Can multinational corporations ever be green?

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Posted Oct 28 2012 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

This is my response to a marketing lady I met at the Royal Festival Hall last week, who will remain anonymous (unless you want to reveal yourself). You are very intelligent, and you care – our target audience, in other words. We had a fundamental disagreement about whether giant corporations can be sustainable – you think that it’s very important to green the corporate world, and I think it’s largely irrelevant, because, as I’ll try to explain, it’s the corporate system itself that’s the problem.

You did some work for PepsiCo, and changed the sourcing of their potatoes from cheap imports to UK suppliers only, thereby reducing spud miles. I understand why you’re proud of this, and I agree that it was a good thing to do. We’re on the wrong path, and what you did slowed us down a bit, but it didn’t change direction. It did, however, buy us a little more time to come up with a solution.

economy as casino

At the heart of the global economy is a bewildering array of stocks & shares, bonds, hedge funds, currency speculation, derivitaves, commodity futures and other forms of gambling. The global economy is a giant casino run by and for a tiny minority of the world’s population – the people who control the world’s biggest banks and corporations. You know it is – you’re too clever not to. Now this is the problematic bit as regards ecology – the casino is primed for growth, because a) people want a return on their investments (i.e. their bets in the casino) – Pepsico and all other corporations, as Joel Bakan explained in his book (and movie) the Corporation, are legally obliged to maximise returns for investors; b) there’s interest to pay on debts; and c) the fractional reserve banking system is like the croupier handing out chips that he has just manufactured from nothing – ballooning the amount of spending power in the casino. You knew about the first two things, obviously, but you didn’t know about the fractional reserve system – which isn’t surprising, as most people don’t. Often, when people come across the fractional reserve idea for the first time, they just can’t believe that this is a true description of where money comes from. See here for more background on this.

As an aside, let me just say here that this is not about individuals. You say that you met some really well-meaning people working for Pepsico, and I don’t doubt their sincerity. What I doubt is their analysis of the situation, and their understanding that it’s impossible to green the growth/casino system. Read on.

casino v stability

Ecology is being damaged extremely badly. You know this – it forms the basis of your concern. For people who don’t know it, see here. The engine behind that damage is the absurd attempt to achieve perpetual (i.e. endless, infinte, eternal) growth, fuelled by the casino. Perpetual growth could only be achieved if global ecology’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste without being degraded were infinite – which of course it isn’t. I could be wrong, but I guess you haven’t thought too much about the connection between ecological damage and the quest for perpetual economic growth, and again, most people haven’t, because corporate-owned media and governments constantly promote endless growth. See this.

So we have to stabilise the economy, but we can’t do that and have the giant casino, because the giant casino can’t operate in a stable economy, and a stable economy can’t be run by a giant casino. We can’t do both, and so we either have to forget about trying to stop ecological damage (which would amount to suicide), or we have to close the casino and make them all go and get proper jobs.

where power lies

But we can’t close the casino (yet) because the casino owners are in control. Governments are in their thrall, in their pay and in their pocket. See here for an explanation.

Here’s a scenario: imagine that in 100 years time, all the world’s electricity is provided by a moon-sized photovoltaic satellite, beaming back clean solar energy to earth, with no need for nuclear or coal-fired power stations. I think most people would agree that that would be a good idea, don’t you? Now what if that satellite was owned by Exxon? or Shell? Can you see that having the world’s energy supply in the hands of one company, or more specifically, the tiny group of people who control that company, would be a very, very bad idea in terms of democracy and security? And yet if we ever get that satellite, under the current system, it would be corporate-owned; we’re moving in exactly that direction when it comes to energy, water, food, clothing, health, housing, transport – all of life’s essentials.

As long as we have a global casino economy fuelling perpetual growth, and a political system dominated by corporate interests (i.e. making sure that we keep growth and the casino), nothing else we do makes much difference. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t grow food, shop local, use natural materials, install renewables – I think we should. But within the current system, it’s a case of one step forward, two back.

Corporate social responsibility? No – corporations only exist to maximise returns for investors, which promotes growth and damages ecology and democracy. Their ‘good works’ are to increase market share. If it doesn’t get more customers, it doesn’t happen, no matter how good it is. And more customers for the corporate sector pushes us faster down the wrong road.

we need a new idea

If we are to stop ecological damage (in other words, if we are to survive), we need an idea to take power from the banks and corporations, close the casino and come up with a better idea for running the human economy. The last time this was seriously attempted was over 100 years ago, and the idea was Marxism – which involves revolution. At the time, Bakunin told the ‘Internationals’ (international meetings where the idea was formulated) that if soldiers take power, they never let it go, and so we’d just be exchanging one set of undemocratic rulers for another. History has shown that Bakunin was right – everywhere that Marxism has been tried, that’s exactly what’s happened. We need a new idea for a democratic system – neither casino capitalism, where power is bought, nor attempts at communism, where power is taken by force. There is a dearth of such ideas at the moment. Anti-casino thought seems to be splintered into single issues – all of which are important, but won’t really help us to change direction without an overarching plan. But we’re not even talking about an overarching plan. This is the next step – to start talking.