Ecocide: Kill the Corporation Before it Kills Us

Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2020. 236 pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9781526146984

Reviewed by Scott Poynting

The title signals it succinctly: this book is an urgent exhortation to avert ‘the deliberate destruction of our natural environment’ (2). It pulls no punches, but is carefully argued, with abundant historical, political-economic and socio-legal evidence that the capitalist corporation is ‘killing the planet’. David Whyte makes his argument admirably accessible, in language leavened with sometimes dark and sometimes biting humour.

The prose is punchy, and the narrative is thoughtfully constructed pedagogically and grips the reader’s attention. This is no mean feat when discussing some aspects of corporate law. Whyte draws us in with the odd stunning fact, such as corporations actually gaining ‘human rights’ (37f). Yet, if they are fictive ‘persons’, they are also ‘immortal’: a key attribute in their dangerous unaccountability.

The story starts with Stora Kopparberg, a Swedish copper mining company incorporated in 1288. Its centuries of economic success have devastated land and water near its mine, and the company has never been called to account for the damage. This corporation is reprised throughout the book as an example of how corporations work, survive, evolve, evade and harm. The world’s first corporation is still with us, though now transmogrified into Stora Enso, the second biggest global paper manufacturer, headquartered in Finland. Stora Enso’s harms today include destroying forests, damaging biodiversity and depleting water resources in Uruguay and Brazil (28f).

The concept of ‘ecocide’, Whyte explains (5), arose in the early 1970s in the context of the mass killings and catastrophic damage to the biosphere wrought by the United States’ military use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which was sprayed directly on millions of people, killing some hundreds of thousands instantly, disabling a million more and leaving a legacy of ongoing congenital disorder. About 20% of the land mass was contaminated, decimating tree stocks and livestock and leaving lasting environmental damage. The nine chemical companies engaged to develop and produce Agent Orange for the US military were led by the corporate giant Monsanto, another name that recurs throughout the book. Thus, corporations and ecocide were intrinsically connected from the very beginning of corporations (Stora Kopparberg) and the very origins of the notion of ecocide (Monsanto and the other makers of Agent Orange).

Corporations repeatedly deny and cover up the damaging nature of their products and by-products. Tobacco and asbestos are two cases in point, where the harms were known for decades by their producers, and lied about on an industrial scale (12). The big petroleum companies have known about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate since the 1970s, as advised by their own scientists, yet have funded climate deniers and sought to discredit scientists and environmentalist campaigners sounding the necessary warnings (15).

The introduction winds up with a litany of deadly chemicals and materials (16-19), widespread in modern life, whose corporate producers have knowingly denied their danger to sustain their profits: leaded petrol, bisphenol A, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) mainly manufactured by Monsanto, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) whose ingredient vinyl chloride is carcinogenic, organophosphates, and glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup.

Chapter 1, ‘What is the corporation?’, explains the legal ‘personhood’ and the effective immortality of the corporation. Incorporation creates a legal entity set apart from its shareholders or partners. If a bankruptcy occurs, it is the corporation that is bankrupted, not its individual investors. If a disaster is caused, shareholders are not responsible. If this form of organisation originally served to avoid taxes (death duties), a key purpose of the corporation as it developed was to evade responsibility. ‘Even when the worst atrocities committed against human beings authored by corporations have been exposed, the corporation tends to survive, often remaining alive and kicking long after the people it has killed and maimed are dead’ (24).

One stark example of corporate impunity instanced in this chapter is that of the giant German conglomerate IG Farben after the Second World War. Nearly half of its wartime workforce of hundreds of thousands had been slave labour, about a tenth of those being taken from Auschwitz. IG Farben also knowingly manufactured Zyklon B, the cyanide poison that was being used for mass murder in Nazi death camps. After the war, they were too important to German capital to be wound up; IG Farben was split into six corporations of its constituent industries, which thrive and are household names today, including Agfa, BASF, Bayer and the pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi. Chemical giant Bayer has been slated as the US’s worst toxic air polluter, and is the parent company of the aforementioned Monsanto (26-9).

In chapter 2, Whyte argues that ‘the corporation was formative in the development of a colonial capitalism that was always ecocidal’ (69). From the sixteenth century onwards the corporation was instrumental in the primitive accumulation that amassed the capital necessary for the development of industrial capitalism, through enclosures, slavery and colonialism (81). The Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands in 1553 received its charter to establish a new trade route to the far east (Ibid). The East India Company was granted its charter in 1600, conferring a monopoly on (British) trade on the Indian subcontinent and in the East Indies. Whyte cites Patnaik that the wealth looted from India during the colonial period amounted to $45 trillion. The Virginia Company established the eponymous American state in 1607; the Massachusetts Bay Company founded that state in 1628. The Royal African Company was founded in 1662 by the English Crown together with London merchants, at first trading in and mining gold from Africa’s west coast. In two decades it would be a major trader in slaves: some 5,000 per year, paving the way for the many slavers that followed (82-3). Colonisation of new lands and establishing and maintaining trade routes called for the raising of capital on a national scale, harnessing wealth beyond the resources of the state and garnering state backing for private accumulation and private financing of the state’s colonial expansion (84-5). The corporation and the state, that is, were symbiotic from the period of colonial expansion onwards. ‘Corporations were crucial to the speed and the force with which colonisation proceeded’ (87).

‘Corporate colonisation’ was catastrophic for human ecosystems: ‘the enclosure of traditionally owned and managed land […] meant exerting absolute control over forests and farmlands, rivers and lakes. The colonial corporation was crucial to this process of agricultural industrialisation in the Americas, in India and in Africa’ (85).

Capital’s relentless drive for accumulation entails expansion that is ‘continually accelerating […] in continually shrinking spaces’ (74). Natural limits to this are treated by capital merely as barriers to be broken through. ‘It is in the drive to extract minerals from the earth, to rip up forests, to develop industrial scale, and to expand the capacity of factories to make things, that we see the insatiable appetite of capital for “devouring” nature’ (75).

For example, when in Marx’s day industrialised agriculture depleted soils, making them less productive (as Marx recorded in Capital), capital turned to the mining of guano from islands off Peru and Chile to replenish them, with colonial trading corporations exploiting indentured labour and garnering huge profits in the process (86-7). This form of ‘ecological imperialism’, as Whyte identifies it, citing John Bellamy Foster et al., resulted in a huge net transfer of ecological resources from the global South to the North. Whyte goes on to demonstrate the ‘ecocidal corporate chain’ that is the contemporary inheritor of the same logic (99ff.). ‘The architecture of the corporation made it ideal for colonial adventure; in its current form it is perfectly designed for a neo-colonial world’ (105). The dynamics of capital accumulation impel the corporation to exploit nature as if there were no limits, and the moral and legal distancing of investors from the consequences obliterates moral limits and any considerations of humanity (105). Ecocide is rich in examples of the consequences, over wide historical sweep and global geographical spread, up to the present environmental crisis.

The growth and development of capitalism itself was coeval with the burgeoning of corporations. Around 1,200 joint-stock companies were formed between 1720 and 1855; the years 1866 to 1874 averaged 800 more per year (70). While in 1860 fully half the stock traded in London was in government bonds, by 1914 some 95% was in corporate shares (70, citing Bullough).

The collaboration between corporations and the state empowered corporations to exercise tyranny to accelerate accumulation, especially so in conjunction with authoritarian states, from Franco to Pinochet and beyond (88-91). Ecocide and genocide resulted. The end of chapter 2 deals with neo-colonialism, and its pillaging of the natural resources of the Global South, and the associated brunt of the environmental damage.

The third chapter, ‘Regulation at the End-Point of the World’, argues (following Marx’s observations about the Factory Acts) that regulation has always functioned to ensure the reproduction of capitalism, to smooth out contradictions that might imperil the continued accumulation of capital (115). Given the close relations of corporations and state, regulation by the state tends to be in the interests of maintaining corporations. Regulation measures are under-resourced and under-enforced under neoliberal regimes, but above all they are ineffectual if they are applied at the end-point of production and distribution of harmful products. Whyte advocates intervening at the start-point ‘much more directly against investors, and therefore corporations […] to control the extraction of raw materials, intervening in chemical and other industrial manufacturing processes’ (141).

The concluding chapter bears the book’s subtitle: ‘Kill the Corporation Before it Kills Us’. Clearly we cannot rely on the market for ways of curbing the ecocidal thrust of corporations. Not only is the so-called ‘green market’ a mere ‘tinkering at the margins of an overheating world’ (151), the commodification of purported eco-friendliness represents another opportunity for profit in the face of environmental destruction, just as acquiring islands, digging up and selling birdshit did in the Global South to produce a new commodity and new markets to rectify the deplenishing of the soil driven by capitalist agriculture. Today, even the right to pollute has become commodified, in emissions trading (151-2). ‘The lesson of history […] is that corporations will fight tooth and nail to defend their right to make profit even if it is killing us. It is clear that the only way to break this cycle of corporate pollution/corporate solution is to break the corporation itself’ (153).

The ‘foremost demand’ proposed by Whyte is for the sequestration and public control of all assets of the 100 corporations responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon production (158). Inefficiencies and waste in other industries will also have to be tackled. Corporations will resist powerfully.A carbon tax and a financial transactions tax are needed, on a global scale (159-60). Whyte endorses proposals to restructure the financial system to prevent it from sustaining corporate ecocide, to nationalise transport industries, to create recycling cooperatives, to localise food production, à la ‘green new deal’ plans (160).

Whyte canvasses proposals for ecocide to be made a crime under international law, but is not sanguine about this success, given the International Criminal Court’s record to date (162-3). He reviews proposals for a ‘corporate death penalty’, such that repeat offences of ecocide lead a corporation to be ‘put to death’, or liquidated. Yet the costs are likely to be borne by workers and harmed communities (164-5).

In the end, the book raises three demands, which follow from the foregoing history and analysis.

  • The corporate structure must be broken, and the ‘fictional entity’ undone.
  • Impunity for investors and shareholders must end.
  • Impunity for corporate executives must end.

Such decisive change will need to be ‘forced upon’ investors and senior managers (167). This objective, of course, seems impossible (167, 175). ‘The fix must be political’ (159). The movements that might effect such politics will need to be the subject of other studies. The analysis in Ecocide will be a valuable guide for these movements.

20 February 2021

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