Oil, gas and coal
With large corporations involved in every aspect of modern life, the scope for environmental damage is massive. One of the major concerns is resource exploitation. Oil, gas and mining are highly profitable for companies, and the more resources they extract from the earth, the more their profits grow. While national governments control the amount that can be taken, they earn large commissions from the process so are inevitably reluctant to curb extraction. This is often worse in third-world countries where oil revenues are fundamental to the economic health of the country. Bolivia, for example, has been the scene of fierce protests over the selling off of its oil and gas to foreign companies.
Non-renewable energy sources are given that name for a reason, and each gallon of oil pulled from the earth has taken millions of years to be produced. This issue is worsened by the burning of these fossil fuels which produces carbon dioxide and leads to air pollution. There has been a long reluctance amongst the main car and oil producers to explore alternative energy vehicles. While governments have promoted research into the possibilities, scientists have spoken about their frustrations in dealing with the main players. Although Shell set up a US$30mn fund to research alternative energy, this is an insignificant amount for a company with sales of US$135bn.
There is often a crossover between mineral deposits and biodiverse sites. In 1997, scientists working for a large oil company were found in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Similarly, Exxon’s expansion of mining in Alaska is seen as an unnecessary risk in such a fragile and fertile environment.
Agriculture and fishing
Internationally controlled farming and fishing is also a point of conflict for environmentalists and corporations. While western countries tend to have strict quotas in place, many corporations use third world countries. McDonald’s was cited in a US government report for its practise of deforestation in the Amazon jungle. The unique ecosystem is carved up to make way for cattle which end up as hamburgers. Overfarming leads to 691 000 square kilometres of previously farmable land becoming desert every year.
Commercial fishing is the scene of much debate at international trade conferences. If a national government sets its quota at an environmentally sustainable level, it comes under fire from fishing companies who point to their competitor’s freedoms. With an estimated 1 billion people around the world relying on fish as their primary source of protein, pressure on the world’s fish stocks is huge. Regulating this highly competitive, highly subsidised industry worldwide is a huge issue.
Despite noble efforts, it has been difficult to produce an enforceable world law on fishing, as states such as Norway and Japan cite their traditional ways as a reason to continue fishing endangered species. In Europe in particular there is a problem from pirate fishing vessels which enter foreign waters to fish.
Large corporations use their sheer size to dominate both the fishing and farming marketplace. As opposed to local farmers and co-operatives whose profit margins are minimal, multinational corporations don’t need to be efficient in their practices. Where a small businessman or farmer must use each resource to its maximum and care for it to increase his yield, corporations are dominated by a culture of exhausting and moving on. At the moment, 90% of all managed water is used to grow food. The overuse of fertiliser, trawlernets for fishing and overlogging are all perpetrated by large-scale organisations.
For companies churning out millions of products everyday, industrial waste is a huge issue. It is a huge issue to the company as it costs money to get rid of, and it is a huge issue for the environment as it is often toxic. Corporations often dump their waste on poor countries, paying them to do so and exploiting their lax environmental regulations. They dump waste in a way that would be illegal in wealthier countries. In America, energy companies donated over US$4.8m to George Bush’s 2000 campaign and have seen the rewards come straight back. Members of the industry were appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which rules on all US environmental law. In August 2003, the EPA issued a new rule which protected large industries from fines and compliance costs.
Noise and air pollution are also costly measures which can be overlooked by large corporations. Depending on their relations with governments of the day, some corporations can get away with environmental degradation. Under the Bush Presidency, public prosecution of polluting companies has dropped by around 75%.
The promotion of a consumer/throwaway culture by major retailers and producers also leads to large amounts of waste production. Landfill is becoming an issue in many countries as space to put the waste becomes harder to find. Most of the worlds’ popular brands are owned by large multinational companies like Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Nestle who continue to excessively package their products and overproduce items. A positive has seen many European supermarkets charge customers for plastic bags to encourage recycling.
Destruction of local habitats and cultures
When corporations move their manufacturing to a third world country, they do it to save money. Lower wages and taxes are the principal incentive, but weak environmental laws can help. In Zambia in 2000, a law was passed which made a new mining venture immune from prosecution if it polluted the area. South East Asia is a popular place for the textile industry which set up factories to churn out shoes, shirts and shorts at low cost. The host governments are happy to have the foreign investment and so turn a blind eye to environmental damage.
The key benefit for corporations to move their industry to third world countries is lower wages. Local workers are not protected by the same labour laws as those in the developed world and are forced into working epic hours for minimum wage. Very few companies who do this have shown any commitment to bettering the lives of its workers and their community. Managers are inevitably brought in from the developed world and the existence of the factory encourages local children to enter the workforce at the expense of their education.
The positive news for the environment has almost universally happened in the developed world. Wealth and lifestyle make environmental protection a lot easier for people from the middle class. While recycling, ecotourism and general ecological awareness are all second nature for people from the developed world, the sheer struggle to survive in the developing world makes it more difficult for poor people to consider the environment. In short, the long term health of our planet has become a luxury for the middle class while the world’s poor are marginalised into forgetting the environment.
A fairer distribution of wealth will solve this. If the developing world’s standard of living can be brought to a level of comfort (without the culture of consumerism) then both money and time will be freed up to start cleaning their environment. The push for globalism, however, is having the opposite effect. With trade and agricultural subsidies, and corporations exploiting poor labour laws, the world’s poor continue to find themselves ironically too involved in staying alive to worry about their environment.