The illusion of green capitalism


By Jim Green

In January, Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), said, "Business must ensure it is at the cutting edge of the move to a clean, green economy to ensure Australia gets its share of the future jobs and the economic benefits that will flow from it".

In a recent speech to the Australian Industry Group, ACF president Peter Garrett advocated "harnessing the competitive nature of the market and guiding it to desirable environmental outcomes. An example is that each time tougher pollution standards are applied, those companies that are better able to meet those standards receive a competitive advantage, and therefore competition to reach the standard is encouraged even before it is applied."

Speaking on ABC Radio in February, Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International, now working as an environmental consultant to big business, boasted: "I'm about achieving a mind-set shift in the business community that sees sustainability as being about competitive advantage and about increasing shareholder value".

Gilding need not concern himself — business already sees sustainability in these terms. The environment is seen as a source of inputs and a destination for its outputs. The task is to sustain the economic functions of the environment rather than sustaining the environment itself. Thus the World Business Council for Sustainable Development can claim, "Trade can help sustainability". One of the council's aims is to promote "the merits of voluntary as opposed to regulatory measures" to protect the environment.

The concept of ecologically sustainable development has been transformed into economically sustainable development over the past decade. In the words of David James, a commissioner of the federal government's Resource Assessment Commission: "With better management of natural resources, we could obtain a larger supply and wider range of goods and services. This is the central notion of sustainable development. It involves making decisions about the optimal composition of the economy's capital stock, including human capital, man-made capital and natural resource stocks."

According to Marc Neuson, consultant to accounting firm Price Waterhouse Cooper, the financial bottom line has been replaced by a "triple bottom line" of economic, social and environmental values. "Shareholder value grows through the management of stakeholder value", Neuson theorised.

"The key element to stakeholder value is trust", a reporter in the Australian Financial Review (April 21) informed us, "and companies are now finding that open and transparent accountability on environmental and social issues is the currency of such trust".

Leading the pack is Western Mining Corporation, whose "warts and all" annual environment report has been "driven from the top by CEO Hugh Morgan", according to the AFR.

The ACF's Garrett sings the praises of BHP, Rio Tinto and North Ltd for having followed Western Mining's lead in the production of environment reports. Don Henry praised the Ford Motor Company's Bill Ford's decision to phase out the internal combustion engine.

That people such as Morgan and Ford are heralded as visionary eco-CEOs should give rise to concern. Notwithstanding Ford's claim to be a "passionate environmentalist", it remains the case that Ford makes five of the 10 worst vehicles for the environment, according to the Green Guide to Cars and Trucks.

Western Mining is responsible for such environmental and social disasters as the Roxby Downs copper and uranium mine in South Australia. Morgan is facing court action for genocide against the Arabunna people as a result of the Roxby mine. Similarly, BHP, Rio Tinto and North Ltd continue to trash the environment, the production of environment reports notwithstanding.

Business values are economic values. The visions of green capitalism seen by environmentalists like Garrett, Henry and Gilding are illusions. The truth is that big business is plundering the planet on an unprecedented scale. Contrary to Garrett's hypothetical scenario of companies rushing to meet new environmental standards, plans to regulate industry are fiercely resisted, and the practice of paying the occasional fine rather than cleaning up production processes remains entrenched.

Garrett's claim that corporate competition can be used to save the environment misses the point: corporate competition is a fundamental cause of the global environmental crisis. Corporations that use the cheapest — usually the dirtiest — production processes are at a competitive advantage and can increase profits and/or market share.

Ozone depletion

Consider the received wisdom, propagated by corporations and the media alike, that great progress has been made in reducing the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, in particular chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The 1987 Montreal Protocol was hailed as an historic example of an international solution to an environmental problem.

In the real world, the Montreal Protocol is as watertight as the Titanic, according to the public interest group Ozone Action. CFCs can still be produced in developed countries for "essential" uses in those countries and for unlimited use in developing countries. There are no limits on production in developing countries until the year 2010.

After 2010, companies operating in developing countries can produce 15% of the average production 1995-97. Some forward-looking companies, looking for a "win-win" situation for the "triple bottom line" (profit, profit and more profit), artificially boosted CFC production in 1995-97 so that they could maximise production when the "phase-out" begins in the next century.

A black market has developed, CFC smuggling blossoming to the point that it ranks second only to illegal drugs in customs seizures in many southern areas of the US. Ozone depletion illustrates the realpolitik of pollution and profit, trash and treasure.

The problem is not just that there are some bad apples in the corporate carton; it is the capitalist system which is at fault.

Environmental degradation is a cost which is not factored into production costs because capitalists don't pay it. In economic jargon, it an "externality".

Superficially, "internalising" some of these costs by taxing pollution appears to be a useful reform which environmentalists should support.

Unfortunately, in practice eco-taxes hurt the poor, spare the rich and do little for the environment. When energy taxes were first introduced in Scandinavia, the most energy-intensive industries were exempted. Belgium's pesticide tax exempts farmers.

For individual consumers, the rich are likely simply to absorb the extra taxes without altering their buying patterns, while the poor have little scope to reduce resource consumption and less capacity to afford the additional taxes.

Government funds raised though eco-taxes can go any which way; such funds are as likely as not to fund subsidies for corporate polluters. Corporations pass on the cost of eco-taxes to consumers, or reduce wages or staff levels.

Rather than seriously alter its wasteful behaviour, big business has engaged in "greenwashing" — the simple technique of using "eco-labels" to con consumers.

Karen West, writing in the January 1995 Ecologist, noted: "Far from encouraging industry to strive for higher environmental standards, voluntary eco-labelling schemes are rapidly degenerating into a means whereby industry can set the standards it likes. Whilst some products and processes have undoubtedly been improved, overall eco-labelling is proving to be an extremely blunt instrument for environmental protection."

A related issue is the notion that by buying supposedly "eco-friendly" products, and shunning others, consumers can encourage business to clean up its act. Unfortunately, corporations have far more control over consumers' habits than consumers have over corporate production processes.

As Dr Barry Commoner wrote in his 1990 book, Making Peace with the Planet: "The change in production technology, although it interacts with the market and other relevant social factors, is initiated by the producer and is governed by the producer's interests ... The motivation that exclusively governs such investment decisions is increased profit and market share."

John Stauber, editor of PR Watch magazine, writes: "Because the commodity spectacle is so all-engaging, 'light' green business tends to merely perpetuate the colonization of the mind, sapping our visions of an alternative and giving the idea that our salvation can be gained through shopping rather than through social struggle and transformation. In this respect, green business at worst is a danger and a trap."

Even more illusory is the idea that household recycling and other such personal tinkering will save the planet. In Green Business: Hope or Hoax?, Chris Plant and David Albert state that if everyone in the US recycled 100% of their personal solid waste, 99% of the country's solid waste would remain.

Front groups

Capitalists have developed a range of techniques to coopt or combat environmentalists. According to Andrew Rowell, writing in May 1, 1997, Ecologist: "All over the globe, environmental activists are facing a backlash designed to intimidate them into inactivity and silence ... Corporations are funding groups attempting to gut environmental legislation and spending vast amounts of money on public relations in an attempt, on the one hand, to demonise the environmental movement so that it loses popular support and, on the other, to coopt environmental debate."

Another common tactic is the corporate front group. Front groups have one major advantage over direct corporate politicking: it is easier to get the public, the politicians and the media to swallow misinformation when it comes from an apparently disinterested source.

In Australia, big business front groups include the Forest Protection Society, Australians for Safe Energy and the Uranium Information Centre. The USA is rotten with them: the Alliance to Keep Americans Working, Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, National Wetlands Council, Coalition for Vehicle Choice, Council for Energy Awareness, Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, Safe Buildings Alliance, Workplace Health and Safety Council, and hundreds of others.

Front group names have recurring buzz words such as sensible, responsible, sound, safe, science, expert and moderation. Twisting scientific evidence to suit corporate ends is a favoured tactic. A well-known example is the Leipzig Declaration, supposedly signed by 100 "climate scientists" who question the scientific evidence on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

The list of signatories — 84 not 100 — included such luminaries as Roy Leep, a weatherman in Tampa Bay, Florida; Dick Groeber, who runs a service that provides telephone callers with yesterday's weather in Springfield, Ohio; and several scientists whose bread is buttered by industries that produce greenhouse gases.

A huge public relations industry has emerged to spread the good news about corporate greening. US businesses spend an estimated $US1 billion each year on the services of anti-environmental public relations professionals and on greenwashing their corporate image.

Stauber and Rampton, authors of the 1995 book Toxic Sludge is Good for you: lies, damn lies and the public relations industry, explain: "PR companies can package for their clients a global campaign that includes not only advertising, news stories and video footage but also crisis management, industrial espionage, organized censorship, infiltration of civic and political groups, and the manufacture of synthetic 'grassroots movements'".


Physical violence against environmentalists is usually uncommon in advanced capitalist countries, but it is more systematic and brutal in the Third World. More than 2000 Ogoni people have died in Nigeria as a result of their protests over Shell's oil business.

Stauber points out: "In less developed countries ... companies exploit political repression to their economic advantage. In countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Britain and the United States, companies are under more scrutiny and are less able to violate fundamental human rights. That's not because they wouldn't if they could, they are the same companies operating in New York or Sydney or Peking, but under different governmental rules."

In the US, an alarming development is the "wise use movement". Wise use guru Ron Arnold has called for a "holy war against the new pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people". There are links between the wise use movement and racist, right-wing militias.

The "respectable" right-wing political establishment fans the flames, as when James Watt, who was President Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, said, "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used".

Canned TV

By omission and commission, the capitalist media bear some responsibility for the environmental crisis. The reason is simple: the capitalist media are a big business.

According to Stauber and Rampton, about 40% of all "news" in the US flows virtually unedited from public relations offices. The North American Precis Syndicate provides camera-ready stories, on behalf of many PR firms and Fortune 500 corporations, to 10,000 newspapers. Radio USA supplies news scripts to 5000 radio stations throughout the country.

Corporate polluters have hegemonised the environment debate and thus avoided having to make substantial (and costly) changes in production processes. An added bonus of this ideological victory is that pollution has itself spawned a multibillion-dollar industry, the so-called "environment industry".

This industry supplies business with the materials, technology and expertise to comply with new regulations, and operates commercial waste disposal facilities. The industry is estimated to generate $US300-600 billion annually. The US accounts for about 40% of world market for environment industry, with revenue in 1992 of about $US86 billion.

According to Joshua Karliner, in the Ecologist (March 1994), a disproportionate number of hazardous activities — such as waste dumps — are foisted on racial minorities. For example, African-American and Latino communities in the US have sued WMX Waste Management Technologies, the US and world leader in the environment industry, for civil rights violations, accusing it of poisoning people and their natural surroundings and of riding roughshod over democratic decision-making processes. In the 1980s, WMX paid at least $US45 million in fines, penalties and settlements.

In March, the British government's Environment Agency released a list of Britain's worst corporate polluters, based on successful prosecutions in 1997. Apart from the usual suspects, such as British Nuclear Fuels, the agency found that three of the worst offenders were waste disposal companies whose job is to clean up pollution.

As Karliner states, "While the environment has become big business, the environmental crisis has continued to escalate. What corporate 'environmentalists' and government bureaucrats often hail as the solution has become part of the problem. Since 'corporate environmentalism' has no incentive to make the requisite changes towards clean production on its own, and transnationals wield such power over the regulatory process, pressure for clean production is likely to continue to come from the communities around the world whose health, livelihoods and eco-systems are threatened by these 'environmental' corporations."


The most alarming aspect of the corporate assault on environmentalism is that many environmentalists have swallowed the myth of green capitalism.

In a 1990 Chain Reaction article, academic Tim Doyle analysed the consolidation of a "professional elite" within the environment movement and its cooption by government and industry.

Doyle warned, "If these trends of elite dominance continue ... then the politicians, the government bureaucracy and the developers will have complete control over the movement's political agenda and its terms of reference. The time dimension; the rules of the game; the extent of the trade-offs; the sources of money; the mutual personnel: all these factors will be defined by the dominant regime."

Doyle's warning is as relevant today as it was almost a decade ago. An important aspect of the struggle to save the environment is to reject the green capitalist illusions of leaders of the environment movement such as Garrett, Henry and Gilding, especially since they now speak the same language as the corporate polluters.

Environmentalists must pursue a strategy that can win control over decision-making about natural resource use, production methods and waste disposal. This control can be won only by taking it out of the hands of the capitalist class. It cannot be won without a fight. There is no "win-win" scenario: it is capitalism or the environment.