One of my recurring nightmares for the coming decades of environmental crisis and economic problems is that the essential solution will be what it has always been. We will make the poor pay. Of course we will – we always do, and it is built into the way we do things. It will be necessary to dress them up as villains or undeserving or perhaps just render them invisible by hiding them behind ‘processes’ and ‘systems’, or perhaps by the simple expedient of not looking that way. But in a world in which rich countries routinely promise a fraction of 1% of GNP to foreign aid and yet feel no shame when they cannot even manage that, how will that be a problem?
On the other hand, to the extent that we continue to pay them any attention, it will be largely in order to exploit their suffering. To take one of the ugliest examples of shameless exploitation, here is a summary of what is really happening in the world food system, and in particular the world of genetic modification, which has spent so man marketing dollars on trying to persuade us that GM is the great hope for the Third World in the face of coming age of droughts, plagues of insects and hunger:
This is the main reason nearly all transgenic crops are now planted in just six countries – the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China and South Africa – and almost none in the least developed countries, who cannot afford such inputs. It is also why, according to the FAO, just four crops (corn, canola, cotton and soybeans) and just two traits (herbicide tolerance and pest resistance) now account for 99% of transgenic crops planted worldwide. By contrast, the FAO says, because most transgenic research and development is being carried out by private companies there have been ‘no serious investments’ in creating transgenic varieties of crops such as sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut, which are far less commercially viable than soybeans or corn but are the five most important crops for poor farmers in semi-arid tropical regions like sub-Saharan Africa and India… While many anti-transgenic activists continue to get worked up over patent production as the main threat to poor farmers, the larger risk is that the transgenic industry will simply bypass the developing world altogether. Genetically modified cops, complained Louise Fresco, the former head of FAO’s agricultural division, were created ‘to reduce inputs and labour costs in large-scale production systems, not to feed the developing world or increase food quality.’ Not only is transgenic research missing poor countries’ crops, Fresco continued, but it is largely avoiding the traits needed by the developing world, especially drought and salt tolerance and resistance to tropical diseases… This reality runs counter to the oft-stated forecasts that a gene revolution will restore food security in places like
Africa and southern Asia and has fostered the view among critics that the industry is simply using problems like hunger to gain political support for transgenic technologies it can’t afford to offer to the hungry.
(From pp. 262-263 of Paul Roberts’ excellent The End of Food. Read this book.)
But this in turn only reflects the category error (as those of who once shared a flat with an undergraduate philosophy student like to put it) of most debate about whether or how the problems of peak oil, declining soil quality, climate chaos, water shortages and all the rest can be solved by business. Business simply is not in the business of solving such problems. Business is in only one business and it only makes one product. Business is solely and exclusively in the business of making money, and its sole product is profit. Insofar as it can be forced through tax, regulation and the marketing constraint of its customers occasionally refusing to deal with vicious, evil corporations, business can make a useful contribution to society. All its other contributions are either negative or unintentional.
So if the above quote expresses how agribusiness operates, it is not because these businesses are run by bad or foolish people; it is because that that is the only way a capitalist enterprise can operate. Although a great deal of ‘corporate social responsibility’ is little more than PR, and a lot more simply what they are obliged to do by law – in good times there is a degree of Good Works. But even the corporate good guys cannot resist the demands of shareholders, especially when the going gets tough.
So we should never trust businesses to do anything but pursue their own interests. Never never never. Unless, that is, someone can show me a single case of a large business doing something completely altruistic that cost it real money (of its own terms) without them making anything out of it – no indirect or indirect benefit, in fact not even any public claim for recognition that they were responsible. Just the ordinary, decent sort of thing you might expect any morally responsible individual to do. Only with billions of dollars.