Jared Diamond and the ‘green’ capitalists

Well-known anthropologist and popular science writer Jared Diamond has written an opinion article in the New York Times in which he praises various large multinationals for adopting a supposedly more ‘green’ way of operating, since their profit incentive forces them to do so.(1) He is particularly lavish in his praise for the Chevron oil group, which is or was active in oil projects in New Guinea, the region Diamond is professionally specialized in. He has written about their activities in New Guinea before in his book Collapse, where he also lauded their supposed efforts to improve the environment.(2)

Now his reasoning runs as follows:

When I asked how a publicly traded company could justify to its shareholders its expenditures on the environment, Chevron employees and executives gave me at least five reasons.

First, oil spills can be horribly expensive: it is far cheaper to prevent them than to clean them up. Second, clean practices reduce the risk that New Guinean landowners become angry, sue for damages and close the fields. (The company has been sued for problems in Ecuador that Chevron inherited when it merged with Texaco in 2001.) Next, environmental standards are becoming stricter around the world, so building clean facilities now minimizes having to do expensive retrofitting later.

Also, clean operations in one country give a company an advantage in bidding on leases in other countries. Finally, environmental practices of which employees are proud improve morale, help with recruitment and increase the length of time employees are likely to remain at the company.


Now rare is the person who actually believes that these are honest responses on the part of the Chevron group. As a matter of fact, the activities of that company in New Guinea were heavily contested by the local population, the same people Diamond is supposed to scientifically analyze, but whose interests he is apparently blind to. As Louis Proyect points out:

The 5,000 supposed local beneficiaries of the project, members of the Fasu, Foe and Kikori clans, became increasingly unhappy after oil began being shipped in late 1992. In December 1993, 60 Foe men were arrested for protesting over inadequate royalty payments and were carried off in Chevron helicopters to a nearby jail. Once again Diamond’s favorite capitalist corporation was relying on helicopters to deal with the restless natives.

In December 1995, confrontations deepened further. Indigenous people threatened to blow up the pipeline, prompting Chevron to remove non-essential staff. Although Chevron eventually placated them with handouts, there is little doubt that a culture of dependency was created. Few of them actually work for Chevron but rely on the dole. When Chevron exhausts the local oil supplies, it is doubtful that native Papuans will be able to fend for themselves.

According to Kennedy, “the mining and petroleum sector is based on the degradation of natural capital and produces few human-made assets for PNG. It employs less than 2 percent of the population and does not add value to the raw materials. And in those boom years, the national government ran up an enormous foreign debt, causing it to bow to the strictures of a major structural adjustment program administered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in conjunction with its old colonial master Australia, in order to avert a cash-flow crisis.”


How come Diamond is so blind to these issues? First of all, he is of course no political economist, and one could say that therefore it is all too easy for a company with a sensible public relations department to fool and/or flatter an unsuspecting scientist into supporting their activities. But Diamond himelf has seen fit to use his scientific background to make quite expansive and speculative pronunciations about political economic development in the past, most notably in his best-selling book Guns, Germs and Steel.(5) So he cannot be acquitted on these grounds. It must then be his involvement with the World Wildlife Foundation and a pro-capitalist environmental group called Conservation International. The former of these has been happy to take money from multinational companies in return for good press regarding their environmental activities, under the reasoning that this way at least the money would go to good causes. Something similar applies to the latter organization. But this particular case of Diamond folly makes clear the dangers of such an approach. Capitalist firms are all too aware of the costs of environmental regulation on their profit margins: Chevron and similar companies as a result attempt to stave them off by making a good impression on the green-minded sections of the ruling class, so that they will not draw the public ire. As Proyect describes it:

If Chevron were solely about manipulating imagery, then the job of debunking WWF and Jared Diamond’s claims on their behalf would be a lot easier. As it turns out, Chevron did clean up their act to a significant extent in the 1980s and 90s. This was the product of sustained environmental protests and legal actions by the federal government. In 1994, Chevron spent almost $1.5 billion on environmental programs.


That is not to say however, as Diamond does, that the logic of capital can somehow be reconciled with the interests of the natural environment. Indeed, on occasion multinationals may donate money to environmental causes to improve their standing. Indeed, it is true that they depend on natural resources in many cases, such as Coca-Cola does with water (as Diamond stresses), and that this means that they will have an interest in making sure those resources will stay available for the future. But what is much more relevant is the question in the first place of the use of such resources. Coca-Cola may have an interest in making sure sufficient water is available to produce its soft drink. But do we really need the Coca-Cola company to know how important protecting the water supply is? And if such water is available, why should we waste it all on providing it to that soft drink company? Such companies only have an interest in renewal of resources up to the maximum of their own use. Beyond that, they have absolutely no incentive to create and maintain a sustainable metabolism with nature. Coca-Cola only needs sufficient water for its profit margins, and if it could, it would aggregate all water in the world for its own use to ensure this; and anything beyond the water it needs for its own production, it will not care a fig for. This is why the activities of the Coca-Cola company have been disastrous for the water supply in India, for example.

Diamond is quite right that the fact alone companies have an interest in maintaining renewal of resources should be a good thing. Every little bit helps in that regard. But what he fails to see is that it is precisely the private ownership of those resources that introduces the irrationality into the picture, where on the one hand Coca-Cola donates money to preserve the world’s largest rivers, and on the other hand it depletes the water commons in Rajastan. Coca-Cola does not desire the renewal of water as such, but the renewal of its hold over water in the production process. That is the logic of capital: common resources, private appropriation. This is no basis for a sustainable future, and Diamond should know better.

1), 3) Jared Diamond, “Will Big Business Save the Earth?”. New York Times (Dec. 5, 2009).
2) Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York, NY 2005).
4), 6) Louis Proyect, “Shilling for Chevron”. Counterpunch (May 9, 2005).
5) Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY 2005).


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