Recent events across the globe have confirmed that the two institutions most people think of as the pillars of our evolved consumer society — capitalism and democracy — are undergoing an existential crisis whose evolution no one can predict. The sustainability of both has been called into question, partly because the sustainability of the planet and the human race appear far from certain.
Paul Polman, who formerly chaired the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), believes the sustainability of liberal capitalism will depend on its ability to demonstrate a sense of social responsibility. Prior to his position at the ICC, Polman was chief executive of Unilever, a major supplier of consumer products designed to make people “feel good, look good and get more out of life.” Before that, he had earned his stripes at Proctor & Gamble (“Stepping forward as a good corporate citizen”) and Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage conglomerate.
The World Needs a People’s Vaccine
Those three organizations reflect the core reality of the consumer society, a two-century long historical phenomenon that has offered the world a cornucopia of convenient merchandise to make life more enjoyable, while organizing a monumental assault on the viability of planet Earth.
Nestlé has been accused of massively stealing water from the natural environment and “drying up surface water resources,” to resell it at a profit in plastic bottles. As Nestlé’s chief financial officer, Polman was undoubtedly aware of that activity. His experience at Nestlé may have inspired him to inaugurate the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan as a way of redeeming past sins. His status as an ecologically-minded capitalist is now publicly confirmed. On the occasion of his resignation from Unilever in 2018, the Irish Independent noted that “the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, marks him out as one of the most far-sighted business leaders of his generation.”
Polman served as chair of the International Chamber of Commerce for two years. Its current chairman, Ajay Banga, militates for policies aimed at “promoting greater prosperity and opportunity for all,” the core values of the consumer society. He prudently adds that its vocation “includes being a crucial voice in the re-building of a sustainable and inclusive global economy.” That nod in the direction of sustainability is Polman’s legacy.
Consistent with a recent study conducted by the ICC on the impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, Polman is now speaking out on the urgent and compelling need to vaccinate the entire world, not just the populations of developed countries. He is alarmed by what the International Chamber of Commerce condemns as “vaccine nationalism.” The ICC study claims that “the global economy stands to lose as much as $9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing economy access to COVID-19 vaccines, as much as half of which would fall on advanced economies.”
Some may nevertheless find it paradoxical that the ICC failed to support or even mention the proposal of waivers on COVID vaccine patents. Instead, in a press release with the title, “How intellectual property can strengthen our response to climate change and COVID-19,” it defended the sacrosanct nature of intellectual property (IP) as championed by world-famous divorcee Bill Gates.
A Guardian article highlighting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s politically motivated call for a universal deployment of COVID vaccines cites Polman’s assessment of the risk. “We can’t have global solidarity and trust around tackling climate change if we do not show solidarity around vaccines. Developing countries will not come with more ambitious targets [on emissions] if they do not see developed countries showing some solidarity on vaccines, and climate funding,” Polman said.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
An ideal insisted on by prominent public figures, despite being in total contradiction with the aggressively competitive values they promote as the key to prosperity
Polman wants developed countries to show “some solidarity.” That is probably what they will do, but showing is not doing. The first sentence of the ICC’s mission statement reads: “Everything we do at ICC aims to promote international trade and investment as vehicles for inclusive growth and prosperity.” In its defense of IP, it proclaimed: “We in the business community pledge to do our part to facilitate this ethical, humanitarian and economic solution to the pandemic as quickly as possible.” Pledging to do one’s part is typically an act of showing that falls short of doing.
Growth is the first and perhaps only serious principle at the core of the consumer society. The ICC has good reasons to prefer growth that is inclusive and that leads to prosperity. That is the key to stability. But when the motive that drives growth is to overtake and even neutralize or cancel your competition, which has become the norm in the competitive culture of capitalism, not only does inclusivity become unattainable and prosperity reserved for the few, but stability itself can only be guaranteed through coercion. The security state becomes the means of maintaining stability. This is a far cry from the “ethical, humanitarian and economic solution” the ICC says it supports. Its refusal to take the leap and propose waivers for vaccine IP makes this paradox clear. The language it uses tells the story.
Polman’s warning about the need to “showing some solidarity” concerning COVID-19 vaccines is correct, so long as the solidarity is real and engaged. Showing solidarity means acting, accomplishing something, not just pronouncing a wish for solidarity. The most realistic and, ultimately, depressing corollary of Polman’s assertion is that because we can now clearly see that the current system has not allowed us to “show solidarity around vaccines,” we may reasonably give up any serious hope of mobilizing the solidarity required to address the much more universal and compelling problem of climate change.
The history of the 20th century was dominated by a logical chain of events stemming from the triumph of industrial organization in the 19th century. Because the West’s success in industrializing depended on the brutal asymmetry of colonial domination and the sheer exercise of power, the kind of rivalries it produced among the industrializing nations inevitably led to two world wars initiated in Europe. The cataclysm associated with those two conflicts inaugurated the period of European decolonization. That, in turn, ushered in a new phase of neocolonialism, managed and governed by the emerging dominant power, the United States.
Once the communist block led by the Soviet Union was eliminated, due to its incompatibility with the dominant system, the concept of neoliberal globalization had a clear path to end up dominating every serious person’s thinking and every government’s economic organization, including that of communist China. It also inevitably consolidated and perpetuated the driving force behind industrialization itself, with its celebration of growth. It meant the inevitable global triumph of the consumer society culture whose founding principle, at least in material terms, is the transformation a maximum number of resources into waste. Waste, paradoxically, becomes the most accurate measure of industrial success. Not only does industrial production massively produce waste, it consistently encourages the wasteful behavior of consumers as the means of keeping demand alive and stimulating growth. Plastic has become the ultimate symbol of the culture of waste.
Unilever and the International Chamber of Commerce may make a public display of regretting this reality, but to fulfil their missions, they must support its logic, even while “pledging” to do it in a more reasonable way. But this clearly will not be enough. A new study published by the Swiss Re Institute and Oxfam indicates the consequences of this trend, all of which Paul Polman will undoubtedly agree should worry us.
The Guardian summarizes its conclusion in these terms: “The economies of rich countries will shrink by twice as much as they did in the Covid-19 crisis if they fail to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to research.” Jerome Haegeli, group chief economist at Swiss Re, makes the point concerning climate change that “staying where we are is not an option — we need more progress by the G7. That means not just obligations on cutting CO2 but helping developing countries too, that’s super-important.”
In other words, all that’s required is to substitute a culture of global solidarity for today’s culture of hyper-competition. Can we really count on the G7 to make that happen?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.