Sustainability and Ecological Responsibility under Capitalism

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Chapter summary

Predicted population growth and the associated urbanisation that is projected to intensify the world over are believed by some to be among the greatest risks to the natural environment. The need for water and energy, food, transport and the preservation of habitats in intensely populated areas will exacerbate the already immense pressure on governors and managers of our cities. Depleting rainforests, toxic and dangerous mines, contests of intellectual property may seem like issues that are too distant to gain traction in our daily thinking. Whether we live in cities or rural communities, in powerful countries or countries under siege, we are all implicated. Take something as simple and everyday as our use of paper tissues. When we think about forest depletion, fuel costs of manufacturing and transport of the paper, the coloured inks and the computer heat, the flushing of the tissues, and the disposal of worn out trucks and ships that transport them, it is hard to imagine that this total cost is fairly represented in their price – let alone the cost to the environment. Even if the price reflected the true cost, this would not remedy the choking effects on our ecosystems of the continued logging of trees or the belching trucks and ships.

The questions are complex. Is the life of a snail, for example, to be worthless if it gets in the way of the profit to be made by a tourist operator, a real-estate developer, or a distant investor? To be asked to assess the merits of the development of a tourist enterprise or a housing development (whether through commercial or state channels) against the well-being of a snails may seem a step too wide for our pragmatically orientated minds. So too might be the need to consider the spiritual inhabitants of a region in the consideration of its development – as must the road-engineers in Iceland.  And yet this is increasingly the level of sophistication our practical, economic, political and ethical thinking must attend to – and managers must manage. What we come to understand as ‘sensible’ or ‘radical’ will to some extent depend on our education. What we condone or reject is likewise dependent on what we have been taught to see as right or good.

Managers, as we discussed in Chapter 6, may be pressured to harness diverse ideas to support ‘productive’ purposes, and perhaps to morph and assimilate that which serves corporate interests – often against the best interests of many and of Earth herself. This pressure (and responsibility) is by no means a necessary limitation of careers in management but a significant career opportunity to normalise new ways of being that endorse necessary systemic changes that will ensure the Planet can sustain life for all.

Five stories to develop: How might these be inter-connected?

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive

Walter Scott

Consciousness-raising is activism. Telling stories is one way to do this. Below you will find some thumbnail sketches of five stories you can research more intensively. Use the opportunity to both see who is telling the stories, how much faith you place in the story-teller, and who is telling ‘the truth’. What further investigation do you think is necessary for you to draw some action-related conclusions? How can we be sure we are not ensnared in a web of lies? Share your stories widely. Use the vignettes below and use the range of web pages we have initiated to expand and update your understanding of the situation. We start with revisiting the story of Shell’s activities in Ogoniland.

Shell (again)

“Shell is a global group of energy and petrochemicals companies. With around 93,000 employees in more than 90 countries and territories, Shell helps to meet the world's growing demand for energy in economically, environmentally and socially responsible ways.” Shell is also a leader in connecting social and environmental issues. Shell is a signatory to the Global Compact and in keeping with this commitment is very open about its achievements and challenges. A dark shadow on the reputation of Shell as a global citizen must surely be on its association with the situation in Ogoniland that dramatically illustrates the political, military, environmental and economic interface of the issues facing humanity. The issues came to a head in the 1990s and resulted in the execution of activists such as Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine others. Shell has not shied away from public discussion of this example. They present themselves as having learned much from this sorry situation. To what extent can Shell now be trusted to ‘do the right thing’?


If you think that Shell has some way to go to ensure Ogoniland is restored to viability perhaps you could arrange a boycott of Shell at the pump. However, are there any sources of fuel that can stand close scrutiny? Are we ourselves fuel extravagant? Are we a fuel-addicted culture? Choosing to half your fuel consumption, and then again could be good way to exercise your consciousness on a daily basis. Keep a blog on your achievements and see if you can inspire others to follow suit. You might try the same exercise for the chemical we wash down the sink without a thought – hair products, excreted pollutants from food and medication, batteries … halving our impact will help the environment more than paralysis by analysis!

The Niger Delta: The curse of the black gold

Report by Steve Bloomfield, Saturday, 2 August 2008

Nigeria is one of the world's biggest oil producers but the scramble for riches has brought ruin to the region and its people. Militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) patrol the creeks of Bonny River near the LNG plant in the oil rich Niger delta region of Southern Nigeria … This should be paradise. A land of plenty. The finest schools and hospitals, gleaming infrastructure that shames the West, a place where wealth literally oozes out of the marshy undergrowth. This was the dream, anyhow. To say it has turned into a nightmare doesn't do justice to the horror that the Niger Delta has become; it doesn't even begin to describe just how disastrous the discovery of oil more than 50 years ago has been for the people who live here A sweaty, heaving melting pot of 30 million people from 40-odd ethnic groups speaking more than 200 different languages, the Niger Delta lies on the southern banks of Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. But while we have been using their oil to drive our cars, fuel our aeroplanes, and keep the wheels of our economy turning, those in the Delta have had their land, their lives, their dreams destroyed.

Oil spills have polluted their rivers and land, making fishing and farming impossible. Flares, burning constantly, have filled their air with soot. Billions of dollars have been pumped out of their land with nothing in return. Even the jobs the oil industry promised have gone elsewhere, to well-paid foreigners and Nigerians from less marginalised parts of the country. For those who live closest to the oil fields, the best they can hope for is casual labour: when there is a spill or a pipeline bursts, locals are employed for pennies to clear it up. Oil has polluted the Delta beyond recognition. But it has also polluted the country's politics. When the first discovery was made in the late 1950s, Nigeria was on the cusp of gaining independence from Britain. The potential oil revenues were seen by many as the perfect launch pad for an independent Nigeria. It hasn't worked out that way. Instead, it has become the perfect launch pad for corrupt politicians and businessmen to enrich themselves at the expense of their people.

For the oil firms, a seven-figure ransom is a small price to pay to keep on producing. At five cents a barrel, getting oil out of the ground is 10 times cheaper in Nigeria than in Saudi Arabia. But the cost of doing business in Nigeria is getting higher. MEND's attacks on oil installations, including one on a Shell offshore field in June, have cut the country's oil production by at least 20 per cent. As a result, Angola has now overtaken Nigeria as Africa's largest oil producer. “For now, Shell’s legal threats are bearing ripe fruit,” said Esmée de la Parra of the Nigerian Justice League. “But they can’t keep blustering their way to destruction forever. Eventually, people will have had enough. For the sake of the planet, let’s hope ‘eventually’ is very soon.”

Shell continued its close relationship with the Nigerian military regime during the early 1990s. The oil company requested an increase in security and provided monetary and logistical support to the Nigerian police. Shell frequently called upon the Nigerian police for ‘security operations’ that often amounted to raids and terror campaigns against the Ogoni. In response to growing Ogoni opposition, Shell and the Nigerian government coordinated a public relations campaign to discredit the movement, falsely attributing airplane hijackings, kidnapping and other acts of violence to Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP.

Shell was involved in the development of the strategy that resulted in the unlawful execution of the Ogoni Nine. Shell told the Nigerian regime they needed to deal with Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP. Shell monitored Ken Saro-Wiwa, and closely followed the tribunal and his detention. Prior to the trial, Shell Nigeria told its parent companies that Saro-Wiwa would be convicted and told witnesses that Saro-Wiwa was never going free. Shell held meetings with the Nigerian regime to discuss the tribunal, including with the military president Sani Abacha himself.6 Nearly all of the defendants' lawyers resigned in protest against the trial's cynical rigging by the Abacha regime. The resignations left the defendants to their own means against the tribunal, which continued to bring witnesses to testify against Saro-Wiwa and his peers. Many of these supposed witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government to support the criminal allegations. At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony – in the presence of Shell’s lawyer.


What would encourage you or discourage you from taking a job in Shell; perhaps managing a forecourt of a gas station, leading a team of oil explorers, participating in teams of negotiators, or providing support for peace keepers?

Carving up Amazonia

The Amazon is a region of the globe remote for many readers of this book. The current boundaries drawn across her countenance mark the jurisdictions of nine different nations. Among these, Bolivia has led the world in articulating and formalising the Rights of Mother Earth. 9 Here, the President, Evo Morales,10 faces the gulf between the differences in aspirations for the region. He, who himself expressly identifies as an indigenous person, found himself under pressure from indigenous activists on the one hand and corporate investors on the other.

Who speaks for Mother Earth? Is the reclaiming of Earth as our Mother:

i) Silly?
ii) Distracting?
iii) Creative?
iv) Divisive?
v) Unworkable?
vi) Hopeful?
Why? Why not? For whom? In whose interests?

Potential assignment
How might these examples illustrate the differences between stock and stakeholder rights?
This story can be developed in many directions – starting with any of the below:

The Rainforest and me

Cutting forests, growing grass, managing ranches to grow the beef for the burgers finding increasing favour the world over is just one thread that we can take up for deeper discussion among our friends – be that about the actual production of the beef, the form of distribution through mass and/or elite markets, the fuel needed to transport it, and the disposal of the trucks and ships when they become unusable. World-wide trends to obesity might be another link that could be used to tie health issues and environmental issues into a discussion. Who is managing all the people and processes involved? How are these managers educated? For what are they rewarded? Include in your considerations the managers of pharmaceuticals and medical service that offer the remedies to diet-related diseases in places where cheap bad food has replaced the local production of traditional food. Access to the internet, and a few key words such as ‘diabetes’ and ‘poverty’ is all that is needed to make a start. ‘Thread a web’ to see how many websites are needed to connect diet related illnesses to deforestation.

My eating or not eating or working at McDonald’s and like places will make little difference to the world-at-large. What if the opposite were true?

The Global Greengrants Fund
Terry Odendahl is executive director and CEO of the Global Greengrants Fund. GGF channels small grants to grassroots groups taking action to achieve clean environments, sustainable livelihoods, healthy communities and human rights around the world. Grantmaking is directed by local activists who are deeply knowledgeable about the issues and groups that need support. Over the course of an 18-year history, GGF has made more than 6,500 grants in 141 countries. On September 1 (2011) Terry writes in Alliance:

Women are unduly affected by environmental degradation. They walk further when wells run dry or firewood is scarce. They work harder for less when extreme weather devastates crops. They tend to suffer more from climate change, other environmental disasters and resource-related migration. And yet, or perhaps as a result, women have proven themselves to be remarkable stewards and protectors of their environments. To me, the case for an environmental funder to introduce a specific grantmaking strand focused on women seems clear. Even among my colleagues, however, not everyone agrees with me.

Grantmakers Without Borders is another organisation notable for raising awareness of the important activities of women that are often made invisible in formal policies and economics. Is this attentiveness of women deemed specifically notable because women have been vested with particular responsibilities in the reproduction and care-taking of life? Are men not responsible for care-taking to the same degree? Might there be something to be learned from the deep cosmic connection between spiritualities that view Earth as Mother, that see the return of the body to the earth as part of the ongoing cycle of life, and connect the menstrual cycles of the moon with the fluctuation of the tides?

Many grant makers and micro-financiers see women as the best group to invest in. Do you agree?

People to meet, [web]places to go, actions to take

People to meet

[Web]places to go

Actions to take

a) in your own town
b) in a place you know water shortages are desperate.

What governance issues arise in each case? How is water ‘managed’ for fairness in each case? What remedies are being proposed for shortages, quality, distribution to come from?

Could you? Would you? Should you?

Organise to disrupt the growing and distribution of unsafe foods? Join a watchdog to ensure healthy drinking water in all domestic taps in your town?


Happy Family Holidays or Inter-generational Health Hazard?