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Bypassing Dystopia


Q. The documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis has praised your book Bypassing Dystopia: Hope-filled Challenges to Corporate Rule for “decoding the corporate jargon used to disguise what is really the transfer of wealth from everyday citizens to the hidden off-shore accounts of multinational corporations and the elite investor class.”

Is that an accurate summation of your book and can you tell us more about it?

Bypassing Dystopia is my seventh book. It takes a close look at the right-wing, neoliberal economic agenda (sometimes called “trickle-down theory” or “free market capitalism”) in a way that ordinary people can understand what’s going on.

Neoliberalism has been economic orthodoxy for the past forty years, fostered by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and corporate think tanks.

I identify twelve predominant aspects of neoliberalism: deregulation; open borders for Capital; small government/Big State; tax cuts for multinational corporations; austerity budgets; union-busting; privatisation of public assets; corporate rights (or ‘free trade’) deals; tax havens; no limits to growth; central bank ‘independence’; and privatisation of the money-creation function.

These principles of neoliberalism have led to massive wealth inequality and environmental destruction across the planet. I especially focus on their impact on housing, food, and water.

I also devote several chapters to economic examples that are inspiring: the rise of the public banking movement; the gutsy economic reforms enacted by Ecuador’s Rafael Correa (2006 to 2017); the Zapatistas of Mexico taking back local control; the organic farming model adopted by Cuba; the movement in Europe to eliminate “sovereign debt”; the resistance against corporate trade deals; the push to curtail tax havens; and the movement to revoke central banks’ ‘independence’ and reclaim their money-creation function as part of a sovereign federal government.

Q. In the book, you reference three corporate strategies – Quantitative Easing, Austerity, and Asset Recycling. What do these words mean and how do they tie into the water crisis?

After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, caused by Wall Street’s “too-big-to-fail-or jail” banksters, central banks (the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the central banks of Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, etc.) doled out some $20 trillion to the financial sector over the past decade. Called “quantitative easing,” the strategy was explained as a way to pump “liquidity” into the global economy. But all that money sloshing around in the system never did “trickle down” to the real economy (job-creation, manufacturing, infrastructure maintenance, etc.). Instead, the financial sector used this “cheap money” to invest in the stock market, conduct share-buybacks, provide lucrative bonuses, do mergers and acquisitions, speculate in foreign markets, etc.

One enticing venue for investment has been the water commoditisation market, seen to be especially lucrative because of climate change. Under neoliberalism, Big Finance is looking for opportunities for what is called “rent-seeking” – i.e., the tolls, fees, rents that come from sectors that traditionally have been publicly owned.

That ties in with the fact that federal, state/provincial, and municipal governments have (over the past forty years) gone along with the neoliberal economic agenda and have seen their corporate tax rates decimated (including by tax havens) and their borrowing costs heightened. Consequently, they have laboured under austerity budgets – i.e., incredibly shrinking budgets which make it increasingly impossible to protect and expand public sector jobs, social welfare, and public ownership of infrastructure.

Given those factors, neoliberal economists and politicians have called for “asset recycling.” a warm and fuzzy term for selling off public infrastructure to the private sector (usually at a major discount) in order for governments to function.

Q. One reviewer remarked that if more people read your work, “we would have a revolution on our hands, sparked by the outrage against major corporations and governments based on their continuous privatisation of freshwater resources.” What does it mean to privatise freshwater resources and what are the implications? Would a revolution help, and if so, how?

When freshwater resources are privatised (contracted out or sold to corporations), the result is escalating water rates charged to households, worsening service, job losses, loss of public accountability, loss of local control, decreasing maintenance of infrastructure, while at the same time private shareholders pocket steep profits. A rebellion against privatisation is already well underway.

Q. In Damming the Peace: The Hidden Costs of the Site C Dam, you talk about the role lobbyists play in the Big Agriculture sector, specifically about how they have eradicated laws protecting streams and rivers in favour of putting that water towards farmland irrigation. Is this done in the interest of food security?

Well, if you’re referring to Big Agriculture in California, there have been reports that people who actually live and work in the Central Valley have very little food security. I suspect the Big Ag lobbyists are more interested in “profit security” than food security.

Q. What do you make of the argument that water availability has nothing to do with drought and everything to do with legal restrictions?

I consider that a lame argument that ignores reality.

Q. To what extent is the global water crisis a water distribution problem?

That was the argument that Rex Tillerson made when he was Chair and CEO of ExxonMobil. In June 2012 Tillerson gave a speech to the powerful Council on Foreign Relations. During the question period, he was asked about the oil and gas industry’s lavish use of fresh water for “fracking” in California, Texas, Colorado, and other drought-ridden states. Defending the practice, Tillerson said, “Water is a big concern, I know, to a lot of people. They’re worried about water scarcity. There is plenty of water. It’s just not in all the right places,” and he called it “a water distribution problem”.

Tillerson specifically mentioned the freshwater flowing into Canada’s Hudson Bay, implying that it was being wasted and should be used to solve the “water distribution problem”.

This mindset is part of the problem. Rather than stop fracking in drought-ridden states (for example), it assumes that water can always be brought in from elsewhere (in this instance, from another country). This is not only anti-environmental, but also neocolonial in attitude.

Less than two years after Tillerson’s speech, in October 2014 a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force (with members from ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and other investors) issued a report – “North America: Time For a New Focus” – calling for “the North American community” to address “the diversion of water from one watershed to another” and urging “regional cooperation because demands on limited water resources will grow.”

Goldman Sachs is part of the Aqueduct Alliance (along with General Electric and the World Resources Institute), which has been mapping worldwide opportunities for water speculators and investors, utilising data provided by Coca-Cola.

Q. You are critical of NAFTA and have said in Damming the Peace that it allows corporations in one country to claim ownership of local water supplies in another. How does this happen?

Under the terms of NAFTA, any time an American company (or a firm with American investors) uses water in Canada, that water use is covered by the trade deal. Their rights to use that water are considered superior to the rights of Canadians, and if those rights are denied, the corporation can sue for financial compensation under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause, claiming “lost future profits”.

A similar clause is written into other trade deals such as the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA), the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), and thousands of bilateral trade agreements across the planet. Any time a signatory government attempts to enact legislation that affects the “future profits” of a multinational corporation’s subsidiary in that country, the corporation can sue in the private arbitration courts for millions of dollars in compensation.

Q. In your opinion, did the NAFTA agreement introduce and consequently de-sensitize us to the concept of treating water as a commodity?

Western U.S. states have had a corporate water market for more than a century, with water rights being bought and sold to the highest bidder. NAFTA did not introduce the concept of water as a commodity.

Q. In the chapter you also point out that the world’s water market will be worth a staggering 1 trillion USD by 2020 due to investment banks buying and privatising water while partnering with regional public sector pension funds and sovereign wealth funds. How much of the market is already ‘lost’ and is there any way it could be reclaimed for public interests?

That figure of 1 trillion USD is the prediction made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in estimating the worth of the world’s water market by 2020. I don’t know how much of the “market” has been “lost” to the private sector at this point. But I do know that a process called “remunicipalisation” is escalating worldwide.

The term refers to the fact that municipalities and local governments are taking systems back into public control. This is true not just for water and waste-water systems, but for all public services and infrastructure that have been privatised or partially privatised through public-private partnerships.

Now the danger is a little-known trade deal called the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), which is being negotiated. TISA (encompassing 50 countries) would prevent remunicipalisation and actually expand cross-border privatisation by multinational corporations.

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