February 16, 2005


Rampant Corporate Globalisation And The Climate Crisis

"Our continuing uneconomic growth makes us complicit in a process that is triggering an ecological catastrophe for our children and generations beyond them. They will justifiably sit in judgment on our failure to have prevented its devastating consequences knowing that we chose to look the other way.” (Mayer Hillman, environmentalist and author)

A Fat Cat Laments

The audacity of corporate propaganda still has the capacity to make us gasp. Consider the astonishing attack on nongovernmental organisations launched at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of Business Industry. "The pendulum is swinging too far in favour of the NGOs”, Jones claimed. “The World Economic Forum is caving in to them. Davos has been hijacked by those who want business to apologise for itself."

According to Jones, business is the only route to cleaner water, better healthcare, better education and better roads. "Have I heard that in Davos? Have I hell. We have heard how we are greedy and how we pollute, and how we have got to help Africa. But a celebration of business? No."

Jones is “fed up with business being characterised as greedy”. He goes on: "Has anybody ever thought about the greed of the consumer? The consumer consistently wants more for less and business is expected to deliver it." (Larry Elliott ‘CBI chief claims Davos hijacked by NGOs’, The Guardian, January 31, 2005)

For the World Economic Forum to be “caving in” under the onslaught of grassroots groups really must feel like the end of the world to those who like to shape the planet’s affairs in their own narrow interests.

But Jones’s concern is misplaced. The legal obligation to shareholders to maximise profits in pursuit of endless economic growth, even as the finite planet groans, does face a real obstacle. Namely, that the wealth generated by global capitalism – shared ever more unequally in society - is rapidly being overtaken by the damage that the system itself is wreaking. If existing trends continue, the Global Commons Institute estimates that damages due to climate change will actually exceed global GDP by 2065. (http://www.gci.org.uk/papers/env_finance.pdf)

Global capitalism has an inbuilt death wish that will likely take most of us with it – if we let it.

We Live In A Capitalist Society!

Meanwhile, at the other end of the corporate spectrum, where cuddly CEOs ‘share your pain’ at the prospect of climate catastrophe, we find Shell’s Lord Ron Oxburgh. According to Oxburgh, the chairman of Shell’s UK arm, governments must take action now to avert “disaster”. "Whether you like it or not, we live in a capitalist society”, he said. “If we at Shell ceased to find and extract and market fossil fuel products while there was demand for them, we would fail as a company. Shell would disappear as any kind of economic force." (Saeed Shah, ‘Shell boss warns of global warming “disaster” ’, The Independent, 26 January, 2005)

As the above suggests, cracks do occasionally appear in the façade of what passes for reasoned debate in mainstream culture - uncomfortable truths can sometimes be glimpsed. Yes, we +do+ live in a capitalist society: that is the nub of the problem. The very nature of the global economic system is unsustainable. It demands limitless economic growth; ‘growth’ which results in terrible damage in terms of human and animal suffering, and environmental devastation.

Oxburgh’s argument is that it is up to government “to provide a new regulatory framework that would reduce the incentive to consume fossil fuels”. For Oxburgh, and many corporate chiefs, an attractive part of the climate ‘solution’ is to bury carbon underground. But: “The timescale might be impossible, in which case I'm really very worried for the planet because I don't see any other approach." ('Oil chief: my fears for planet. Shell boss's 'confession' shocks industry', David Adam, The Guardian, June 17, 2004)

Oxburgh's comments fit a long-standing pattern of 'greenwashing' propaganda: accept that there is a problem but move the debate away from genuinely sustainable solutions that threaten corporate power and profits. Thus he plumps for the techno-fix, business-oriented option of carbon sequestration "because I don't see any other approach."

Like all industry chiefs, Oxburgh has a blind spot that conveniently overlooks how state-corporate power is relentlessly feeding a suicidal system of globalisation. Businesses and governments, and their allies in the media and the public relations industry, are fiercely resisting "other approaches" that are, in fact, being debated and developed by citizens, communities and grassroots organisations around the world.

It might be an uncomfortable thought for the head of a giant oil company, but whether dangerous climate change can be averted is dependent on the extent to which today's corporate-shaped society can shift to one based on genuine democracy. Tragically, political parties across the world, particularly in the US and UK, are converging like never before under the pressure of big business. As US philosopher John Dewey once observed, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business” - a reality that has reached epic heights today with the rise of the world's giant multinationals.

Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney, explains that corporate law ensures that the people who run corporations "have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money". Failing this duty, Hinkley writes, can leave directors and officers open to being sued by shareholders:

"Corporate law thus casts ethical and social concerns as irrelevant, or as stumbling blocks to the corporation's fundamental mandate. That's the effect the law has inside the corporation. Outside the corporation the effect is more devastating. It is the law that leads corporations to actively disregard harm to all interests other than those of shareholders. When toxic chemicals are spilled, forests destroyed, employees left in poverty, or communities devastated through plant shutdowns, corporations view these as unimportant side effects outside their area of concern. But when the company's stock price dips, that's a disaster." (Hinkley, 'How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility', January/February 2002 issue of Business Ethics, see articles section www.medialens.org)

Global society is in the grip of a system of economic and political power that views human suffering and impending environmental collapse as incidental to the core issues of revenues generated and costs incurred. But this is not up for discussion in the mainstream media.

Veteran environmentalist Mayer Hillman, author of ‘How we can save the planet’ (Penguin, 2004), notes that the mass media is “complicit in this frightening state of denial.” Hillman points out that the “blind ideological commitment to a burgeoning economy is fundamentally frustrating attempts to protect the global environment adequately.” (Hillman, ‘Clarion call on climate change’, BBC news online, 6 February 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_show/4240697.stm)

With current targets on reductions of emissions clearly insufficient, only the policy of contraction and convergence proposed by the Global Commons Institute (www.gci.org.uk) has a reasonable prospect of success. This would entail a rapid convergence to equal per capita rationing of carbon emissions within an overall contraction of global emissions to an internationally agreed safe level. Hillman likens the present-day emergency to the second world war when Britain saw stringent rationing of resources.

In order to achieve zero net emissions in the timescale required, governments +have+ to take tough decisions on energy use and conservation. As environmental journalist Andrew Rowell has noted: “The only moral and rational reaction to global warming is disinvestment in the processing of all fossil fuels.” (Rowell, The Big Issue, 15-21 February, 1999)

Governments need to invest massively in energy conservation and renewable energy technologies and building design, by diverting tax breaks and subsidies from, in particular, the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries. In addition, energy policy should not be in the hands of a few large corporations. There needs to be a rapid shift towards public ‘ownership’ of energy, just as is the case with water or schools in some countries and in some US states. As solar energy activists Daniel Berman and John O’Connor point out, “Democracy is a false promise if it does not include the power to steer the energy economy.” (Berman and O’Connor, Who Owns the Sun?, Chelsea Green, 1996, p.245)

Mumbling Without Irony

A conference titled ‘Avoiding dangerous climate change’ was held at the Meteorological Office in Exeter earlier this month. Off the agenda was any recognition that unsustainable economic growth on a finite planet might be at the root of the problem. Nor, as we saw above, is it a topic that crosses the minds of mainstream editors and reporters. Instead, the media faithfully relay the illusion that tough western leaders gathered at plush meetings of the G8, UN, World Bank, WTO or the EU are ‘tackling the climate problem’.

Sometimes the illusion is compounded by the myth that governments are listening attentively to the input from the Green movement. Thus: “Mr Blair - who will speak to an audience of business-men and environmentalists on Tuesday - last week held a rare meeting with the leaders of Friends of the Earth, the Green Alliance, Greenpeace, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and WWF-UK to seek their ideas.” (Geoffrey Lean, 'You ain't seen nothing yet: after Hurricane Ivan, prepare for the return of El Nino, Independent on Sunday, 12 September, 2004)

Lean, a long-time environment correspondent much admired by green NGOs, tells his readers that Blair “is determined to use his forthcoming chairmanship of both the EU and the G8 group of the world's most powerful nations to revitalise international action and is considering pushing for agreement on a level of warming that the planet must not be exceed.” (Ibid.)

This is the standard media view: on climate change, Blair is ‘determined’, ‘committed’ and ‘listening’ to the major NGOs. Thus: “The Prime Minister is hosting a ‘power breakfast’ of business leaders, politicians and environmentalists at Downing Street on Wednesday, where he will unveil a new five-year strategy to combat global warming.” Mr Blair is calling for Britain to "pull together as a country".

However, this means little more than “a call for the public to be far more environmentally aware when they buy cars, homes and household goods”. (Severin Carrell, 'Blair's green summit' under fire ', Independent on Sunday, 5 December, 2004)

Previously determined challengers of this nonsense have fallen into line. Sir Jonathon Porritt, former leader of the Green Party and Friends of the Earth - now head of the government’s sustainable development commission - reproduces the worst habits of the “grey politics” he used to revile, mumbling without irony: “Labour's modernisation programme should be driven by the principles of sustainable development.”

Forever on hand to provide the media with important insights into the life and loves of his close friend, Prince Charles, Porritt claims: "Blair really does care about both Africa and the climate change and broader environmental issues.”

Of course he does. But then Blair “really did” care about Iraqi WMD and links to al-Qaeda, too. Quizzically scratching his head, Porritt tells us that Blair and Brown “talk up the seriousness” of climate change on the one hand, “and on the other they fail to bring in the raft of policies that are actually necessary to change corporate behaviour.” (Amanda Brown, Press Association, 'Modernisation "must include sustainable development"', 11 January, 2005)

It has somehow escaped Porritt’s attention that New Labour has always been beholden to corporate power. The consequences for any meaningful action on climate change are likely to be dire. Meanwhile, real options allowing us to reduce carbon emissions and reverse the global juggernaut of unsustainable economic ‘growth’ do exist.

But the likelihood of the media exploring these is minimal, unless sustained public pressure forces them onto the agenda.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. Write to one or more of the journalists and editors below. It is more effective to write in your own words. You could ask questions along the following lines:

Why, in your reports on climate change, do you not address the unsustainable nature of endless economic growth on a finite planet? Why do you so rarely draw linkages between the likelihood of climate catastrophe and the core practices of global corporations and investors? Where are your in-depth reports highlighting the obstructive tactics of business to sustainable policies? Why do your climate reports fail to mention the billions spent by business and the PR industry in promoting unsustainable consumer consumption?

Write to Geoffrey Lean, environment editor of the Independent on Sunday:
Email: g.lean@independent.co.uk

Write to Michael McCarthy, environment editor of the Independent:
Email: m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Write to John Vidal, environment editor of the Guardian:
Email: john.vidal@guardian.co.uk

Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news:
Email: helen.boaden@bbc.co.uk

Write to Jim Gray, editor of Channel 4 New:
Email: jim.gray@itn.co.uk

Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:
Email: editor@medialens.org


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