by Joshua Karliner
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 1998
Transnational corporations are the dominant institutions of
our time -far exceeding most governments in power and scope. Corporations
are driving the process of economic globalization, creating a
legal framework of treaties which institutionalizes their growing
political and economic dominance over the planet, undermining
democracy and ecological sustainability. Indeed, we are living
in an era of what Ralph Nader calls corporate supremacy.
Consider the following: the combined revenues of just General
Motors and Ford-the two largest automobile corporations in the
world-exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for all
of sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, 51 of the largest 100 economies
in the world are corporations.
Described by the United Nations as "the productive core
of the globalizing world economy," transnational corporations
and their affiliates account for most of the world's industrial
capacity, technological knowledge, and international financial
transactions. They mine, refine, and distribute most of the world's
oil, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They build most of the world's
oil, coal, gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear power plants. They
extract most of the world's minerals from the ground. They manufacture
and sell most of the world's automobiles, airplanes, communications
satellites, computers, home electronics, chemicals, medicines,
and biotechnology products. They harvest much of the world's wood
and many of the world's agricultural crops, while processing and
distributing much of its food. Seventy percent of world trade
involves more than 40,000 transnationals, though only a few hundred
giant corporations control the lion's share of this activity.
Given their penchant for dominating politics, economics, and
technology, it is not surprising to find the big transnationals
deeply involved in most of the world's serious environmental crises.
And by promoting corporate expansion to all ends of the earth,
the process of globalization is only deepening the crisis. for
* The widening investment opportunities generated by international
agreements such as GATT and NAFTA allow corporations to play investment-hungry
countries off against one another, thus engendering a "race
to the bottom" for environmental standards.
* Instead of reversing the use of fossil fuels in the first
world, corporations are expanding the production of fossil-fuel
burning automobiles across Asia and Latin America. This increases
the carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere, thus potentially increasing
the severity of global warming.
* The globalization of the chlorine industry is increasing
the levels in the environment of persistent pollutants such as
dioxin-responsible for birth defects, cancers, and endocrine disorders.
Globalization is a double-edged sword: As multinationals and
liberalized treaties promote the expansion of environmentally
hazardous activity around the world, this expansion undermines
environmental controls on corporations here a home. So what were
once viewed as local problems in any part of the planet, are increasingly
becoming drawn into a global dynamic.
The environmental movement emerged over the years in large
part in response to corporate-generated problems. In many cases,
environmentalists' tactics have reined in the worst abuses. For
instance, corporations in the United States can no longer legally
dump toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans. In many other
cases, environmentalists have failed; corporations now bum toxic
waste in incinerators, releasing deadly dioxin.
In turn, corporations' response to the environmental movement
is varied, cleaning up their act in certain instances, and picking
up and exporting their destructive activity to the Third World
in others. A company like Ford, prohibited from dumping its waste
in a U.S. river, moves its operations to Mexico. And those corporate-created
international trade and investment agreements undermine the tools
environmentalists use to rein them in. A recent case in point:
the World Trade Organization just overturned the U.S. ban on importing
shrimp harvested in a way harmful to endangered sea turtles.
Given the global nature of the problem, global solutions are
necessary. We can no longer afford merely to heed the old 1960s
slogan, "think global, act local." Rather, the paradox
and the challenge of our time is to develop ways of thinking and
acting both locally and globally simultaneously. Similarly, environmentalists
will not win the battle to save the environment on their own.
The good news is that a process of grassroots globalization
is taking shape. It is an increasingly vibrant web of communities,
social movements, labor unions, indigenous peoples, environmental
groups, consumer activists, lawyers, artists, elected representatives,
and many more who are working not only to demand, but to begin
to define and build movements for social and environmental justice
across borders, and across what often have been divisions amongst
Joshua Karliner is author of The Corporate Planet: Ecology
and Politics in the Age of Globalization (Sierra Club Books, 1997J.
He is director of TRAC-The Transnational Resource & Action
Center and editorial coordinator of Corporate Watch (www.corpwatch.org)
in San Francisco.
Corporations & the Third World