A dystopia is a nightmare vision of the future and there are two great books which have defined the genre: 1984 and Brave New World. Both books are brilliant but they were written in the 1930s when the world quivered under the shadow of totalitarianism. They are useful for understanding the twentieth century but outdated when it comes to our own troubled times.
Now we have an author, David Mitchell, who has projected the economics of today hundreds of years into the future. We also have a country - Romania - where offshore investors are planning a vast cyanide mining project that would fit nicely into Mr Mitchell's dystopia.
This is how David Mitchell describes the future in his breathtaking novel, Cloud Atlas:
"Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies riddled with rogue genes. The downstrata can't buy the drugs necessary to counter these privations. Melanoma and malaria belts advance northwards at forty kilometers per year. Those production zones of Africa and Indonesia that supply Consumer Zones' demands are sixty per cent uninhabitable. Plutocracy's legitimacy, its wealth, is drying up...Its only response is that strategy beloved by all bankrupt ideologues: denial."
It's not hard to see how today's multinationals could evolve into the monopolies described by Mitchell. The recent scandals regarding the non-taxpaying antics of companies like Starbucks, Google and Apple suggest that the main role of modern government is to represent big business. What this means in practice is that the interests of big business will always trump those of ordinary people or the environment.
The process can be seen most clearly in an emerging economy like Romania, a country that has been a modern capitalist economy for only 23 years. In Romania, which has been a member of the EU since 2007, you can see how companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft, VW, Nestle, Danone and South African Breweries (SAB) have easily swatted aside local competitors. Over 60% of soft drinks and bottled water in Romania are now sold by Coca Cola, the beer market is stitched up by SAB and the other multinationals and over 80% of food is now imported. Microsoft dominates the software market and by investing smartly in government and school relations they have managed to keep Linux based competitors, a far cheaper option, locked out. The EU back backs all this up by imposing standards that only the biggest companies can afford; for example, millions of Romanian peasant farmers are no longer allowed to sell their milk, even though it is far superior to anything in the supermarket.
But this kind of multinational-takes-over-new-market scenario is not new. We all know about it. What propels Romania into the category of "World's First Dystopia" is the massive cyanide mining project that could turn Transylvania, one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of Europe, into a dystopic wasteland. It is also a case study in how corporate PR and marketing can convince a population that the destruction of their ecosystem is in their own interest.
The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, an offshore investment fund, has promised Romanians thousands of jobs, billions in tax dollars and - the most audacious claim that could have come straight out of 1984 - environmental protection. The reality is that 3 villages and 4 mountains will be demolished and a massive reservoir for 214 million tons of cyanide waste will be built (cyanide is used to extract gold from ore). Never before has such a big cyanide mining project been attempted in Europe. Rivers and groundwater in the region, including the Danube, may be poisoned and only about 200 jobs will be created. The tax income from the estimated ₤20 million profit is unknown because the company's contract with the Romanian government is a state secret, and Romania's tax laws are riddled with loopholes.
The most extraordinary thing about the Rosia Montana project is that a local residents association has managed to block it for the last fifteen years. Using volunteer lawyers they have managed to stop the project in the local courts time and time again, and this shows that Romania's charity and legal sectors are not as corrupt and weak as many like to assume. The current Romanian government is now trying to subvert the naysayers by rewriting the Mining Law, allowing mining operations to seize whatever land they fancy.
But the investors will not give up. This is a test case for the international mining industry: their business model depends on poor and badly governed countries like Romania bending to their will and allowing free access to their mineral wealth. Defiance like this could encourage others to stand up to them, and this doesn't fit with the big mining companies' vision for our future.
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