Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saving the World at Earth Summit 2012 (Part 2)

If the “Earth Summit” convened by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 is to save the world from sliding into certain environmental disaster, it must address the rapacious ecological impact of giant corporations.

How to do that when corporations control the world economy and have enormous influence on the policies of governments?

To know what must be done we have to understand how corporations got so big and powerful – and why they are so vulnerable now to citizen action.

The joint stock corporations which now control world markets have only been around since the 17th century. The first of them was the East India Company, which was formed by a number of rich merchants in London and given a monopoly of the India trade by Queen Elizabeth. Soon other countries in Europe followed suit, and that first generation of corporations laid the foundations of a global economy.

They established colonies in Asia and the Americas, and the transatlantic slave trade out of Africa. They brought indentured workers from Asia to the Americas and Africa. They created a global trade in sugar, opium, tea, calico and silk. In the 18th century they also became the main vehicles for the industrial and technological revolutions in Europe.

In doing all this, corporations with the most resources had a natural advantage, and as smaller competitors fell by the wayside, the survivors became ever bigger. To manage their giant budgets and processes they needed huge bureaucracies with top-down systems of command and control. Such systems could not cope with volatility, so corporations sought to create stable economic and social conditions.

They did that in several ways. One was by getting involved in politics and ensuring business-friendly legislation. Another was through advertising (an industry pioneered by corporations to shape the social atitudes underlying mass demand). Perhaps the most important avenue of influence was the mass media, control of which came to be concentrated in a very few mega-corporations.

As long as the Cold War was in progress, many developing countries were suspicious of corporate power and did not allow them free entry into their economies. Such resistance ended in the 1990s, and as developing countries clamoured for corporate investments, it accelerated economic globalization. The trade patterns that emerged were insane. Investments flowed mainly to a handful of countries in East and South-East Asia where corporations could make the most profit. China became the “workshop of the world,” producing all matter of goods, including cheap plastic toys, and shipping them around the world.

This was of course, hugely wasteful of energy, for many commodities, including petroleum, had to be shipped in bulk to China to enable the reverse flow of manufactures. There was a dramtic growth of environmental pollution. Scientists noticed a "brown cloud" over all of Asia, a poisonous mix of chemicals, eroded top-soil and sand blown from rapidly expanding deserts. In the middle of the Pacific there grew a floating island of garbage, mainly discarded plastic items, as large as the continental United States.

How can the Earth Summit in 2012 change this awful reality?

It must base its action on three realities.

The first is the nature of the problem. Corporations are the principal cause of environmental degradation.

The second is that corporations create most of the wealth in the world; thus, any effort at change must be evolutionary and result in a reorientation rather than a destruction of corporate capacities.

The third reality is the irrelevance of factors that made mega corporations necessary and efficient in the heyday of heavy industrialization. The information and communications revolutions have made networks much more efficient than hierarchical bureaucracies.

What is the strategy for action that the Earth Summit must construct on these realities? That will be in the next post. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Can 2012 Earth Summit Save The World? (Part 1)

[News: The UN General Assembly has called for a new "Earth Summit" in 2012.]

Five decades after biologist Rachel Carson’s best-selling book “Silent Spring” rang the alarm about environmental pollution, world leaders will gather for the fourth time to deal with the rapidly worsening problem.

Their previous meetings achieved limited but important goals; in 2012 they have an opportunity – if they think big – to reverse the trend and save the world form certain environmental disaster.

What exactly does thinking big mean?

It is best explained by looking at the previous three meetings.

The first UN Environment Conference in 1972 (Stockholm), put the issue on the world’s political agenda. It led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro agreed on a voluminous action programme. Dubbed Agenda 21, it acknowledged the magnitude of problems affecting the planet’s eco-system and identified “major groups” that should be activated to take remedial action.

The 2002 “Rio+10” conference at Johannesburg elaborated on the implementation of Agenda 21.

At all three meetings, the focus was heavily on symptoms. The conferences identified specific problems – climate change, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation etc. – and initiated separate courses of action to deal with them. The core issue of why so much bad stuff was happening was dealt with only tangentially, with blame apportioned mainly to "unsustainable" patterns of production and consumption. That approach was like that of a physician prescribing symptomatic treatment for a patient suffering from cancer.

As a result, the implementation of Agenda 21 quickly lost focus and energy. Problems have been worsening rapidly as billions of people seek to “develop” by joining industrialized countries in an ever more global economy.

To remedy the situation the 2012 meeting must consider root causes. If governments will not do it, civil society must undertake the task. In either case, implementation will depend heavily on citizen action.

Even a cursory review of historical trends will show that all the most serious problems are rooted in the nature of industrial civilization. Two factors about it are especially problematic.

The first is enormity of scale (yes, size has a moral dimension). The environmental impact of a local population using wood from a forest is quite different from a corporation selling it to a global market. One harvests to meet a need, the other devastates for profit. 

The second factor is that the central institution of industrial civilization, the commercial corporation, is blind to moral, aesthetic and natural claims unrelated to its profit. The wilful nature of that blindness is indicated by the monumental flop of the Global Compact, a UN initiative to have corporations pledge to uphold certain minimum human rights and environmental standards. Only some five thousand corporations have joined the Compact, many of them small and medium enterprises. The mega corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenues, of which there now over 60,000, have stayed away in droves.

How do we address these two problems? I’ll deal with that in my next post. Those impatient to know what I suggest can get part of the answer by reading the article on Gandhi at my web site (scroll down to Essay 1 under the title Hind Swaraj II).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is Britain Now America’s Worst Enemy?

Most people think of Britain as America’s closest ally, but it’s time to jettison that idea. The two primary factors that shaped their “special relationship” in the aftermath of World War II -- the Cold War and the need to arrange a stable transatlantic transfer of power -- are now irrelevant. As one of Britain’s cold blooded politicians put it two centuries ago, the country has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Those interests might now have positioned Britain as America’s worst enemy.

Consider what’s been happening in Afghanistan. Is it credible that the Taliban, which was at best a smoke and mirrors creation of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), should be competent on its own to give the United States a run for its money?

The Taliban consists of a few thousand fighters, most of them illiterate and poor, drawn to fight not by religious fanaticism but for money. The group’s leadership of record consists of a rag-tag band of tribal leaders and mullahs, none with any demonstrated capabilities for anything but simple battlefield strategies. Yet we are asked to believe that this group managed to infiltrate a Jordanian agent into the Central Intelligence Agency – getting Jordan’s spymasters to vouch for his credibility – and then turned him into a suicide bomber who took out most of the members of a CIA field post in Afghanistan.

That is not a credible story. Even Pakistan’s ISI couldn’t have done it on its own. Only Britain’s MI-6 has the breadth of contacts and insider information about the CIA necessary for the operation.

Why would the British do it? Because the CIA post in question was focused, according to a recent article circulated by Tomgram, on taking out “the Haqqani network in North Waziristan just across the Pakistani border.” It was “collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders.” The post has been effective, as the on-going drone assassinations prove, and was probably beginning to disrupt Britain’s primary interests in the region, the illicit drug trade out of Afghanistan-Pakistan, and strategic control of both countries through small and violent groups (the ISI in the case of Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan).

More broadly, the CIA "surge" in Pakistan and Afghanistan threatened Britain's long-standing role as Washington's eyes and ears in the region, which gave it enormous capacity to influence regional affairs. The growing strategic relationship between India and the United States, and the determination of the CIA to build up its own capacities in Afghanistan would have sapped much of that power. The precise hit on the CIA post thus directly served British interests.

Another reason for animosity between the two partners is that Washington has been muscling in on control of Pakistan, which has been pretty much Britain's exclusive domain since it created the country as its regional proxy at the end of its colonial rule of India. A British Army officer established the ISI to fight the first "Indo-Pak war" and it has been used to fuel and foment jihadist, insurrectionist and subversive events in every country in South Asia.

The London Conference on Afghanistan last week, at which Britain orchestrated a European call to hustle the NATO involvement into a transitional mode by the end of 2010, rachets up the pressure on the Obama administration to quit too. This move coincides with talk about including in the Kabul government the so-called "good Taliban." At British initiative, the United Nations Security Council removed four Taliban terrorists from its sanctions list. One of the four was actively involved in hijacking an Indian airliner out of Nepal and the subsequent exchange of its passengers for four terrorists held in Indian prisons. One of the four released at that time went on to become a key figure in the Lashkar e-Toiba, the group suspected of a string of major terrorist attacks. India's strong objections to the Security Council move were ignored.

Talk of the "good Taliban" is nonsense. Unless the nexus of drug-runners, terrorists and money launderers is broken, we can expect no peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan or India. That nexus is kept in place by that part of the British political elite that used the Cold War to take its former imperial control underground. It now controls most of the estimated $17 trillion underground economy that is fed by drug trafficking and other forms of international crime. That economy, operating through an intricate system of over 90 "off-shore tax havens" outside all national jurisdictions, has become the tail wagging the dog during the current global economic crisis; growing American pressure to bring it under control is another strong reason for the British elite's enmity towards Washington.

By the way, the secretive banking system and the underground global economy are fairly recent phenomena: they have been in existence only since the 1960s. The timing is significant, for the 1960s saw most of Africa decolonized. The new secretive systems that replaced overt imperial control are estimated to launder about a trillion dollars annually out of the economies of developing countries, including China.

London is a dangerous enemy, for it can not only marshall opposition to the United States diplomatically, its links to the drugs-terrorist nexus allows it to mount remote-controlled terrorist attacks from countries ranging from Pakistan to Jordan to Nigeria. The attacker of the CIA post was Jordanian; the "underwear bomber" who failed to blow up a United airlines flight over Detroit last Christmas was Nigerian. Britain also maintains an extremely effective public relations capability, which has been used to present all American initiatives affecting British interests as imperialistic. That drumbeat of criticism has lowered Obama's credibility and poll ratings globally.

[P.S. Apropos that last sentence, in 2013 I did a piece on How Britain Controls the Global Narrative.]