TCS Daily

Boycotts Move From Securing Rights to Extorting Favors

By Duane D. Freese - June 13, 2001 12:00 AM

Far be it for anyone from this side of the Atlantic to say nay to anybody's right on the other side to stage a boycott, especially after what Americans did to British tea.

But Europeans are turning what once was a means of protesting a lack of political or civil or economic rights into the art of coercing politically or, at least, environmentally correct thinking.

Witness the boycotts in recent years of U.S. soybeans because they're genetically modified or U.S. oil companies because they haven't endorsed Green positions on global warming.

In a truly irresponsible piece of journalism, New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, a normally decent reporter, promoted the British boycott of ExxonMobil's Esso gas stations in Britain as an appropriate means of using the free market to pressure President Bush to support the Kyoto Protocol and "fight multinational polluters." He suggested ExxonMobil should worry plenty considering what happened to Monsanto.

"It was going to sell genetically modified food to Europeans," Friedman wrote. "But environmentalists in Europe - worried, rightly or wrongly, about the safety of what they were eating - mobilized the weakest link in the value chain: consumers. ... Goodbye, Monsanto."

Well, no one can deny the "right" of consumers to boycott anyone over anything. People do it all the time. If they aren't treated right by a store clerk they may never return, and they will tell their friends about it.

But the pretension of Friedman that these environmental groups are galvanizing consumers to slay polluting Goliaths is absurd. In Europe, the Greens hold sway through techniques based in politics and misinformation, not science and inquiry.

While corporations look powerful and big, they are Gullivers, tied down by the rigors of the marketplace and their responsibilities to stockholders. And those stockholders include union, government and other pensioners. CalPers, the benefit organization for California's government employees, held a $1.2 billion stake in ExxonMobil, according to its report to members last year. Environmental and other protest groups face different needs - to garner publicity from a media that loves a fight. The more protestors swagger, the more ink and airtime they get. The facts get lost in the scary headlines about unproven future dangers.

Indeed, corporations because of their responsibilities to stockholders in many ways have to be more upfront and forthcoming about their operations, their finances and their intentions than the groups that attack them. Environmental groups can distort the facts about a company's products or services freely.

In the attack upon Monsanto, for example, green groups issued a whole series of claims about its RoundUp Ready soybeans that had no basis in science or in fact. To retain consistency, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others involved in the assault - many having received funding from U.S. educational and philanthropic foundations -- had to trash all genetic engineering of crops as dangerous, impractical and costly, including such crops as golden rice that could eliminate millions of cases of blindness and death in the Third World.

Dr Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, broke with the organization over the issue, saying, "The campaign of fear now being waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic."

Are such campaigns that lack respect for science and crusade with fear something that any worthy journalist should want to endorse?

As for the boycott of Esso stations, the issue is more than simply a green group attacking an oil company as a "multinational polluter." By tying the threat of a boycott to a demand that ExxonMobil endorse a certain treaty and invest in certain activities the groups want, the campaign amounts to one of intimidation. It isn't that Exxon gasoline pollutes any more than any other gasoline, it is that the company's officials don't believe all the same things that the green groups promote.

"This is a way to tell Esso that it's not right for them to be claiming that there is no connection between CO2 emissions and climate change," Friedman quoted one of the boycott's launchers, famous ex-wife of a rock star Bianca Jagger. But what does Bianca Jagger really know about the science or the economics of global warming?

It is noteworthy that the National Academy of Sciences in its most recent report on global warming found that the science was not "settled," and that among "the most valuable contribution U.S. scientists can make is to continually question basic assumptions and conclusions."

The connection between CO2 and climate change Ms. Jagger draws is hardly crystal clear. Richard S. Lindzen, a renowned professor of meteorology at MIT and a member of the NAS panel, wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal: "We are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in our future."

Who is more credible? The celebrity, Ms. Jagger, or the scientist, Professor Lindzen? Taken to its inevitable end, what Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are advocating and attempting to enforce with their boycotts is any dissent from their views, not only of corporations but also of presidents and scientists. Succumbing to coercion rather than reason can have ugly unintended consequences.

As UNICEF and OxFam have noted regarding boycotts aimed at such companies as Nike for employing child labor, the result was to force children from regulated, better paying and safer textile work to work in unregulated professions, including for young Asian girls and boys, prostitution.

And what about the deaths of children from AIDS that have resulted from the overzealous pursuit by boycotters of Nestle to halt its sales of infant formula in Third World nations?

What Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati has said about universities applies easily to journalism and the consumer movement as well: they are, in supporting these boycotts, "succumbing to the militant few," without having a real "grasp of the complex issues at hand."

Before jumping on a boycott bandwagon, journalists as well as consumers have a responsibility to find out what the boycott is truly all about. Freedom of the press gives them every right not to exercise such responsibility, as it gives the boycotters every right to organize their boycotts, but that doesn't make it right.

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