By Donella Meadows
–August 21, 1997–
The folks who warn us about the black helicopters of the United Nations swooping down and taking over the world might maybe be a bit right, sort of.
What they are really worried about, I assume, is secret, inaccessible power — a few people meeting in luxurious rooms in big cities, planning the future of everyone, and then imposing it, out of the blue, in ways we can’t understand or resist.
I never thought the U.N. had that kind of power. I’ve always seen it as a useful but hapless organization. Useful because someone should be sticking up for human rights, peace, development and the environment. Hapless because U.N. officials bend to the whims of the governments that fund them — or underfund them, so that U.N. power will never be sufficient to challenge theirs.
But recently I got a memo from David Korten, author of “When Corporations Rule the World,” who was just back from a meeting in a luxurious room in a big city. He wrote:
“It was a power lunch of lobster and an exotic mushroom salad held in a private dining room at the United Nations. The co-hosts were Ambassador Razali Ismail, President of the U.N. General Assembly, and Mr. Bjorn Stigson, Executive Director of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The purpose was to discuss business participation in the policy setting process of the U.N. and in the uses of U.N. development assistance funds. At the meeting were 15 government representatives, several U.N. officials, the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce, and 10 CEOs of multinational corporations. Two representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and two “academics” were invited to observe, one of whom was me.
“Listening to the government and corporate representatives left me deeply shaken. It revealed the extent to which the messages of the world’s NGOs have fallen on deaf ears.
“On the positive side the Prime Minister of Norway called for a tax shift to place the burden of taxation on environmentally damaging consumption. The representatives from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands called for giving high priority to ending poverty. Ms. Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, the only NGO voice given the floor, spoke eloquently of the growing concentration of wealth and the universal consumer society. She observed that there are not enough resources for everyone to live even at the level of the average Malaysian, let alone the average American. She noted that people are becoming cynical about corporate-dominated forums such as World Trade Organization, where they talk only of corporate rights and nothing of obligations.
“The President of Guyana dismissed Chee Yoke Ling’s comments out of hand. He accused NGOs of trying to postpone the development that people so desperately want. Besides, he said, if he does not cut down his country’s forests, someone might grow marijuana in them.
“The United States sent Larry Summers, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. Summers praised privatization, noting that people take better care of their homes when they own them, implying that environmental resources will be better cared for when they are owned by corporations. He assured us that economic growth creates both the will and the means to deal with the environment. He said that by attracting private capital to build bridges and roads, countries will not need to use scarce public funds. He might have added that private roads and bridges will be less congested, because the poor will not be able to pay the tolls.
“Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the U.N., referred to the Rio meeting as an example of the private sector participating in setting environmental standards. He did not point out that the private sector helped assure that few standards were set and even fewer met. He called on business to come up with alternative energy sources for the poor so they ‘don’t have to cut down every tree in sight,’ while making no mention of the corporations that are stripping the world’s forests.
“Underlying all these words was the logic of economic globalization. The dominance of corporations is an irreversible reality to which we must adapt. To deal with poverty and the environment we need market incentives (read public subsidies), so corporations will invest in job creation and environmentally friendly technologies. Corporations need to be partners in public decisions. No speaker other than Chee Yoke Ling saw any problem in giving over more power to global corporations.”
With his note, Korten sent a cartoon. It shows a U.N. session with Nike taking a seat next to Nicaragua. The delegate from Coca-Cola asks to speak.
To fulfill its enormous mandate — “to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends” — the U.N. has an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Compare that to the U.S. military budget ($260 billion) or the annual revenues of General Motors ($168 billion) or Wal-Mart ($93 billion).
A puny $2.6 billion is hardly worth a corporate grab. I would guess that desperate U.N. officials initiated that power lunch, in hope of trading some of their legitimacy and power for corporate money. Public school officials are doing that, so is public broadcasting, so, if some senators have their way, will the national parks, and so, of course, do the senators.
You don’t need black helicopters to rule the world.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997