The Carbon Club

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Review of 'Private Planet', David Cromwell, Jon Carpenter Publishing £12.99

This book is full of shocking figures. According to the United Nations the gap between the richest fifth of the world's population and the poorest grew from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1997. Three fifths of the population in developing countries--that's almost 3 billion people--lack basic sanitation. In Mozambique, the IMF-imposed measures mean that patients at Maputo Central Hospital have to pay $4 to see a doctor--this is the equivalent of the average person in Britain paying £160. Facts like this are the best response to Tony Blair when he tells us that Africa needs more trade liberalisation.

One of the book's strengths is that it shows that 'free trade' is in fact far from free--it is actually 'forced trade' in which governments pour funds into, and throw their political weight behind, major industries which destroy communities and the planet while enriching those who inhabit the boardrooms. One such government-backed concern, the fossil fuel industry, is one of the world's chief environmental criminals. Cromwell shows how, behind their new mask of environmental responsibility ('green' logos and some half-hearted research into renewable energy) the 'carbon club' of companies such as BP, Shell and Texaco have gone to great lengths to try to discredit scientific studies which have shown the threat of environmental destruction posed by continual reliance on fossil fuels. Other chapters focus on how corporate agriculture is destroying the countryside and producing an ever increasing number of food safety scandals, and how the mainstream media squeezes out oppositional voices and reinforces the notion that the system can't be taken on.

Cromwell favours an approach which combines stronger international regulatory frameworks for business, along with a move towards 'localisation'--the development of greater self sufficiency among local communities which would lessen the need for environmentally and socially destructive global trade. Both of these options are only really sketched out. It is never explained exactly how political and economic power might be transferred from the multinationals to local communities. And for international regulation, Cromwell ends up looking to bodies such as the European Union. This is particularly frustrating as he shows very well how EU policy is itself driven by corporate lobby groups such as the European Round Table of Industrialists.

In the end, the fightback against globalisation is in danger of being reduced to a call for greater 'political will' from policy makers. This is a shame because Cromwell's conclusions don't match up to the problems that he outlines.