On 8 June, World Oceans Day, I saw Oceans: The Movie.
It was great. I mean, who doesn’t like looking at cute, graceful animals in beautiful scenery with a classical soundtrack? The film screened at a fundraiser for the Protect our Coral Sea campaign, a cause that deserves hearty public support.
But there’s something that really stings about this film and that is the hypocrisy inherent in having captains of industry — at the helm of the economic system that is destroying our oceans — producing a film about how important it is that we save them.
The movie was produced by DisneyNature, a division of one of the world’s largest companies, which made almost US$40 billion last year. The company is known for abusing workers rights and using child labour in factory sweatshops around the world. Disney’s use of toxic chemicals and its waste and energy consumption have also prompted questions from environmental advocates.
The film was also funded by the energy companies EDF and Total, among others.
Total is one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, and a major player in chemicals, earning 160 billion euros last year. The company has been embroiled several times in environmental disputes.
In 1999, the Total fuel tanker, Erika, sunk off the coast of Brittany and thousands of tons of oil leaked onto the shoreline. Total was ordered to pay nearly 200 million euros compensation for the pollution in 2008, despite the company’s protests that it was not responsible. Total claims, on one hand, that it should not be held responsible because it is only a "user" of ships, and on the other, that it has 150 ships in the water at any given time, operating under the strictest of safety guidelines.
Total is also among a number of multinational oil companies being pursued in relation to human rights and environmental offences in the Nigerian oil fields. A local NGO, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, claims "violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, to work, to health, to water, to life and human dignity, to a clean and healthy environment, and to economic and social development" as a result of the oil extraction activities of Total and other companies.
The Nigerian court found that it had no jurisdiction over the foreign companies. The company has also faced claims of human rights abuse in Burma and environmental damage through gas flaring in Nigeria.
EDF is the world’s largest utility company. It reported profits of more than 65 million euros in 2010 and produces over 20 per cent of the European Union’s electricity — 75 per cent of which comes from nuclear power.
The company describes itself as "investing to protect the future" through "green" energy solutions, such as nuclear power. But it seems that EDF hasn’t even convinced itself that it is clean and green. The company employed spies in France and the UK to infiltrate the offices of Greenpeace while the environmental organisation was then in the process of challenging EDF’s expansion of its nuclear operations in the UK, where it is the largest electricity provider. Greenpeace was under surveillance periodically from 2004 to 2009, through the use of techniques such as illegal hacking.
So what is killing our oceans? According to the film, and reams of evidence from respected scientists and environmental defenders the world over, overfishing undermines the food chain; chemical pollution leaches into the water, killing animals, plants and vibrant ecosystems like coral reefs; and carbon emissions are warming everything up and disrupting the delicate balance that has been determined over millions of years.
The same companies who are sponsoring a film to draw attention to the state of the world’s oceans have an influence over these problems. Total’s oil spills, like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, have caused irreparable environmental devastation, while gas flaring releases toxic fumes into the air and contributes to climate change. EDF’s daily business activities add to the ever-present threat of another Chernobyl or Fukushima disaster, while generating tons of radioactive waste.
Total and EDF have both established philanthropic foundations to invest in feel-good, public relations exercises to polish up their tarnished images with the establishment of natural reserves, animal conservation projects and the like.
And after many years of public shaming, Disney has apparently become one of the world’s most "responsible" companies. This honour comes as a result of Disney’s compliance systems that enable the company to identify risks in relation to offences such as child labour. The U.S. Center for Health, Environment and Justice has also acknowledged the progress Disney has made with respect to the use of toxic chemicals, though there are still improvements to be made.
While the business activities of these particular companies do have an environmental impact that they can manage to some extent, the bigger problem is the economic system in which they operate. Oceans: The Movie holds the tacit suggestion that we can protect our oceans while the economy carries on with business as usual, subject to a bit of tinkering at the edges to green things up a bit. But can the environmental initiatives of these companies really provide the change needed to address the myriad global crises we face? We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can turn a system based on exploitation and inequality into a system that promotes sustainability.
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