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The environmental impact of globalisation

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

Continuing his focus on how the West imposes its will on other cultures and the environment – having last month discussed how we manipulate language to assert an image of intellectual, even spiritual dominance – David now explores globalisation in the modern, ‘moneytheistic’ society.


For many of us, including (I am sure) the majority of readers of this magazine, globalisation is a dirty word. But why should something which is viewed as a purely commercial undertaking have any lasting impact on the environment?

The answer lies precisely in the fact that it is a purely commercial undertaking, and, if I may coin a new term, in a ‘moneytheistic’ society (i.e. one which worships only one god, money) this will impinge on the four key factors central to environmental conservation. Let us see how globalisation impacts upon these factors.

  1. Real vs. perceived need

    We have to re-think our concept of capitalism and place it in a proper perspective of real, as opposed to perceived, need. For instance, English philosopher, John Gray, recently wrote: “The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty”(1). I have long believed that the principal impediment to the environment is economic short-termism. Gray’s ‘perpetual novelty’ is a symptom of this. Not only a mobile phone, we must have the newest mobile phone, with all its attendant new (and largely unnecessary) functions. We have to have skype, blackberries, even blue teeth. Every other day a new ‘must have’ comes on the market, and this plays into the hands of corporations, which have coerced us into this mind-set in the first place.If it were confined to just a handful of so-called advanced societies, such as Australia and the USA, that would be bad enough, but once this attitude is foisted on developing, and even under-developed nations, it becomes a pandemic of individual greed, driven by corporate greed. Witness the intellectually feeble and morally vacuous campaign, again led by corporations, to turn the entire planet into a consumer society.

  2. Education is a pre-condition

    Environmental awareness does not occur without education, but what sort of education? In his brilliant book, The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman laments the increasing ‘dumbing down’ of society. As someone who went to university purely to learn, he notes that today’s students “scoff at a non-utilitarian notion of …education, [because] they never get to know that such a notion exists.” And, furthermore, “that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation”(2). As someone who also went to university to learn, I can sympathise. Once the only goal of education is utilitarianism, in other words, focussed solely on job prospects, the idea of learning for its own sake becomes redundant. This is an early indicator of social collapse, and it is happening not just in the USA, but here as well, and globalisation will inevitably spread it planet-wide.Today’s education system includes a swathe of teachers who never read books, and students whose basic literacy and numeracy is but a shadow of that of their parents at the same age, to which we can add ‘professional educators’, constantly coming up with revolutionary new ‘methods’, one of which is the camouflaging of the crisis via the simple expedient of lowering the pass mark! If our only wish is to learn in order to get a job, preferably with one of those major global corporations, then this leads to over-specialisation. We study just one thing, in order to perform just one function. (This is also why, if we are made redundant, we find it so difficult to find a new job – after all, it has to be as close as possible to a clone of the one we had before. Otherwise, we have to be ‘retrained’, and then pitch ourselves onto the market, at 40-something, in direct competition with new graduates in their twenties.)Yet again, this is manna from heaven for the corporations, because it gives them a window of opportunity through which they can re-educate us. Morris Berman informs us that Disney and Microsoft are already preparing ‘curricula’ aimed at the under-5s. And the cornerstone of this new ‘education’ is hype. Now, hype is what corporations are good at. We must not lose sight of the fact that their aim is purely to sell more product. Their delivery tool is education, or hype. Through their marketing/advertising/PR arms they tell us what we want to buy, and having thus brainwashed us, we then buy it. In an age when the catchy slogan is king, what price a quote from Shakespeare? The new education, corporate-driven, is turning successive generations of our youth into blind, dumb automatons who can only respond to that which appeals to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, imprinted by such educative messages as, “Oh, what a feeling, Toyota”, “The burgers are better at Hungry Jack’s”, et cetera. Only last week three teenagers stopped me in the street, and asked me if Drop Bears really exist. Two were convinced they did, one thought they were just an invention of a brewing company, as a device to sell more rum. If two out of three people believe everything they see on TV (i.e. the corporate message), the signs for the environment are very bleak, for it is clear that preserving the drop bear is more significant than saving the polar bear (which happens to be the mascot of the brewing company)!

  3. True biodiversity requires human individuality

    When we start dreaming about specials at Target or K-Mart, the new corporate education method will have attained its zenith, and the CEOs will rub their hands in joy, for what they will have accomplished is the amortisation of individuality. Globalisation is predicated on everyone wanting to buy the same things, and to do that, everyone has to think the same way. In other words, not think at all.Returning to the question of environmental conservation, all environmental movements have begun with just a few concerned individuals. Over time they have become mainstream, attracting adherents from a much more diverse series of backgrounds. Thus the Green movement, once viewed as somewhat fanatic, is now espoused by many ordinary people-in-the-street, even some business people. Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Conservation Foundation, are all now accepted as having a valid, even vital role to play.But if Greenpeace’s best efforts still cannot prevent Japanese whalers from slaughtering the still-fragile whale population, how can a society which thinks only one way – the way corporations want it to think – possibly address the larger issues of global environmental deterioration?Globalisation touts the realisation of a dream, the American dream, and if that dream is the nightmare of rampant consumerism, once it becomes a rallying call for third world nations, then any notions of environmental impact will go out of the window. As I stated in an earlier article, if everyone in China and India aspires to owning two cars and an internet fridge, that alone is 2.2 billion new consumers. 2.2 billion new polluters. And how much forest will be felled to fuel their desires? How many more species will become extinct in the name of a progress which is in fact only a progressive upward curve on the corporate balance sheet?

  4. Reducing world poverty

    Any attempt to rehabilitate planet Earth must be predicated on the reduction of poverty.Globalisation also, and more than any other economic concept, concentrates more power in fewer hands. The eleventh commandment, that “thou shalt keep the shareholders happy, no matter what” has seen the rise of the CEO, from a ‘businessman’ to a guru. Macquarie Bank’s share price has risen so dramatically in recent years that the company has seen fit to award its CEO of $82,000 – per day! Is anyone worth this? As CEOs become more powerful, they acquire a greater ability to influence governments, as our own government’s new workplace contracts policy illustrates. The companies love this policy, the workers hate it, and for good reason.If governments simply play to the corporate tune, this will further fuel the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. In the corporate world this gap is seen as advantageous, because the getting of wealth is all that matters, and the more that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, the better.We are in serious danger of institutionalising this gap, making it a legal requirement. This is why so many western governments are cutting back on social welfare programs, but God forbid they should tamper with tax cuts to the top 5% of income earners. If this trend continues, society will divide into something akin to a re-invention of the feudal system, whereby all the world’s wealth will be in the hands of only a handful of companies and individuals, the vast majority of people will be dirt poor, and, as John Gray says, “The middle class [will be] a luxury that capitalism can no longer afford”(3).

    The concomitant impact on the environment will be devastating, because, historically, environmental concerns have only come to the fore in times of plenty. When “Jack is all right”, Jack thinks about wider issues, such as the environment. If Jack can’t make ends meet, then environmental issues are shunted to the bottom of the agenda. This is why Amazonian rainforests are being cut down in order to plant cash crops (the soil being so poor that a fresh stand of forest has to be felled annually). This is why mining companies, even today, still put people’s lives at risk with unsafe practices, and why they continue to conceal their pollution levels, until and unless some enterprising TV program exposes them.

    Short-term profit – that is what globalisation is all about. And the more of it, the faster, the better. Anything that generates money is beneficial. Anything that costs money, such as health, safety and environmental best practice, is to be ignored. What do we do about it?

    The first thing must be to realise that we are not in a helpless situation. Too often we feel powerless to do anything, such is the Goliathan might of the corporation, even when pitched against millions of Davids. But that is the point. There are not many Goliaths (in fact globalisation wants to see fewer of them, and richer), but there are millions of Davids, and, at least for the time being, society is still being driven by people, not computers.

    People can vote; they can force governments to pull back from this lemming-like suicide, and impose sets of laws that will guarantee corporate responsibility toward the individual and the environment. Here are just a few suggestions which address the four keys points made earlier.

    Consumer power

    As long ago as 1970 both Erich Fromm and E.F. Schumacher advocated “consumer strikes” as a way of bringing companies into line. For example, if we already have such things as Seniors Week, or National No Smoking Day, why not a national No-trips-to-supermarkets week? Supermarket chains, amongst the biggest advocates of globalisation, are very sensitive to public attitudes. Only recently, two of our consumer watchdog TV programs exposed how the major players were importing cheap produce from China and Brazil (and others) and putting the viability of Australian growers at risk. Within two weeks, both Coles and Woolworths labelled all their fresh produce, so that consumers now know what is locally grown, and what is imported. The French have gone a step further. Of all the world’s nations, France is perhaps the proudest of (and most xenophobic about) its own culture. Tired of the increasing Americanisation of its shopping centres, the French government is now offering subsidies to independent food suppliers, to ensure that all those wonderful boucheries, boulangeries, fromageries and poissonneries remain part of the shopping landscape.

    Exposing corporate activities

    We can also fight fire with fire, and use the same marketing techniques as the companies, to construct campaigns that expose their activities and agenda. This could be extended into ‘consumer education’ classes in schools (some already exist) whereby our young people – the principal targets of almost all advertising – are made aware of the extent to which they are being exploited. We could publish lists of brands made by companies that utilise child labour, and pass legislation prohibiting the import of anything manufactured in this way. After all, harmful drugs can be seized by customs officers; why not cheap track shoes? We could go even further, and lobby developing nations to introduce legislation forcing foreign companies to pay a minimum wage. If an Australian job, worth, say $70 a day, goes to a country where bare subsistence is $1 a day, why should a multinational company reap such an obscenely large profit? Why not enact laws forcing that company to pay at least $10 a day? At least that would bring some of the world’s poorest out of the poverty trap, and it may also encourage companies to rethink their strategies when it comes to using domestic redundancy as a profit-making tool. I welcome any further suggestions readers may have, for any such initiatives have the potential to reverse the present erosion of freedom of choice. And with freedom of choice will come a more holistic view of the world, and a greater desire and empowerment to preserve its biodiversity.

    Sources: (1 & 3): John Gray, “Straw Dogs”, Granta, London, 2002. (2): Morris Berman, “The Twilight of American Culture”, Duckworth ed., London, 2001

    David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

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