been collected by the recipient. Return to sender! No
doubt just an electronic hitch - or does the truth hurt so much?
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer based in Southampton, UK. His first book, "Private Planet", will be published next year by Jon Carpenter (Charlbury, UK).