William Wilberforce is popularly credited with the abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire in the 1800s. But the anti-slavery campaigners – far ahead of their time in their methods – had recognised the need for a major business figure to stand beside them and declare his (it was two centuries ago) support. That man was Charles Grant, chairman of the East India Company, which then controlled over half of world trade.
The British lawyer Polly Higgins often draws parallels between the nineteenth-century campaign to outlaw slavery and her initiative – to abolish ecocide – the destruction of the natural world. Think poisoning a river, tropical deforestation or the havoc wreaked by climate change. The comparison is not original but it is valid, concerning the protection of powerful business interests, the damage that they cause but often do not see, and the prevailing ideology that some people can have dominion over others or their environment without consequences.
Higgins’s solution is also as simple as the outright outlawing of slavery: the campaign wants environmental destruction to be declared illegal by making it a fifth crime against peace in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
If this sounds implausible, it is arguably easier than the current approach to climate change: attempting to get 194 nations to agree targets to re-engineer their economies and cut consumption, and then keep their promises. Instead, Higgins is asking world leaders to open an amendment to the 1998 Rome Statute (the treaty that established the court, based in The Hague) until it has the required two-thirds of the statute’s signatories to become law. Curiously, to avoid mass chemical warfare, governments have in effect outlawed ecocide in war, but not in peacetime.
To reach her goal, Higgins needs to borrow one more detail from the slavery story: to find a modern Charles Grant willing to stand up among his or her business peers and urge them to support the abolition of ecocide. So who might that be?
It can be argued there are already promising candidates among the titans of our corporate world. The Microsoft founder, Bill Gates – the world’s second richest man, according to Forbes magazine – and his wife, Melinda, have become almost as well known for their philanthropy as his software. Since 1994 they have spent more than US$26 billion. Their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation concentrates on development and health, but in so doing directly deals with environmental problems from poor soils to polluted water; its website states: “Climate change is a major issue facing all of us.”
Next on the Forbes list, the legendary investor Warren Buffett promised to give away 99% of his billions to good causes. Buffett has consistently pre-empted economic and social changes, responding to public pressure by rejecting new coal-fired power stations. But as important is his apparent appetite for clean solutions to politically awkward problems; Buffett recently told CNBC, the American business-news channel: “I could end the [budget] deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election.”
Perhaps more surprisingly, another contender could be Nestlé’s chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who has been one of the most high-profile campaigners for introducing higher water charges. He has recognised that although this will add cost to his food and drink behemoth, for both moral and economic reasons the company will suffer far more if ordinary people are left in drought by its activities.
And a former Nestlé man, Paul Polman – now chief executive of its rival Unilever – famously stopped quarterly financial reporting in protest at the short-term investment culture. He recently told The Guardian that too many companies have prospered at the expense of society and nature, adding: “We do not have to win at the expense of others to be successful.”
Richard Branson, too, has a long history of supporting good causes, despite the sometimes startling gap between his business interests (Virgin Atlantic Airways) and professed interests (climate change). Whichever business figure steps into Charles Grant’s shoes and changes the course of capitalism, they will be guaranteed a place in history far greater than the annals of Forbes magazine.
Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2012
Homepage image by Jörg Müller/ Greenpeace