Sunday, January 15, 2012

From Corporate Empire to Compassionate Capitalism: A Conversation With John Perkins

John Perkins
In his books and articles, John Perkins has outlined the predations of what he calls the corporatocracy, including the impoverishment of Third World nations and the financial implosions in the mature industrial economies. His latest book, Hoodwinked (now out in an updated paperback edition) explores the workings of the corporatocracy, but also advances a prescription for a new “compassionate capitalism.” I sat down with him recently to talk about the book.


The Corporate Empire

 Francesca Rheannon: Given the Euro crisis going on now, which is leading to draconian austerity measures in Ireland, England, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, let’s start out with the impact of the structural adjustment programs in Europe. These mirror the “structural adjustment programs” imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on developing countries.

John Perkins: These programs have essentially been ripoffs. In exchange for restructuring debt -- it's almost never forgiving debt -- these countries are told they will have to take very austere measures. Their citizens are told they will have to forego many social services, such as health care and education, and very often things that were previously part of the public sector, like utility companies -- electricity, sewer and water companies, even schools sometimes -- are sold to private corporations, the multinationals.  They've done this for quite some time with what we call Third World countries and now we're seeing it happen in Europe and we're also seeing it happen to some degree in the United States.

It's fair to say that this process is part of building a new form of empire, a corporate empire where big corporations have more and more control over these countries. We've moved in the last several hundred years from geopolitics that was controlled primarily by religious organizations to city-states and then to nations.

But we've now moved beyond nations; while today you can still look at the globe as a place with roughly 200 countries, you might better envision geopolitics as being composed of huge clouds drifting around the planet. These are the big corporations. They know no national boundaries and they follow no specific sets of laws. They don’t care who is at war with whom; they'll go into any country that has the resources or markets they covet: they strike deals and form partnerships with the Chinese and the Taiwanese, the Pakistanis and the Indians, the Israelis and the Palestinians. So we are really at a whole new phase of history where the big corporations have become a huge force. And they are all driven by one single goal: to maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental costs.

Compassionate Capitalism

In Hoodwinked, John Perkins says a new “compassionate capitalism” must be created, one where the primary goal of is to serve a public interest. He takes inspiration from the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, with whom he has been working since the 1960’s. In the book, he tells the following story illustrating the values that underpin his vision. He went on a hike with two members of the Shuar tribe in the Amazon…

Perkins: A few years ago, I took a hike with a couple of men up to a sacred waterfall. It’s a long, hard hike and took about a day to get there. We spent three days up there doing rituals at the waterfall and when we came back down three days later, these men stopped by the trail and examined a small plant. And when they stood up, they said, “this plant is sick.”

It hadn’t been sick three days ago when we went up there. When I looked at the plant, it didn't look sick to me -- a few brown leaves. They called a meeting of the elders that night when we got back to the community and in the end the elders decided there were other trails where there were some sick plants. They weren't sure, but they thought that maybe these trails were being overused. They thought maybe the rain forests were being threatened by overusing the trails.

They all agreed they couldn't prove this, but they thought that if there was any possibility that their current actions were jeopardizing their children's futures, they would stop. And so they closed down these trails. And that's a big step for them -- they don't have chain saws! Closing down trails and trying to create new trails is a huge sacrifice.

A few days later, I was back in the United States. I was driving from the airport to home and I was listening to the debate that was then going on in Congress about whether global warming exists and, if there is global warming, do human beings cause it. And the conclusion was: We can't really prove that there's global warming and we certainly can't prove our industries are causing it, so let's not do anything to disturb our industries.

It really struck me that here I'd been with these supposedly primitive people and they had acted so rationally that if there was a possibility they could be hurting their children's futures, they wouldn't do these activities anymore. And now I was back in this country that is supposedly the most well-educated and wealthiest in the history of the world and we were taking this extremely short term, selfish and greedy perspective that was not at all about looking after our children.

Another place in Latin America John Perkins is familiar with is the Mamoni Forest Preserve. It’s in the Darien Gap, a rainforest between Panama and Columbia that at one time was vast and impenetrable. Perkins went there more recently with one of the founders of Oxfam America, Nathan Gray. He told CSRwire what has happened to that forest and what Gray is doing about it.

John Perkins: I spent a lot of time Panama in the 1970's. I was an economic hit man -- I was supposed to be trying to bring Omar Torrijos, the head of state then, around to our way of thinking. I was unsuccessful at that and as a result Torrijos was assassinated. But at that time Darien was considered one of the most impenetrable jungles in the world. And it's recently been reduced to a swath of about 12 miles wide.

The only reason the swath is kept at all is because the UN has mandated this for protection against hoof and mouth disease and other animal diseases that might come up through Latin America into Central America and the United States.  The rest of the area has been logged off and turned into cattle ranches, which has been devastating to the area, to the climate, plants and animals and to human beings -- there were a lot of indigenous people living in that area.

Nathan Gray had formed an organization that was trying hard to restore some of that jungle and I was down there working with him and Jane Goodall and others to try to bring the area back, to plant trees and to help the farmers.

Around the world, people are encouraged to go into cattle ranching, to convert forests, especially tropical forests, into cattle ranches, and yet cattle ranchers usually don't do very well financially. They are always in debt. They just squeak by. So part of this process is to help the cattle ranchers develop alternatives forms, growing trees and then cutting them.

We experimented with a lot of different varieties of trees. There was no way the original forest would be brought back, so the idea was to bring back a dozen to two dozen varieties of trees that would improve the environment and restore rain patterns, and that the people could also cut periodically and re-grow in a rational way to make a living or raise pigs in the forest. There are a lot of animals and ornamental plants and herbs that can be raised under the forest canopy; it would be a lot more successful than cattle ranching.

Another project John Perkins is involved with is the Pachamama Alliance, which he co-founded with Bill and Lynn Twist. The Alliance has been instrumental in incorporating environmental rights into the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Perkins: One of the things we did in Ecuador is help the President, Rafael Correa, bring in experts to formulate a new constitution, which was ratified by an overwhelming majority of the people. It’s the first constitution in the history of mankind, as far as we know, that gives inalienable rights to nature, including animals and plants, rivers and all the natural environment. This was a monumental step for a small country in South America to take. Bolivia has done something very similar. And now a lot of other countries are studying this and the Pachamama Alliance is still active in that process.

I think the whole world should do that. I think it should be one of the driving forces behind this movement to force corporations to be good public citizens and recognize they have a responsibility. Yes, make profits; make a decent return for your investors, but only within the context of being socially and environmentally responsible, only within the context of a sustainable world where all sentient beings can thrive.

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