Expired · 4th July 2010
The idea that the corporate good has become synonymous with the public good is only shocking because the realization is sudden. But the process of melding corporate and public interests in the capitalist economic system has been evolving over centuries and accelerating sharply during the last few decades. It is the result of the growing power of business with tacit public approval through government acquiescence. So it is a "conspiracy" in the literal Latin sense of the word – "con" meaning "together" and "spirare" meaning "breathing".
This "breathing together" has so merged the two interests that corporate health has become inseparable from economic health, with huge implications for the environment, economics, society and for democracy itself. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico happens to be a useful place to begin exploring this subject because the event is emblematic of the consequences of this "conspiracy".
The blowout, we are now learning, was the result of shoddy safety practices by BP, abetted by the US Minerals Management Service and aided by political collusion. But the primary cause was a blurred interface between a corporation and government. BP was drilling in 1,500 metres of ocean because industrial economies need oil, a commodity that is becoming increasingly scarce – 38 percent of global petroleum supplies now come from offshore sites, all of which are moving toward deep-water depth and risk. As a further measure of the integration of economies with corporations, resistance is building to burdening BP with full financial responsibility for its damages because crucial pension funds are heavily invested in BP stock. Meanwhile, Canada gives $2.5 billion in annual subsidies to oil corporations; the global total is $515 billion. "We live in a corporate economy," writes Loys Maingon, an ecology academic, "and the public interest is the corporate interest" (Island Tides, June 10/10).
When major corporations falter, governments worry. Consider the billions in public funds that supported the troubled Canadian and American auto industry following its near-collapse in 2008-9. Or the billions more of guarantees that supported the world's corporate banking system when its self-serving greed nearly crashed the entire global financial structure. Corporations are now so interwoven with all levels of public interest that we cannot separate them from ourselves. Corporations provide us with rising proportions of our energy, transportation, military materiel (the military industrial complex), food (production, processing and distribution), medicines, resources, communication and entertainment. Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway project to pipe Alberta tar sands oil to Kitimat for shipment to Asia by tanker is a tacit corporate-government initiative. The BC government has an ideological obsession for privatizing almost everything. At the personal level, people so identify with a corporate image that they willingly submit to a process called "branding" – even paying to wear and advertise corporate logos.
As a local measure of the economic importance of corporations, consider how municipal governments frequently court and support corporate industry: pulp mills, mines, run-of-river projects and salmon farming – whose principal justification for their environmental damage is that they supply BC's coastal communities with jobs. Indeed, almost in reflexive response, most communities are inclined to welcome as an economic saviour any corporation arriving with an offer of jobs, regardless of the social or environmental consequences.
"Recent trends in public administration, at all levels of government, regional to federal, claim to 'harmonize' and make the environmental assessment and review process more efficient," writes Loys Maingon. "In reality, this trend removes existing checks and balances, cuts out public input from the review process, and exonerates the civil service from public accountability." The role of an "environmental impact assessment", Maignon adds, "is mainly, where possible, to assist the project proponent in making a better or more 'sustainable' project. It is not to advocate for environmental priorities distinct from the project needs."
This explains why environmental assessments rarely, if ever, reject projects. The public interest is equated to the corporate interest. Consequently, contends Maignon, "The public is effectively removed from having a direct say in the conservation concerns of the environment, seemingly 'for its own good'. This is an unsustainable structural imbalance in the political system...".
The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is just the most conspicuous example of this failing. Local examples abound. The historical leaching from the Myra Falls mine ‹ a mine allowed in Strathcona Park, a Class A provincial park, of all places – nearly obliterated the famous salmon runs in the Campbell River. A more serous disaster did materialize in the Tsolum River because of a copper mine on Mount Washington. Now the operations of Quinsam Coal are almost certainly contaminating its watershed. And BC's open net-pen salmon farming industry, where collusion with provincial and federal agencies is the likely explanation that accounts for successive failures to enforce routine violations of law, is linked to extensive ecological harm. In Maignon summary, "The civil service's clear alignment with corporate interests marginalizes, and replaces, the environmental interest of the public."
The result not only undermines democracy but presages widespread ecological catastrophe – the Gulf of Mexico fiasco in slow motion. "Just as democracy depends on a clear separation of church and state," Maignon reminds us, "so environmental protection and sound science depend on a clear separation of corporation and state."
Corporations have become an integral part of our economy and culture, a "breathing together" that can be mutually beneficial to both business and society. But corporations are what we allow them to be. They must be supervised and guided toward public and environmental good, a political process that can only occur through the careful and thoughtful consideration of individual voters – like each one of us.
"Wealth by Stealth"
Comment by Debbie on 4th July 2010
I suggest you read "Wealth by Stealth".