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Cooking the Books: Profits before petitions

“Profit before planet. Who is making deals with your government?” read the front page of the leaflet from Friends of the Earth that dropped through people’s letterboxes recently. Their answer:

“Oil companies. Supermarkets. Petro-chemical firms. Airlines. Globally they spend millions of pounds undermining environmental policy. Big businesses spend serious money on advertising and PR telling us that they are doing their bit for the environment. But away from the public eye they’re spending many millions holding back environmental progress. Airlines are spending millions to persuade governments to expand airports. Petro-chemical companies are blocking environmentally friendly measures because of the cost to them. Oil companies are funding ‘independent thinktanks’, designed to undermine serious climate change research. And they are all doing it for one thing. Profit.”

True, all too true. But the big businesses concerned are only doing what they were set up to do – preserve and increase the wealth of their shareholders. This is an economic imperative as well as a legal obligation. The directors and executives of a business who did not seek to maximise profits and grow bigger could face legal action from its shareholders. More importantly, it would also risk going under in the battle of competition as, if it didn’t seek to maximise profits, it would not accumulate enough funds to invest in the new productive equipment and methods that it must if it is produce cheaper or, at least, as cheaply as its competitors.

This competitive striving for profits is built-in to capitalism. The accumulation of more and more capital out of profits is in fact what capitalism is all about. The legal obligation on businesses to do this is a reflection of this basic economic mechanism of capitalism.

So what do Friends of the Earth propose to do about it? Campaign against the whole profit system and for a society in which there would be no profit-seeking businesses controlling production because productive resources would have become the common heritage of all and be used to directly provide for people’s needs?

No, not at all. They accept the profit system and merely offer to restrain profit-seeking activities of big businesses by lobbying against their excesses. “We have nearly 40 year’s campaigning and political lobbying experience. So we know how to take on, and beat, the corporate bullies.” They claim an “ability to influence change” and that “left to their own devices, big businesses will simply not put the planet before profits. But there are two things you can do today to make them act.”

First, make a monthly donation to them of £3 a month. Second, sign a “campaign action card” to be delivered to David Cameron at Number 10, saying: “I am therefore calling on you and your Government to put the interests of people and our planet first – and not allow yourselves to be bullied by big business.” This is asking for the impossible. No government has, nor ever will, put people before profits. Their role is, precisely, to establish or maintain the best conditions for profit-making. The cards will just end up in the rubbish bin all government departments will have for such petitions.

Having said this, governments sometimes do intervene, in the overall capitalist interest, to restrain the activities of some business or industry where these activities are endangering the interests of all other businesses and industries. But they can work this out for themselves without the lobbying of no doubt well-meaning charities.