Earth Predators

by Joshua Karliner

Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 1998


Transnational corporations are the dominant institutions of our time -far exceeding most governments in power and scope. Corporations are driving the process of economic globalization, creating a legal framework of treaties which institutionalizes their growing political and economic dominance over the planet, undermining democracy and ecological sustainability. Indeed, we are living in an era of what Ralph Nader calls corporate supremacy.

Consider the following: the combined revenues of just General Motors and Ford-the two largest automobile corporations in the world-exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, 51 of the largest 100 economies in the world are corporations.

Described by the United Nations as "the productive core of the globalizing world economy," transnational corporations and their affiliates account for most of the world's industrial capacity, technological knowledge, and international financial transactions. They mine, refine, and distribute most of the world's oil, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They build most of the world's oil, coal, gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear power plants. They extract most of the world's minerals from the ground. They manufacture and sell most of the world's automobiles, airplanes, communications satellites, computers, home electronics, chemicals, medicines, and biotechnology products. They harvest much of the world's wood and many of the world's agricultural crops, while processing and distributing much of its food. Seventy percent of world trade involves more than 40,000 transnationals, though only a few hundred giant corporations control the lion's share of this activity.

Given their penchant for dominating politics, economics, and technology, it is not surprising to find the big transnationals deeply involved in most of the world's serious environmental crises. And by promoting corporate expansion to all ends of the earth, the process of globalization is only deepening the crisis. for instance:

* The widening investment opportunities generated by international agreements such as GATT and NAFTA allow corporations to play investment-hungry countries off against one another, thus engendering a "race to the bottom" for environmental standards.

* Instead of reversing the use of fossil fuels in the first world, corporations are expanding the production of fossil-fuel burning automobiles across Asia and Latin America. This increases the carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere, thus potentially increasing the severity of global warming.

* The globalization of the chlorine industry is increasing the levels in the environment of persistent pollutants such as dioxin-responsible for birth defects, cancers, and endocrine disorders.

Globalization is a double-edged sword: As multinationals and liberalized treaties promote the expansion of environmentally hazardous activity around the world, this expansion undermines environmental controls on corporations here a home. So what were once viewed as local problems in any part of the planet, are increasingly becoming drawn into a global dynamic.

The environmental movement emerged over the years in large part in response to corporate-generated problems. In many cases, environmentalists' tactics have reined in the worst abuses. For instance, corporations in the United States can no longer legally dump toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans. In many other cases, environmentalists have failed; corporations now bum toxic waste in incinerators, releasing deadly dioxin.

In turn, corporations' response to the environmental movement is varied, cleaning up their act in certain instances, and picking up and exporting their destructive activity to the Third World in others. A company like Ford, prohibited from dumping its waste in a U.S. river, moves its operations to Mexico. And those corporate-created international trade and investment agreements undermine the tools environmentalists use to rein them in. A recent case in point: the World Trade Organization just overturned the U.S. ban on importing shrimp harvested in a way harmful to endangered sea turtles.

Given the global nature of the problem, global solutions are necessary. We can no longer afford merely to heed the old 1960s slogan, "think global, act local." Rather, the paradox and the challenge of our time is to develop ways of thinking and acting both locally and globally simultaneously. Similarly, environmentalists will not win the battle to save the environment on their own.

The good news is that a process of grassroots globalization is taking shape. It is an increasingly vibrant web of communities, social movements, labor unions, indigenous peoples, environmental groups, consumer activists, lawyers, artists, elected representatives, and many more who are working not only to demand, but to begin to define and build movements for social and environmental justice across borders, and across what often have been divisions amongst us.


Joshua Karliner is author of The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization (Sierra Club Books, 1997J. He is director of TRAC-The Transnational Resource & Action Center and editorial coordinator of Corporate Watch ( in San Francisco.

Transnational Corporations & the Third World