Perhaps the new maxim is he who pays the lobbyist calls the tune. Just look at the corporate quid pro quo exacted after George Bush's election as United States president. Richard Parsons, head of Time-AOL, speaking at the world economic summit meeting in New York, declared (with no hint of anything worrying in the statement) that: "Once the church determined our lives, then the state, and now it's corporations." We hear constantly of the advantages of a market-based response to the world's ills - philanthropy, self-regulation, corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct. None of these is an acceptable proxy for state responsibility, policy and control.
Even the UN has acceded to this through initiatives such as the global compact with 50 of the world's biggest, most controversial corporations (1). As the Guardian commented, the UN "appears to be turning itself into an enforcement agency for the global economy, helping Western companies to penetrate new markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the UN is declaring war on the powerless."
The sustainable development philosophy has also fostered the abhorrent notion of "sustainable consumption", which is sustainability as redefined in Orwellian newspeak. After the Brundtland Report (2), sustainable development means not a continuation of present growth patterns, but a five to ten-fold acceleration of it.
Eight hundred million people suffer from malnutrition while a small percentage of the world's population crams fast food. The food industry is a good example of consumerism, global disparities and the breakdown of governance. The opening of a great world market in the name of free trade, the rules of the World Trade Organisation and the disposition of grants, all promote the consolidation and centralisation of the food industry: 60% of the international sector in food is controlled by 10 companies dealing in seed, fertilisers, pesticides, processing, manufacture and shipment.
There are now more than 200 treaties on the environment, three-quarters of which have been ratified during the last 30 years. But the commitments made with such publicity in Rio and elsewhere mostly remain a dead letter. Worse, the effectiveness of these agreements is too often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement.
I wonder if it is not already too late for sustainable development. Many processes underway are probably irreversible. Climate change won't wait while we procrastinate for conclusive scientific data. Perhaps the time has come to impose a moratorium on new scientific or technological innovations that have potentially negative implications for the planet and people.
Science, or what we should increasingly call corporate science, always seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough which, however ominous it may sound, will be accompanied by reassuring noises about its potential to cure cancer, reverse climate change or end world hunger if only we keep the research grants flowing.