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16 July 2001

Boycott them until they go green

Green issue - Citizenship and consumerism can be a powerful combination, argues David Nicho

By David Nicholson-Lord

One of my less anticipated insights into the American character came when I shared a flight across Asia with a youngish, seemingly intelligent woman from California. The conversation turned to politics. This was about ten years ago, George Bush Sr had been ousted by Bill Clinton, and I innocuously commented that Clinton couldn’t be much worse than Bush and Reagan. There was a clouding of the eyes and a perceptible chilling of our comradely travellers’ exchanges. “Oh,” she said, “but Reagan had charisma.”

I mention this because, after the election of another Bush to the US presidency, it’s important to understand what we’re dealing with. Last December, I wrote an article for the New Statesman suggesting that we boycott the US. The reasoning was that Bush’s views on global warming and the new missile defence system, in particular, augured ill for the future.

Events have since moved on. With two federal executions behind it, the US’s claim to being a civilised nation looks even more fragile. Tony Blair, still unwilling to disturb what remains of the “special relationship”, or Tutty (toadying up to the Yanks), has smiled on Son of Star Wars. And Bush Jr has come to Europe and told us where to stick the Kyoto agreement.

Events have also moved on to the extent that there is a growing campaign against Bush and his corporate backers. This has prospered partly thanks to the internet, where there is a flourishing undergrowth of anti-Bush sites, each with its own take on American culpability. Probably the most prominent ( is the boycott campaign against ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, which in Britain trades as Esso. Exxon was the biggest corporate backer from the oil industry of Bush’s election campaign and is also a leading corporate “contrarian” on climate change.

Esso is worried. We know this because it has commissioned an opinion poll. This will doubtless tell it what everybody already knows (and what last autumn’s fuel protests demonstrated): that oil companies are not popular these days, not even with drivers, and that large numbers of us are prepared to forgo Esso petrol. And why not? The market rules and the world bristles with filling stations.

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For Big Oil, however, there are other unsettling precedents. First, the consumer boycott has, over the past decade, become a far more potent weapon. Gone are the days when Barclays could weather, seemingly interminably, a student campaign against its involvement in apartheid-era South Africa. Membership of environmental groups is at record levels, outnumbering membership of political parties by six or seven to one. Green consumerism has consolidated to the point where it is driving many market sectors – organic food, for example. Deregulation has created a much tighter market place, in which a small dip in sales can have a knock-on effect similar to the much-fabled flapping of a butterfly’s wings in chaos theory. Worse still for the likes of Esso, competitors such as Shell and BP have broken ranks and begun investing in renewables and talking eco-speak. There is also a whole new technology which has raised the scope for citizen action to a new level. From Seattle to Gothenburg and Genoa, we have seen what this can do. Electronic protests are already said to have crashed the White House e-mail server at least twice.

For big companies, one of the most unnerving elements of such campaigns is their unpredictability. In every multinational boardroom today, there is a folk memory of Greenpeace’s capture of the Brent Spar oil rig in 1995, and how, from small beginnings and against many odds, this built into a campaign of such momentum that the rig’s owner, Shell, finally imploded. More recently, another company, Monsanto, was mangled, if not broken, on the rack of mass consumer action.

Something new is happening in the world of mass democracies. In recent years, much has been made of how we have all, insensibly, been turned from citizens into consumers – the implication being that this is a fall from a higher state to a lower one. Possibly it is – but when citizenship and consumerism come together, they are an awesome combination. When government is becoming synonymous with big business, consumer boycotts, anti-globalisation protests and mass action on the streets of summiteering capitals merge into one another.

Political choice in the new world of global government-by-business is thus most powerfully expressed over the counter. You don’t just boycott bad companies; you back good ones. If you want to hit back at Bush, you buy nothing from his funders. These, according to the Manchester-based Ethical Consumer organisation, start with Philip Morris (tobacco), BP (Arco), Amway and News Corporation (the Times, Sunday Times, etc) and go on to include such household names as Federal Express, Pfizer, ChevronTexaco, Revlon, Glaxo-Wellcome, Walt Disney, Microsoft and Coca-Cola. By contrast, you might buy your petrol from, say, Shell, which was probably never as bad as it was painted, and which, since the trauma of Brent Spar, has been engaged in a very public search for a newer, greener identity.

Shortly after I wrote the piece suggesting a boycott, I received a reply from a reader in Ontario, Canada, suggesting placing stickers on Pepsi machines or in McDonald’s windows. These would read: “Boycott North American products until they cooperate in correcting our shared environmental problems” (the wording could no doubt be improved). I would add to this the suggestion that we could hand out, to Americans we know or meet, a brief and unexceptionable message explaining why we think they should change their ways.

Whether this could be done without offence is a moot point, but it’s what lawyers might call a de minimis objection. We are past the point where offence matters. On two of the most critical issues facing the planet – the gridlocking of democracy and the prospect of runaway climate change – the US is the enemy. And because the two issues are linked (a democracy that has been hijacked by business and which lacks the means and the will to put across unpalatable truths to its voters will find it well-nigh impossible to deliver on climate change) the US will be hard-pressed to reform from within, even if it wanted to.

The difficult bit is that America has eaten into the fabric of our lives. Is it possible to imagine a world without Microsoft, Walt Disney, Coke or Pepsi and McDonald’s? The answer varies: Windows rules in cyberspace, Walt Disney thrives on children’s pester power (resistible), Coke and McDonald’s are inessential adjuncts to a healthy lifestyle. Yet merely to pose the question is to realise that something more fundamental is at stake: the kind of society we want to become, the national or local identity we wish to retain. Currently, and with surprisingly little debate, we are adopting the American model – in our lifestyles, in entertainment and, more worryingly, in our economic and political life. Is this out of preference, laziness or for lack of a convincing alternative?

Depending on one’s answer to this question, a boycott of all things American could be an invigorating, post-addictive experience – the start of something rich, new and strange – or a piece of meaningless histrionics. I suspect it would be the former. Indeed, I suspect that, to a degree, many people are already doing it: a boycott, after all, is merely an extension of personal choice, and the Americanisation of the planet means there is a large a la carte menu to choose from.

I hope we exercise that choice. For all America’s inventiveness and dynamism, I find its culture bland, shallow and stupid, its economic philosophy and its political life a source of blank despair. And I would hate to get to the point where candidates for office, high or low, were judged solely on their charisma.

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