In capitalism, environmental destruction, global warming, and our collective ecocide are inextricably linked to a key institution of capital: the Corporation. From the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to the Coronavirus pandemic, we know that the key role of corporate capitalism has also been revealed by the environmental crisis of global warming.
The present stage of the capitalocene shows more clearly than before that the profit-making corporation is at the heart of a self-destructive system. The corporate system can only survive if it is kept on life support by the state. Such a state must be willing to support the corporation. This is the inconvenient truth about neoliberalism’s ideology of less state, no red tape, and deregulation.
In other words, the state’s auto-reflex is not to protect our environment – other than seeing it as a PR exercise – but, to support the fossil fuel industry, often through hefty subsidies. One of Neoliberalism’s very own ideological flagships’ – the IMF – recently admitted that state subsidies for the fossil fuel industry stand at $11,000,000 per minute! Put simply – tax-payers’ money goes straight to corporations.
The life of such a corporation began a very long time ago. The world’s first known corporation founded in 1288, was a Swedish mining company (established by German merchants) called Stora Kopparberg – later re-named into Stora Enso.
Of course, the world’s first mining corporation engaged in environmental vandalism. The Stora Kopparberg Corporation has left an enduring mark on its environment. Scientific studies of the surrounding areas reveal that both land and water have been permanently damaged. From 1288 to 2022, mining corporations are linked to environmental wreckages.
One gets indeed the impression that it is impossible to avert the impending ecocide as long as corporations remain in control of an industrial process that are wrecking our world, leading straight to The Uninhabitable Earth – projected for the year 2100.
Undeterred, the profit-making corporation remains the business organisation dominating contemporary capitalism. Yet, it has evolved into one of the deadliest human inventions the world has ever seen. It is an invention that has an accelerated capacity to destroy the planet.
Today, most of the world’s key commodities are owned and controlled by corporations. Since the year 1965, just twenty corporations have collectively produced 35% of all global fossil fuel emissions. Worse, since 1988, just six corporations have produced 71% of all fossil fuel emissions. The biggest offenders are: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron. Besides polluting, these corporations are also incredibly rich: just 737 corporations control about 80% of the world’s wealth. In other words, we live in a world of corporate wealth on the one hand and rising global inequality on the other hand. Both are inextricably linked.
Yet, this is only one side of the corporation. The other side is its political influence. This becomes clear by just downloading any of the reports by the UN (the Paris agreement, the Kyoto agreement, the IPCC), a report by one of the major international financial institutions: IMF, World Bank, etc.), and indeed any of the global health organisations.
It is rather telling to find the near total absence of any discussion of the corporation’s role in the ever- growing environmental catastrophe. This is what Chomsky once called, The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. In this case, propaganda works by eliminating the corporation from the crime scene.
The historical evidence generated by the corporation does not allow us to draw very optimistic conclusions about the likelihood that the corporate sector can and will reinvent itself by emerging as a leader in the fight against global warming.
From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, to Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, the infamous Ford Pinto, to the tobacco industry killing 100 million people, to the killer dust of asbestos, to Exxon Valdez, to BP’s Gulf of Mexico explosion, to the recent Volkswagen dieselgate scandal, etc. it does not look good for the corporation.
Even for animals, the corporation has been bad news: in 2014, the year before the dieselgate story broke, Volkswagen had commissioned a series of tests that involved placing ten Java monkeys in small airtight chambers for four hours while watching cartoons and as they breathed in diesel fumes from a VW Beetle.
Worse, many major oil corporations have been manipulating the evidence of global warming for decades – at least since the 1970s. These are today’s merchants of doubt. Tellingly, various so-called Freedom of Information Acts provide public access to information held by public authorities – not corporations. To keep knowledge away from the public, whistle-blowers are publicly tortured (Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, etc.). Virtually the same goes for those telling the truth about corporations.
Yet, the big question we are asking is: if all of those deadly industrial processes are financed, manufactured, and distributed under the control of profit-making corporations, then why are corporations not seen as central to the planet’s problems?
When it comes to the corporation, past and present are linked. In Hitler’s Third Reich, for example, the above-mentioned Volkswagen Corporation used slave labour from the concentration camps. By the time it was seized by the British Army in 1945, 80% of Volkswagen’s workers were slaves. The VW Corporation returned to the German government in 1948 to prosper.
Worse was the gigantic industrial conglomerate, I.G. Farben. In 1943, almost half of I.G. Farben’s workforce of 330,000 was made up of slave labourers from the concentration camps or of conscripts, including around 30,000 from Auschwitz.
Even worse, it was an I.G. Farben subsidiary that supplied Zyklon B, the gas that killed over a million people in the Holocaust. Later, I.G. Farben was simply restructured but kept alive. Interestingly, one of I.G. Farben’s companies is the Bayer Corporation. In 2010, Bayer was ranked the worst toxic air polluter in the US.
Not to lag behind German mass killers, ChevronTexaco have been accused of wiping out entire tribes. Its oil exploitation in the Amazon, for example, led to irreversible harm to food and water supplies. This aided the introduction of new diseases. Interestingly, the Texaco Corporation knew that people would die. But the corporation chose to ignore it. In one account, 1,400 children, women, and men have died of illnesses directly attributed to Texaco’s contamination. Worse, two nomadic groups that once inhabited the region – the Tetetes and the Sansahuari – have been wiped out.
To camouflage all this, the corporation runs three main ideologies: a) business ethics; b) corporate social responsibility (CSR); and c) sustainability programmes. These give a favourable PR image to the corporation while simultaneously assuring that what happened during the GFC 2008 can continue: no senior executives from any of the major financial institutions had been criminally charged, prosecuted, or imprisoned. And, NBC calls it, too big to jail!
Corporate leaders getting off scot-free for corporate environmental crimes has a long history. A good example are the horrific atrocities committed by a British rubber corporation called the Peruvian Amazon Company operating in the Putumayo region of the Amazon rainforest in 1910. Its corporate crimes included innumerable murders and the torture of defenceless Indians, pouring kerosene oil over men and then setting fire to them, burning them at the stake, dashing out the brains of children, and cutting off the arms and legs of Indians and leaving them to speedy death in their agony.
In part, much of this has been possible because of the institutional setup of the corporation. It is defined not only by shareholder primacy, but perhaps more importantly, by the separation between ownership (shareholders) and those who manage the corporation: CEOs and corporate apparatchiks. Ever since Milgram, we know that the social distance between the torturer and the victim helps the process along. Adolf Eichmann (SS) and Reinhard Heydrich (SS) are prime examples.
Yet, social distance works for corporations as well. Corporate managers enjoying corporate boardrooms in London, New York, and elsewhere are largely indifferent to the suffering “their” corporations cause in distant places. Worse, corporations are defined by a pure form of finance capital. This is a form of property in which human decision-making, human logic, and human relationships were replaced by managerial-financial decisions, by managerial-financial logics, and by managerial-financial relationships.
While no corporation sets out to destroy the planet, their internal setup, their legal responsibilities to shareholders, and their sociological structure aids the process of environmental destruction during the eternal quest for profit-maximization. Of course, for the corporation, the drive to ecocide and to destroy nature is merely a by-product of what corporations do. The corporation in-itself has only an impulse that is based on the drive to expand production, globally. Perhaps, the corporation can best be understood as a conduit for the global mobility of capital.
Historically, this included the functioning of the corporation as a megamachine of colonialism. From its beginning in 1288 in Sweden to the late 1500s, the corporation mutated into the preferred organisational model used by the European colonial powers. It furnished the quest to enclose land, organise slavery, and monopolise trade. With the help of others, a corporation called East India Company, for example, extracted a whopping $45 trillion from India during the colonial period.
More importantly, it established the corporation as the institution for the trade in global agriculture – for those who wonder about the term “culture” in agriculture: there is no culture, just profits and environmental vandalism. Today, the corporate control of global agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to global warming.
Just the destruction of forests alone – accounts for 10% to 15% in the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that, four types of products are responsible for the 70% of tropical forest loss: beef and cattle, timber, palm oil, and soy (mainly used for animal feed). And, one of the main corporations that is implicated is: McDonalds.
Yet, many believe in environmental regulation and the regulation of corporations. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of regulation in capitalist societies is to govern and normalise the way that society is hierarchically ordered. This is highly advantageous to CEOs, corporations, and corporate apparatchiks because they can – falsely or otherwise – claim to operate within the law. Worse, regulation also gives corporations permission to pollute within state-defined limits.
Most perfect for the corporation is the fact that even the deadliest forms of pollutant are produced under the conditions of a licence granted by a regulatory authority. Ultimately, the primary purpose of all forms of regulation in capitalism is to ensure that capitalism thrives even when this means that individual corporations have to be somewhat regulated, so that the system of capitalism survives.
Whether regulated, partially regulated, or deregulated, air pollution kills four million people each year globally. What makes a real mockery of regulation is the fact that the UK’s Environment Agency’s annual budget is just 0.13% of annual government spending. Spending on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accounts for just 0.2% of the annual federal budget.
While providing useful cover-up, the ideology of neoliberalism that runs in the background since the last forty years, as well as the international financial institutions (e.g. World Bank, IMF, etc.) have enthusiastically encouraged states and corporations to undermine a whole range of environmental regulation. The entire affair runs under the motto, some people get sick, some people get a pay rise. Those two things are not unrelated.
At least some corporations have gotten heavy fines – well, some are made to believe. Yet, BP – responsible for the Gulf of Mexico disaster – received a $10 billion tax rebate by offsetting its Gulf oil spill disaster expenses against tax. The neoliberal state always gives a willing hand to the criminality of corporations. It simply is the regulation of corporate ecocide.
With state help, oil corporations are free to make a mockery of environmental issues as major oil corporations spend little over 1% of revenue on the development of renewables. One percent seems to be plenty to give corporations a good image and appease the believers in corporate social responsibility.
Key to this and to the use of the free market is the fact that what oil corporations do is a repetition of the time-honoured: the free market will fix it logic that has brought us to the point of environmental Armageddon with the looming 6th mass extinction that comes along.
Together with the ideological firepower of corporate media, the five largest oil and gas corporations – ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total – have “invested” (read: we expect a return on our investment) over $1 billion in misleading climate and lobbying since the Paris Agreement was signed. Worse, well over $200 million of this was used directly to control, delay, and ultimately block any binding policy on climate change.
Having successfully circumvented a policy on global warming, Big Oil continues to think about the future. BP’s and Shell’s financial projections, for example, assume a continued profitability in a scenario of a 5°C increase in global temperatures.
Most scientists assume that this increase (beyond 4°C) will kill millions of people – if not billions. At 5°C, virtually all of the scientific evidence suggests an entirely new planet is coming into being – one unrecognisable from the one we know today.
Perhaps banning plastic straws and stirrers and changing light bulbs might not quite cut it. Instead, we need to do three things: a) the corporate structure must be broken; impunity for investors and shareholders must end; and finally, the license to kill (in distant places first and eventually globally) granted to corporate CEOs and their corporations must end.
we need to kill the corporation before it kills us.
Working – so far rather successfully – against all this is media capitalism’s iron law of C🠖M🠖V🠖S. Simplifying 508 pages into ½ a paragraph, it works like this: capital and corporations [C] have a strong influence on the media [M]. In many cases they are one and the same (e.g. News.Corp, NetFlix, Disney. Reuter, Random House, Comcast, Viacom, Hearst, Bloomberg, Verizon, Sinclair, etc.). these global media [M] conglomerates are in a unique position to influence voters [V]. Via democratic elections, voters [V] shape the state [S] which, in turn, supports capital and the corporation. This closes the iron ring of media capitalism.
In 1944, German philosopher Theodor Adorno started to realize this. Adorno’s subsequent pessimism lies at the heart of all this. Reflecting on Adorno, Stuart Jeffries called his pessimism, the Grand Hotel Abyss.
Today, media capitalism has confined us to living in Adorno’s Hotel Abyss. This hotel is defined by this: you can check out anytime, but we can never leave. Run by the killer ape, hotel earth is drifting towards the impending global corporate ecocide.