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Burning The Planet For Profit


After 4.6 billion years of planetary history, we may become the first species to monitor its own extinction. In impressive detail, humankind is amassing evidence of devastating changes in the atmosphere, oceans, ice cover, land and biodiversity.

And yet mass media, politics, the education system and other realms of public inquiry demonstrate a stunning capacity to focus on what does not really matter. Meanwhile, the truly vital issues receive scant attention to the point of invisibility: namely, the parlous prospects for humanity’s survival and the root causes underlying the global environmental threat.

Current patterns of ‘development’ and consumerism, fuelled annually by billions of advertising dollars, are unsustainable. But huge corporations and powerful investors have governments and societal institutions in a stranglehold, delivering policies that demand endless ‘growth’ on a finite planet.

The Corporate Killers

Take the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the most influential business pressure group in the UK. Friends of the Earth (FoE) notes that the core objective of the CBI, and other “corporate lobby groups who favour short-term profit over sustainable development”, is to promote endless opportunities for business ‘growth’, and to do so by bending the ear of the UK government. (Friends of the Earth, ‘Hidden Voices: The CBI, corporate lobbying and sustainability’, June 2005)

FoE reported: “many companies are using their influence over Government to promote public policies that are bad for communities and the environment.” As years of New Labour in power have shown: “the Government seems to readily accept the CBI arguments at face value.” A major consequence is that the government “is failing to reach its targets to reduce greenhouse gases because it is promoting policies that encourage more pollution, such as significantly expanding airports following intense lobbying by big business lobby groups.”

Tony Juniper, head of FoE in England & Wales, observes that the “CBI agenda is a simple one – to increase deregulation and reduce business taxes.” There are “serious concerns about how the CBI uses the threat of potential damage to UK business and job losses to oppose regulations that would improve workers’ rights, benefit the environment and deliver economic benefits.” (FoE, ibid.)

Thus Sir Digby Jones, CBI director-general, criticised even the government’s modest target to reduce carbon dioxide as “risking the sacrifice of UK jobs on the altar of green credentials.” (Andrew Taylor, ‘Jobs warning over tough move on emissions’, Financial Times, January 20, 2004). Note the standard rhetorical device of expressing concern for “jobs” when the focus of business worries is, in fact, “profits.”

The CBI not only has a discernible influence over state policies, the government is actually “in thrall to the CBI.” FoE explains why:

“There is a clear ‘alignment of values’ between the CBI and many similar figures in Government [in] that they broadly agree in minimising Government intervention in the market (ie neo-liberal economics).”

Moreover, the CBI is able to get “critical comments on Government policy put out through the media, which obviously attracts Government attention. This is further entrenched by many business journalists who simply do not challenge the CBI claims and accept them as representing totally the views of business.” (FoE, ibid.)

As Media Lens has noted before, the corporate media industry is a vital component of the business world. It is therefore not surprising that journalists working in the business sections of the media – indeed, throughout the news media as a whole – promote corporate aims.

Corporate Defenders of Climate Myths

There are other corporate groups which, like the CBI, are determined to prioritise short-term greed. One of them is the Cato Institute, a US “non-profit public policy research foundation” which “seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate” to promote the “traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.”

This perspective satisfies the Institute’s sponsors who mainly consist of “entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express, and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation.” (‘”Evidence-based” research? Anti-environmental organisations and the corporations that fund them’, October 19, 2005; www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=2099)

Among Cato’s sponsors are ExxonMobil, Chevron Texaco, Tenneco gas, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and Merck, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and many others, including those with business interests here in the UK. Shell Oil Company, a sister company of Shell in Europe, is a past sponsor of the Cato Institute.

One of the Institute’s “adjunct scholars” is Steven Milloy who publishes a website devoted to exposing “junk science.” Milloy has a background in lobbying for the tobacco industry. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, analysts of the ‘spin’ industry, have pointed out that “junk science” is the term that “corporate defenders apply to any research, no matter how rigorous, that justifies regulations to protect the environment and public health. The opposing term, ‘sound science,’ is used in reference to any research, no matter how flawed, that can be used to challenge, defeat, or reverse environmental and public health protection.” (Corporate Watch, ibid.)

The Cato Institute has published reports with titles such as ‘Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Global Warming’, and ‘Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.’ In May 2003, in response to a report by the Worldwatch Institute which linked climate change and severe weather events, Jerry Taylor, the Cato Institute’s “director of natural resource studies” retorted:

“It’s false. There is absolutely no evidence that extreme weather events are on the increase. None. The argument that more and more dollar damages accrue is a reflection of the greater amount of wealth we’ve created.” (www.exxonsecrets.org/html/orgfactsheet.php?id=21)

Another major US-based lobby group whose tentacles of influence extend across the Atlantic is the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful trade association for the US oil industry – an industry which has sister companies in many other countries, including the UK.

Among the API’s members are Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, BP Amoco and Shell. Researcher Robert Blackhurst has described how the API has “sustained a long guerrilla campaign against climate scientists.” A memo leaked to the New York Times in 1998 exposed its strategy of investing millions to muddy the science on climate change among “congress, the media and other key audiences.” (Blackhurst, ‘Clouding the atmosphere’, The Independent, September 19, 2005)

The API recently funded a scientific paper in the journal Climate Research denying that 20th century temperatures had been unusually high, giving well-publicised ammunition to climate sceptics. After finding the paper’s methods and assumptions had been flawed, five of the journal’s editors resigned.

Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an Amsterdam-based research and campaign group, notes that “Shell and BP Amoco, both formerly ardent critics of global warming theory, have shifted their strategies dramatically.” CEO continues:

“These masters of climate greenwash have undergone expensive corporate makeovers and now present themselves as leaders in reducing CO2 emissions and supporting renewable energy.” (www.corporateeurope.org/greenhouse/greenwash.html)

Shell and BP Amoco employ a sophisticated public relations approach:

“Expensive TV and newspaper advertisements portraying an environmentally-friendly image are at the heart of this strategy. In many cases, small-scale environmental projects which the companies fund are used to justify the green credentials of the corporation as a whole – projects which often cost less than the advertisements used to showcase them to the general public… Both Shell and BP Amoco continue to increase oil production year after year and have no intention of changing that in the next decades.” (CEO, ibid.)

Corporate news media rarely report the influence of corporate lobby groups on governments, or expose their expensive PR campaigns, and how detrimental these business activities are for the climate stability of the planet.

The news media also take capitalism as a given, much like the laws of physics. What rare discussion there might be is only permitted to reinforce the corporate prejudice that the system is irreplaceable.

The ‘Ecowarrior’ and the War Criminal

For instance, the Independent newspaper (London) recently granted extensive space to Sir Jonathan Porritt, formerly a great green hope in Britain, to promote his new book, ‘Capitalism: As If The World Matters’.

He believes that “the emerging solutions [to the climate crisis] have to be made within the embrace of capitalism.” (Porritt, ‘How capitalism can save the world’, Independent Extra, 8-page supplement, Independent, November 4, 2005)

Porritt, Blair’s top environmental adviser, fails to see that current government policies are almost wholly opposed to social justice and environmental health. Instead, he claims that “almost all key policy processes continue to move slowly in the right direction” and that “the benefits of today’s globalisation process still outweigh the costs.”

For Porritt, once leader of the Green Party in England & Wales, this: “means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it. It means embracing capitalism as the only overarching system capable of achieving any kind of reconciliation between ecological sustainability, on the one hand, and the pursuit of prosperity and personal wellbeing, on the other.” As for current ecological activism: “Unless it throws in its lot with this kind of progressive political agenda, conventional environmentalism will continue to decline.”

We are to believe that Tony Blair – forever bending to the will of business and exposed as one of the most cynical and dishonest politicians in living memory – is at the vanguard of this “progressive political agenda”:

“I admire a lot about him [Blair]. I do, genuinely. I have to keep saying this because people forget it: on climate change, if he hadn’t done what he has done, we would be looking at a world in which there was no political leadership on this agenda.” (Marie Woolf, ‘Jonathon Porritt: The constant ecowarrior’, The Independent, November 6 2005)

The Independent, owned by billionaire Sir Tony O’Reilly, can manage to provide an eight-page supplement for a former ‘ecowarrior’ to explain why environmentalism must throw in its lot with capitalism.

But there are no multi-page supplements to present community initiatives and grassroot debates around the world on alternatives to the present disastrous system. We await the day when the Independent, or any other mainstream newspaper, publishes a major supplement on, for example, participatory economics, a radical vision detailed by ZNet’s Michael Albert (see Albert, ‘Parecon: Life After Capitalism’, Verso, London, 2003; and www.parecon.org).

Tony Blair has put down his corporate cards on the table, declaring bluntly:

“The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially because of a long-term environmental problem.” (Andrew Balls and Alan Beattie, ‘Insurance for terror risk is “key to Gaza”‘, Financial Times, September 16, 2005)

But Ross Gelbspan, author and journalist, points to the essential truth that economics is subservient to nature, not the other way around:

“…nature’s laws are not about supply and demand. Nature’s laws are about limits, thresholds, and surprises. The progress of the Dow does not seem to influence the increasing rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet; the collapse of the ecosystems of the North Sea will not be arrested by an upswing in consumer confidence.” (Gelbspan, ‘Boiling Point’, Perseus Books, 2004, pp. 128-129)

David Cromwell is co-editor with David Edwards of Media Lens (www.medialens.org). Their book, ‘Guardians Of Power – The Myth Of The Liberal Media’, has just been published by Pluto Press, London (www.plutobooks.com).

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