Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet?
John Foster's review of 'Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet?' by Peter Dauvergne
Published by Polity Press, 2018
If books take for their titles questions admitting of one-word answers, they give hostages to fortune. Either they plump clearly for one of the possible single words, and stand in danger of being charged with gross simplification. Or they don’t, and get accused of not doing what it says on the tin. This book tries to dodge the problem by delivering a firm “No but yes but no but…”, which turns out to have its own drawbacks.
Dauvergne has in his sights the sustainability-spin increasingly offered by big transnational corporations – Monsanto, for instance, claiming to be a “leader in sustainable agriculture” – and, more dangerously, the tendency of governments in thrall to free-market ideology (and even of large NGOs wishing to consort with governments), to take such claims not as further evidence for the long-threatened death of irony, but at face value. And no, this will not destroy our planet, because too much is at stake for everyone involved and anyway the Earth itself is too resilient. But yes, unless states and civil society get their acts together, corporate eco-speak – or rather, the undue corporate influence which it tries to legitimise and the environmental irresponsibility which it covers up – will hugely damage vast areas of the world’s forests, oceans and atmosphere and the living things which depend on them.
According to former US Secretary of State John Kerry, Dauvergne tells us, it was never going to be governments alone, or even principally, which would deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change:
“The private sector is the most important player”.
Big business, typically run by people who are smarter than politicians, now invests significantly in the sustainability dimension of its “corporate social responsibility” agenda in order to encourage just such perceptions. This enables it to pursue tax breaks, influence regulatory regimes, infiltrate civil society organisations and generally claim a “social licence to operate”, while continuing all the while to encourage the wasteful over-consumption which is wrecking the biosphere and destabilising the climate which poor Kerry relied on it to protect. The book documents all of this in a clear and straightforward way, illuminated throughout by flashes of deadpan detail.
As noted, however, it also tries to hedge its bets. Big business drives ever more excessive consumption world-wide, and the chapter on “The Consumption Problem” lists the familiar environmental effects. But “we need more consumption” says Dauvergne, routinely invoking the extent of extreme (material) poverty – no way of squaring this circle being suggested. Corporate sustainability is largely a con, but it is also helping here and there at the margins, and so to be welcomed. And transnational corporations, adept as they are at manipulating the political agenda, also need public trust in order to survive. “While the power of big business over global governance is clearly rising”, he concludes on a note of uplift, “so is the power of social justice and environmental advocates to devalue brands by exposing their illegal, unethical and unsustainable activities”. As in so much similar writing now, disaster looms until the final chapter, but it might yet, just, all be OK.
Nothing in these lines of argument is original, surprising or especially insightful. Indeed, anyone likely to come across this review here on the Green House website will probably greet it with a grimace of resignation and a muttered “Well, who knew?” So what value does the book actually add?
It is accessibly written, and it is also quite short. It could well be pointed out as an introduction to its topic for people without the time or inclination to read fuller treatments such as that of Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything. The chapters on “The Business of CSR” and on “The Dark Side of Big Business”, for instance, could very helpfully become prescribed reading in management schools.
But secondly, it is a treasure trove of piquant examples and quotations for anyone who doesn’t need persuading, but who is seeking polemical ammunition. Here we find, for instance, the CEO of the Coca-Cola company remarking that
“Our work on sustainable business practices not only helps to improve the lives of individuals and families…it also helps to strengthen the connections between our brands and the people who reach for them more than 1.9 billion times a day”
– and clearly, as long as more and more of them go on reaching for this unhealthy and wholly unnecessary beverage (everything that is meretricious about modernity liquefied and bottled), a bit of cheap green-speak is going to be fine by him! Or we have the International Airline Industry Association, bravely pursuing offsetting deals which put it “at the cutting edge of efforts to combat climate change”, a claim before which satire itself falls silent…. But I must not go on giving away such gems gratis. There are plenty more of them in the book, which you should therefore buy as much for their sake as to support an author whose heart is, after all, in the right place.