Taking Strong Action For Capitalist-Led Environmental Destruction

Taking Strong Action For Capitalist-Led Environmental Destruction

by Michael Barker

“Capital is more than happy to enlist the mainstream [environmental] movement as a partner in the management of nature. Big environmental groups offer capital a threefold convenience: as legitimation, reminding the world that the system works; as control over popular dissent, a kind of sponge that sucks up and constrains the ecological anxiety in the general population; and as rationalization, a useful governor to introduce some control and protect the system from its own worst tendencies, while ensuring the orderly flow of profits.”
—Joel Kovel, 2002. (1)

(Swans – January 11, 2010) Global capitalist elites have long been masters of the exploitation of labour to manage sustained destruction of life. With utmost concern for shareholders, the principles of scientific management have been used to shackle workers to corporate priorities to efficiently harvest planet earth. In this way, humane citizens are socialized to accept absurd capitalist growth imperatives as natural, which enables the wealth of human energy to be channelled into the eradication of nature. Moreover, in this world of inverted realities, radical alternatives to this toxic state of affairs are regularly considered to contradict true human nature; so we are told it is natural to submit to arbitrary authority and let a tiny elite profit from the corporate management of life. This, however, does not prevent ordinary people from resisting such brutality. Indeed, throughout history ruling elites have been kept busy devising more effective ways of containing such dissent, and so this article will review some of the most significant elite-driven environmental initiatives that have served such purposes (from the 1960s onwards).

By highlighting the way by which elites, working hand in glove with the United Nations, have sought to manage the environmental terrain to disable radical movements seeking to eradicate capitalism, it is hoped that individual readers will recognize the futility of putting their hope in the hands of such illegitimate environmental managers. Only then, when such false illusions have been shattered, will mass movements driven by radical analyses be able to begin to work to sustain life in a just and equitable fashion.

Ending the Nuclear Threat? And the Birth of a Movement

Environmental historian John McCormick suggests that it “is credible” that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) was the first global environmental agreement. (2) Yet paradoxically, as peace historians Frances McCrea and Gerald Markle observe, this important agreement marked the point at which “the tide of peace activism began to ebb,” such that “nuclear testing, [now] widely perceived as an environmental and health issue rather than one of disarmament, was now a non-issue.” In fact, the sad reality is that once this pioneering global environmental agreement had been signed “American nuclear testing — conducted underground where the U.S. enjoyed a technological advantage — greatly accelerated.” (3) The conservation movement thus ironically celebrates the advent of an environmental agreement that coincided with the weakening of the global peace movement; that is, the single strongest movement that challenging the legitimacy of the largest source of pollution, war.

Following the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, McCormick writes that the “idea of universal threats to the environment” was then “further reinforced” with the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring (Hamilton, 1963). Here, to his credit, McCormick points out that Murray Bookchin had published his groundbreaking book Our Synthetic Environment six months earlier (to “relative failure”), observing that the key difference between the two books was that Carson’s “concentrated on a single issue” (pesticide overuse), while Bookchin’s “examined a broad range of the incidental effects of modern technology, from air pollution to contaminated milk.” (4) Understandably, simple uni-focal environmental issues that failed to implicate all aspects of capitalism’s destruction of the world’s flora and fauna were clearly easier for capitalists to integrate and co-opt than systemic critiques such as those offered by more radical analysts like Bookchin.

With imperial wars ensuring total devastation of land and millions of people, concern for the environment gathered momentum throughout the 1960s, especially within liberal political elite circles. For example, in July 1965…

… Adlai Stevenson (then US ambassador to the United Nations) gave a speech before the UN Economic and Social Council in Geneva on the problems of urbanisation throughout the world. In the speech (originally drafted by Barbara Ward), he used the metaphor of the earth as a spaceship on which humanity travelled dependent on its vulnerable supplies of air and soil. (p.80)

Here it is critical to observe that Barbara Ward went on to play a key role in driving the corporate environmental agenda, and before her death in 1981, Ward had served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation-backed Conservation Foundation.

Blame the People!

Something had to be done to save the environment, and as Katherine Barkley and Steve Weissman point out in their classic 1970 article “The Eco-Establishment,” the “elite resource planners took as their model for action the vintage 1910 American conservation movement, especially its emphasis on big business cooperation with big government.” The Conservation Foundation was a leading member of the eco-establishment and helped (amongst various other propaganda duties) to prepare the congressional background paper for the 1968 hearings on National Policy on Environmental Quality, a paper that explicitly laid out how elites planned “to pick the pocket of the consumer to pay for the additional costs they will be faced with” as a result of capitalisms inherent destructiveness. Elite conservation groups and the mass media quickly ensured that population growth, not capitalism, was portrayed as the major threat to life, and in 1968 the Sierra Club (under the guidance of David Brower) published the work of the “unashamed neo-Malthusian” Paul Ehrlich as The Population Bomb, which “became one of the best-selling environmental books of all time.” (5)

Later, elite environmentalists adopted a faux-holistic approach to aid them in their efforts to manage the environment, which resulted in another widely celebrated neo-Malthusian book, The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome, 1972). McCormick writes how the roots of this book “went back to the late 1940s, when Jay Forrester, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), pioneered the application of the digital computer, tactical military decision making, and information-feedback systems to studies of the interacting forces of social systems.” These ideas were then picked up by Aurelio Peccei, an Italian management consultant and president of Olivetti, who in 1968 “convened a meeting in Rome of a group of 30 economists, scientists, educationalists, and industrialists,” which subsequently became known as the Club of Rome. Under the remit of this elite “Club” Forrester recruited Dennis Meadows who authored The Limits to Growth. (6) Club of Rome critics, Robert Golub and Joe Townsend, write:

The arguments of Limits imply the need for an international body to regulate the global economy, but the need for such a body grew out of the intrinsic instability of the world’s economy — as was recognized earlier by many students of the multinational corporation. The growth and spread of multinational corporations in the sixties outstripped the abilities of national governments to regulate and control the global economic system. Given enough foresight one might even have expected that the inability of governments to regulate the world economy in the face of the increasing economic power of the multinational corporations would be most evident in those countries (such as Italy) whose governments, because of their weakness, had the most difficulty in protecting their native capital. (7)

Priming the Environmental Movement

In 1971 two meetings were held in preparation for the forthcoming United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (otherwise known as the Stockholm Conference), the first in Founex, Switzerland, and the second in Canberra, Australia. The Founex meeting was convened by Maurice Strong, then director-general of the Canadian External Aid Office, who was subsequently “appointed secretary-general of the Stockholm conference, and headed a 27-nation Preparatory Committee set up to make plans for Stockholm and to draw up an agenda.” (8) Significantly, in the preparatory meetings “Strong had constantly emphasised the compatibility of development and environmental quality in his preparatory talks with LDC [Less-Developed Counties] governments.” These consensus-making talks ensured that any controversies were aired prior to the main event so that the actual conference could be managed more efficiently: “Differences of opinion remained, but they did not polarise the conference irretrievably.”

Another important tool that helped solidify a political consensus at Stockholm was an “unofficial report that would provide Stockholm delegates with the intellectual and philosophical foundation for their deliberations” that was commissioned by Strong and co-authored by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos (and then reviewed by a committee of 152 consultants). (9) Funding for this report was provided by the Albert Schweitzer Chair at Columbia University, the World Bank, and the Ford Foundation. (10) This report was later published as Only One Earth (Norton & Company, 1972) “by a new research institute, the International Institute for Environmental Affairs (IIEA), set up in 1972 under the sponsorship of the Aspen Institute.” (11) The IIEA had already played an important role in the pre-conference preparations, and so it is significant that the “philosophical foundations of IIEA lay in the results of a four-month feasibility study conducted in February-May 1970 by the Anderson Foundation.”

IIEA’s cochairman, Robert O. Anderson (chairman of Atlantic Richfield and the seed funder of the Institute), believed that the institute should “steer a steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected.” (12)

Anderson was, and still is, a powerful oil executive, with excellent contacts in the broader corporate world, having formerly served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (1961-4) and on the board of directors of other well-known corporate giants like Chase Manhattan Bank, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and Weyerhaeuser Company. In 1974 Anderson was chair of the Rockefeller’s Resources for the Future, sitting alongside fellow board member and fellow oil profiteer Maurice Strong, who served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1971 until 1977. (13)

The United Capitalists’ Environment Programme

After Stockholm Maurice Strong went on to found and head the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and in 1973 “he appointed senior staff from the areas he knew best: business, politics and international public service.” Strong remained as UNEP’s head for nearly three years, after which he was appointed president, chairman, and CEO of Canada’s national oil company, Petro-Canada. (14) However, despite UNEP’s corporate approach to organizing, funding “has been a continuing problem,” and during its first eight years the United States was the single largest supporter of their work, contributing some 36 percent of the operating costs. (15) Thus one can understand why UNEP, working in coordination with groups like the IUCN (now known as the World Conservation Union), adopted a highly conservative approach to environmental management. Of course funding obtained from liberal foundations helped ensure that already conservative organizations did not stray far from elite agendas. Raymond Dasmann…

… recalls that, at the time he joined IUCN in 1970 as a senior staff ecologist, there had been three changes in the Union: it had new leadership, a new organisational structure, and had been given a major grant from the Ford Foundation. Ford had suggested the need for more centralised control by IUCN headquarters over its activities. … A more significant development noted by Dasmann was the shift in emphasis at IUCN towards a concern for economic development; for example, conservation and development was the theme of the 1972 IUCN General Assembly in Banff, Canada. (p.196)

Three years after UNEP was established, “UNEP asked IUCN to prepare a wildlife conservation strategy,” and Dasmann and Duncan Poore spent the next few years working on drafts of this critical policy document. Lee Talbot, who went on to head the IUCN, “recall[ed] that ‘the first draft was essentially a wildlife textbook’, but that each subsequent draft brought the previously opposing views of developers and conservationists closer together, and that the final draft was a consensus between the two points of view.” (16) Then in 1977, with UNEP funding, the IUCN set about preparing a World Conservation Strategy report. (17)

Published in March 1980 under the principal authorship of Robert Prescott-Allen, the IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy was by the admission of its authors, a compromise which attempted to establish an “accommodation between conservation and development.” On the one hand the authors of the report…

recognized that conservation and development should be promoted as compatible objectives. On the other, by limiting itself to the conservation of nature and natural resources, the Strategy paid little heed to the fact that the problems faced by the natural environment are part of the broader issues related to the human environment. (18)

McCormick correctly points out that “The two cannot be divorced.” Yet they were, thus providing a solid ideological base for subsequent pro-capitalist means of managing the environment, which were quickly realised through the work budding “conservation” biologists and by the World Commission on Environment and Development (otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission).

Sustainable Development for Ecological Imperialism

Convened by the United Nations in 1983, and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Brundtland Commission held its first meeting in 1984, with funding provided by various foreign governments and liberal foundations, including not least the Ford Foundation. (19) The secretary-general of the Brundtland Commission (1983-7) and lead author of the Commission’s most famous report, Our Common Future, Jim MacNeill, happened to be the former chair of the International Institute for Sustainable Development — a group whose current president, David Runnallis, had in the 1970s, worked with Barbara Ward to found the International Institute for Environment and Development. Thus it is wholly fitting that Maurice Strong was counted on as an important member of the Brundtland Commission. (20)

The Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987) is perhaps most famous for popularizing the misnomer of sustainable development. On this rhetorical success, Brian Tokar observes:

Merging the language of long-term sustainability from the environmental movement with the “development” discourse of neo-colonialism, sustainable development became a rationale for advocating the continued expansion of capitalist market economies in the global South, while paying lip service to the needs of the environment and the poor. (21)

Consequently, it should come as little surprise that the Brundtland Commission’s report failed to incorporate an “analysis of the military-industrial complex and its role in industrial development.” Moreover, as Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger point out, the chapter of the Brundtland report on peace and security “leads the Brundtland Commission to propose a military kind of international management of environmental problems and resources, the so-called commons.” (22) This militaristic logic was extended in 1989 by then World Resources Institute vice president, Jessica Matthews, whose Malthusian article “Redefining Security” played an important role in “set[ting] the stage for the linking of environment and security.” Incidentally, the elite stronghold, that is the World Resources Institute, also happened to have been commissioned by UNDP (in 1987) to make policy recommendations based on the Brundtland Commission’s conclusions. This advice in turn eventually led to the creation of the World Bank-initiated Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which was initially chaired and then headed by one of World Resources Institute’s senior vice presidents, Mohamed El-Ashry. (23) The GEF was of course an integral part of the eco-establishment, and as Zoe Young points out, it has succeeded “divid[ing] activists willing to play along with the US and [World] Bank’s strategic agenda from those who will not; the latter can be dismissed as extreme and unconstructive, while the former’s skills and passion can be channelled through GEF processes to extend the reach of corporate capital and culture.” (24) Given such outcomes it should come as no surprise that in 1990 the World Resources Institute “issued a study purporting to show that underdeveloped nations of the global South — especially China, India, and Brazil-pumped as much carbon dioxide into the biosphere as the developed countries of the North.” The evident absurdity of such conclusions was highlighted by Mark Dowie, but despite the reports illogic, Dowie correctly noted how: “As a justification for environmental imperialism, it will surely be used to formulate aid and multinational lending policies for years to come.” (25)

A Corporate Earth Summit

Such elitist precedents demonstrate the success the eco-establishment has had in effectively seizing control of the mainstream environmental agenda. So, as Chatterjee and Finger suggest, while “[o]verall, the Stockholm Conference was characterized by heavy confrontation between activists of all sorts and governments” (which is itself debatable) this phenomenon was certainly not to be repeated at the Rio Earth Summit (otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or UNCED). Indeed, they continue that at Rio “the overall climate was one of consensus and cooperation”; (26) a result that should hardly be considered surprising given that the secretary-general of the Summit was Maurice Strong. (Strong’s senior advisor at the Earth Summit was former congresswoman and Women’s Environment and Development Organization co-founder Bella Abzug.) Chatterjee and Finger conclude:

Rather than developing a new vision in line with the challenges of global ecology, UNCED… rehabilitated technological progress and other cults of efficiency. Rather than coming up with creative views on global governance, UNCED has rehabilitated the development institutions and organizations as legitimate agents to deal with new global challenges. These include the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN, as well as the national governments and the multinational corporations. And, finally, rather than making the various stakeholders collaborate and collectively learn our way out of the global crisis, UNCED has coopted some, divided and destroyed others, and promoted the ones who had the money to take advantage of this combined public relations and lobbying exercise. (p.173)

Likewise, Michael Goldman writes that:

If we are to learn anything from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio… it is that the objective of the Summit’s major power brokers was not to constrain or restructure capitalist economies and practices to help save the rapidly deteriorating ecological commons, but rather to restructure the commons (e.g. privatize, “develop,” “make more efficient,” valorize, “get the price right”) to accommodate crisis-ridden capitalisms. The effect has not been to stop destructive practices but to normalize and further institutionalize them. (27)

The business co-option of the Earth Summit had of course been a long time coming. Indeed, the “sustainable” business community had begun organizing in earnest in 1984 following the first World Industry Conference on Environmental Management: a forum that eventually led to the creation of a Business Council for Sustainable Development on the eve of the Earth Summit. Timothy Doyle observes how:

As the 1980s wore on environmental antagonists looked to other less conflictual means of securing their future power. No longer did many business interests across the globe deny the existence of environmental damage caused, in part, to their own malpractices. Their ploy changed: to beat the environmentalists at their own game (but on newly defined terms and agendas); to subvert them, to divide them, to supplant them, to appear to be greener than the green. (28)

The formation of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) is particularly interesting as the organizations two cofounders were Maurice Strong and the Swiss billionaire industrialist, Stephan Schmidheiny (29) — a friend of Strong’s from his days at the Davos World Economic Forum (which Strong had chaired). According to critics, this group was part of “a strategy to dislodge the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations as it moved towards enforceable rules governing the operations of multinational corporations.” Indeed, as Joshua Karliner observed, one particularly significant outcome from the Earth Summit was the “agile and successful endeavor to virtually silence all discussion among governments about the need for international regulation and control of global corporations in the name of sustainable development.” In this regard, Karliner writes that one “of the first obstacles that the corporate diplomats from the [International Chamber of Commerce] and the BCSD had to overcome was a branch of the United Nations itself — the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC).” Problematically it seems, the United Nations Economic and Social Council had asked the Centre to “prepare a set of recommendations on transnationals and other large industrial enterprises that governments might use when drafting the Earth Summit’s central document,” Agenda 21, which were to be submitted in March 1992. Yet the month before this date, the then UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali (1992-7)…

… announced that the UNCTC would be eliminated as an independent entity. This move in effect gutted the agency of what little power it might have had. But it still had the report commissioned by ECOSOC to deliver to Maurice Strong and his UNCED Secretariat. Try as it might, however, the UNCTC couldn’t get the Secretariat to accept its report. Meanwhile, Strong had appointed Stephan Schmidheiny as his senior industry advisor. Schmidheiny proceeded to form the BCSD and prepare Changing Course as an official industry submission to UNCED. (30)

But his was not the only way in which the United Nations had actively served elite interests at the Earth Summit, as they simultaneously acted to subtly co-opt the very nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provided radical criticisms of the entire event. Thus according to Chatterjee and Finger, UNDP spent US$475,000 on sponsoring NGOs in 1990 and 1991, and “then US$206,000 in the final six months up to and including Rio.” And from these funding initiatives “sprang two major drives among the Southern country NGOS,” the Third World Network, and Maximo Kalaw’s Green Forum of the Philippines. Subsequently while the Third World Network “directed [most of their criticisms] against the World Bank, the IMF, GATT, and of course the USA” they “were silent about UNDP.” This was a critical omission on their part given the integral role that the United Nations has played, and continues to fulfil, in legitimizing and promoting neoliberalism. Indeed, the extent of cooperation between UNDP and the Third World Network meant that the latter was even privately briefed “on the key issues that the World Bank could be swayed on.” (31)

Given the Third World Network’s uncritical stance towards the United Nations, it is fitting that Martin Khor, who formerly led this Network since its inception in 1984, is now a member of the United Nations Committee on Development Policy. Moreover as of March 2009, Khor has been the executive director of the South Center — a group whose board of directors was chaired by the former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali from 2003 until 2006. (Khor had previously served on the South Center’s board of directors from 1996 until 2002.) Incidentally, the current chair of the South Center is the former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, who is presently also a trustee of the democracy-manipulating African Wildlife Foundation; while prior to Boutros Boutros Ghali’s chairmanship of the board, Gamani Corea served in this position, which is interesting given that he chaired Maurice Strong’s Founex Panel of experts in 1971 in preparation for the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Returning to Khor’s background, it is also worth adding that he is also a board member of the International Forum on Globalization, a group that has been heavily supported by Ted Turner and Douglas Tompkins’ controversial eco-philanthropy.

From Earth Summit to Earth Mining

When Maurice Strong’s tenure as secretary-general of the Earth Summit ended (in 1992) “he became the chairman of the organizing committee for the Earth Council.” The Council’s mission was to “support and empower people in building a more secure, equitable and sustainable future” and at the invitation of the Costa Rican government their Secretariat was established in San José, Costa Rica, in September 1992. Amongst others sitting alongside Strong on the initial organizing committee for this group was Stephan Schmidheiny. (32) Now known as the Earth Council Alliance, their chair is Tommy Short (who is also a council member of Earth Charter International); (33) while their president, former Imperial Chemical Industries executive, Marcelo Carvalho de Andrade, is the founder and chairperson of Pro-Natura, which “was started in Brazil in 1985 and by 1992 had become one of the very first ‘Southern’ NGOs to be internationalised following the Rio Conference.” Marcelo de Andrade additionally serves as a board member of the controversial group Counterpart International, and on the board of Earth Restoration Corps (which is headed by Maurice Strong’s wife Hanne Strong).

To this day, Strong’s dedication to corporate liberalism remains strong, and in the wake of the Earth Summit he took up the chairmanship of both the World Resources Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute. Then in 1999, Strong, the former CEO of Petro-Canada, felt it was time to retire from the board of directors of the oil and gas company Cordex Petroleums — a company that had been managed by his son, Fred Strong. That said, despite maintaining his commitment to managing the environment, Strong continues to enjoy harvesting the planet, as he is a board member of Wealth Minerals Ltd — an organization that describes itself as “a well financed and managed leader in uranium exploration focused on identifying world-class discoveries in Argentina.” (34)


While this article has clearly demonstrated that the global “environmental” management championed by Maurice Strong poses a significant threat to life on planet earth, Strong is by no means the main problem. Instead, Strong is merely a brilliant example of the breed of two-faced technocrats that have arisen to sustain capitalism and protect wildlife (but only where it is deemed profitable). However, by tracking Strong’s stewardship of capitalist interests historically — as this article has done — it is possible to demystify the grotesque global circus that has grown over the years to ostensibly save the environment. Elite institutions like the United Nations must be superseded: something that is unlikely to happen until we collectively start channelling mental resources to describing suitable alternatives: Communism anyone?

See notes at:


~ by Cory Morningstar on January 11, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: