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Supping with the devil


David Cromwell

When

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.

Vague

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.

If

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.

In

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.

According

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.

The

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

"internationally competitive".

Take

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.

An

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.

Recall

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".

When

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.

Just

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 -

increase alarmingly.

And

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

Subsidised".

By

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.

And

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).