ZNet Interviews David Cromwell

(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, Private Planet, is about? What is it trying to communicate?


Capitalist society, so we are told by authority, is inextricably linked with ‘democracy’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘openness’. But rational examination of the post-WWII historical record reveals the appalling gap between the ‘peaceful’ intent of Western power and its ruinous effects. Victims abound – in SE Asia, Indonesia, Latin America, as well as at home in the ‘rich’ West: all ‘beneficiaries’ of a centralised state-corporate system built upon global poverty, environmental destruction and injustice.


The corporate attempt to privatise the planet is camouflaged using neutral-sounding words and phrases such as ‘globalisation’, ‘neoliberal’ and ‘free trade’. Globalisation is being sold to the public by politicians, the business community, and the media as ‘inevitable’, ‘civilised’ and ‘just’. It takes considerable effort to strip away the euphemism and jargon to reveal the reality: that globalisation, in essence, involves the subordination of the well-being of people and planet to short-term corporate profit.


Meanwhile, the planet is warming at twice the rate previously suspected. One-third of the world’s ecosystems have been lost in just twenty-five years because of human pressure. And billions of people still live in absolute poverty. At the same time, global markets and transnational capital flows are growing apace and wealth is being concentrated amongst a few elite interests, not spread around the globe.


Could there be a connection between all these factors? And, if so, what can be done?


History proves that ordinary people have the power to change things: the abolition of slavery in the United States; the promotion of workers’ rights by trade unions; the suffragette movement, giving women the right to vote; the victories won by peace, feminist and black activists in the 1960s; the demand to cut greenhouse gas emissions; popular protest at Seattle, Washington, Prague and Genoa to drop Third World debt and supplant global capitalism with fair, sustainable policies . None of these progressive developments were driven by the largesse of big business or politicians, but by the force of popular pressure.


In Private Planet, I examine how and why the forces of globalisation are opposing ecological sustainability, human rights and social justice – and draws on examples from around the world to show what we can do to reverse the process. For make no mistake about it – centralised state and corporate power is vulnerable to significant grassroots awareness and activism. There is ample cause for hope and cautious optimism.



(2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?


I started seriously researching and writing the book a month before my first son, Sean, was born in September 1998. At first sight, perhaps, not the most logical time to start a book project and certainly not particularly feasible without a very supportive (and/or resigned!) partner. But becoming a father for the first time was certainly a motivating factor in preparing and writing the book: an attempt for me, at least, to get a grip on some of the forces that are shaping society and our future for us and future generations.


The book’s wide-ranging content was shaped, obviously, by my upbringing and my experiences. I come from a working-class background in the west of Scotland. My father, especially, was (and is) a significant influence on my political (and other) education. As a graduate in geography, and someone with a keen interest in nature, he instilled in my brother and myself a great love of the Scottish countryside: both the natural and human forces that have molded it. Perhaps this is where my concern for the environment, a major topic of ‘Private Planet’, originates.


In 1988, a year of exceptional weather in the United States and elsewhere, I happened to be based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Although I wasn’t involved in climate research then, I became aware of the climate problem for the first time. Ironically, I then spent the next five years working as an exploration geophysicist for a major oil company, Shell, in The Netherlands: an educational experience to see from the inside, and from the bottom of the pile, how one large transnational corporation works! I left in 1993 to take up a research position in oceanography and climate in Southampton.


All through these different periods, I was starting to see connections between poverty and injustice, corporate power and climate change, western foreign policy and propaganda. Being somewhat naive, foolhardy even, I thought I might try to research such connections – all, at root, symptomatic of the systemic failure of modern society – and present them in an accessible way. I’m not an expert (but what is an ‘expert’ anyway, and why trust them?!) in any of the topics covered, but with the advice of a number of helpful campaigners, writers and activists, I thought I’d make a stab at it.


Around the time of the WTO meeting in Seattle, in December 1999, I completed the manuscript and sent it off to the publisher, Jon Carpenter. His response made it clear that I was some way off way from fulfilling my objectives! I needed to draw the links between subject areas more closely. I continued to work on the book for over a year, now with a second son, Stuart, born in August 2000. The book was finally published in September 2001, just a few days before 9-11, in fact.



(3) What are your hopes for Private Planet? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


The principal aim of Private Planet was, to be honest, a selfish one – to see if I could write a book that at least attempted to make links between the environment, social justice and the cancer of capitalism. On those terms, it’s hard for me to gauge its success, though it has been quite warmly received by people and publications I respect. One sign of success, for me, is that writing the book led to me meeting up with the writer and media analyst David Edwards, who has become a great friend and collaborator. Indeed, last year we set up MediaLens.org (with webmaster Phil Chandler): we’ve been sending out regular media alerts that challenge the mainstream media, in particular the British left-liberal media. The underlying aim is not to change the mainstream media, but to enhance critical public awareness and compassion for others. At root, that’s what counts to me as ‘success’.

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