Liquid Asset

by Kirkpatrick Sale

The Nation magazine, May 11, 1998


Mark the date: March 21, 1998. On that day, water-yes, water, the water of oceans, rivers, lakes and rains-officially became a corporate commodity. The corporate stranglehold on humanity may now be regarded as complete. It was in Paris on March 21 that a United Nations conference on water decreed that henceforth, as Reuters reported, water "should be paid for as a commodity rather than be treated as an essential staple to be provided free of cost." French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin congratulated the delegates for adopting a "prudent" market-oriented approach and renouncing the old outmoded idea, "which held on for far too long, that water could only be free because it fell from the heavens."

This was seconded by French President Jacques Chirac, who added that it would cost some $400 billion to set up water-market networks around the world. Governments alone, Chirac said, would not be able to foot the bill. Guess who will. And guess who will profit.

There have been many pathways by which corporations in industrial nations, particularly the United States, have arrived at their virtually unchallenged eminence in the world economy- and thus the world polity and society as well. One was a quiet legal campaign over the years that gradually gave corporations constitutional protection for lobbying and influence-peddling, full-bore campaign contributions (defined as corporate "free speech"), tax-free issue advertising, privacy and, ultimately, exclusive shareholder (as against worker and community) responsibility. Another was the decades-long battle to impose a global free-trade system, symbolized by NAFTA and GATT and soon to be made all-inclusive by the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, giving corporations unlimited power over financial regulations (in effect, over national sovereignty). And of course the technology revolution of the past twenty years has enabled corporations to eliminate tens of millions of jobs (and benefits), thus gutting union power, while keeping track of cheap-labor "outsourcing" overseas and sloshing trillions of dollars around the world trading markets every day.

Against such overwhelming corporate power national governments have no defense. That is why the biggest story of the past decade has been the process by which pliant governments eagerly join in to facilitate corporate aggrandizement or else get crushed beneath the global steamroller-and it looks as if not even China will escape.

Corporate control has meant increasing and now nearly complete control over people's jobs, of course, and of people's standards of living. Increasingly it has meant control over information, communication, entertainment, culture, education and political choice; over the rate and range of exploitation and exhaustion of natural resources and the extent to which toxic pollution will be spread or curtailed. Not to mention control over food, drink, health care, travel, military production, scientific research, technological innovation and the very chromosomes of life.

Now water. Would anyone like to bet against the concept of "air rights" being extended to include what you breathe-and who will sell it to you?


Kirkpatrick Sale, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of a number of books on the environment and kindred topics. His most recent work is Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War Against the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (Addison- Wesley).

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