NextBillion Editor

Weekly Roundup – 8/15/15: Coke goes fact-free in a week of missteps by multinational organizations

It's not easy being big. Especially when NextBillion's editors are on the lookout for Roundup fodder. This week we sharpened our elbows to take on Coke, the United Nations, Google … and even the Catholic church. Let us know if you agree with our opinions; we'd love to run some counterpoints next week.


The news: Coca-Cola is touting exercise – as opposed to eating healthier and bypassing the sugar-laden drinks that Coke sells – as the best way to control the global problem of obesity.

As proof, Coke cites the “science-based” research of the Global Energy Balance Network, a supposedly independent group of scientists. Independent, if you overlook the $1.5 million Coke donated last year to start the network; or that Coke administers the network’s website and holds its registration; or that Coke has given about $4 million to two of the organization’s founding members. One of them, Vice President Steven N. Blair, says things like this: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ – blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

It’s not clear what he’s been reading, but there’s some conflicting information here. And here. And here. Blair, it seems, is one simple Google search away from enlightenment.

There’s more than a tad of desperation involved in Coke’s misdirection attempt. Soft drink sales have been falling for years. It’s gotten so bad that Americans say they’re more likely to avoid soft drinks than they are fat or salt in their diet. Clearly, soft-drink makers have their backs against the wall.

Our take: Last week we were only too happy to praise the multinational GlaxoSmithKline for its workaround in making the world’s first malaria vaccine available in sub-Saharan Africa, through a creative nonprofit deal. That vaccine did much to help GSK – and, by association, other corporate giants – appear more compassionate. Then, along comes Coca-Cola, mimicking Big Tobacco during its blame-shifting heyday, and we’re left shaking our head at their shameful profits-at-all-costs mentality. Coke’s leaders have been caught in a health-endangering misdirection. They should call off the ruse and put their efforts into a more honorable formula for success: making money while making the planet healthier.

– Kyle Poplin



Working for peace, rights … and a decent night's sleep


The news: An unpaid United Nations intern resigned this week after making international headlines for sleeping in a tent because he couldn’t afford to pay rent in Geneva, where he was working at the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

A lot of people were surprised that the UN – which helps set labor standards in developing countries and has led the fight against slave labor – doesn’t pay its interns. It’s hypocritical, critics say, and inhibits diversity by favoring interns with deep pockets. Indeed, according to the BBC, only two of Geneva’s 162 current interns are from Africa.

And then there were the further ironies of the resigning intern having pitched his tent beside the toney-sounding United Nations Beach Club, and the United Nations making a home in Geneva, the second-most expensive city in the world.

In fairness, the United Nations has long had a policy of not paying interns – in fact, the General Assembly voted to forbid their payment – and that policy is clearly stated on its website.

Our take: The UN, of all organizations, should pay its staff a fair living wage. Since it doesn’t, it has no moral authority to lecture others on labor standards. The UN Geneva Office should transparently explain why it has tolerated a policy that led to having only two of 162 interns from Africa, then set to work on a resolution for changing that policy.

– Kyle Poplin



Speaking of talking the talk without walking the walk …


The news: You’ve probably heard about Pope Francis’ bold stance on climate change. His recent, controversial yet widely praised encyclical called on all humanity to “recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption” to fight global warming, and to urgently seek alternatives to fossil fuels. But this week it emerged that many major American dioceses don’t exactly share this sense of urgency – if it means divesting from the energy companies that help fund church operations and pay clergy salaries.

These holdings make up a reported 5 to 10 percent of the dioceses’ overall investment portfolios. That amounts to many millions, likely billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel companies, including environmental bogeymen like hydraulic fracturing firms and oil sands producers. In the words of Father Michael Crosby, a Milwaukee-based clergyman and socially responsible investment advocate quoted in a Reuters report on the issue, "You now have this clash between Pope Francis' vision of the world, and the world that the bishops who run the investments live in." Indeed, in the same article, the manager of a Catholic investment service that has resisted divestment suggested that the pontiff’s words didn’t necessarily extend to the investment world: “The pope's intent was to say to people: there is an urgency on this issue. Divestment is a good way to raise the urgency. But it is not the be-all to end-all of solutions."

Our take: This is where the rubber meets the road – for the pope, his church and humanity in general. If we’re not willing to make the lifestyle – and financial – choices necessary to fight global warming, we may be dooming our planet and civilization to an unthinkable future. And while divestment alone won’t solve the problem, prevailing upon energy companies to turn toward sustainable alternatives would help. That’s why the U.N. has joined many companies, organizations – and faith groups – in the fast-growing divestment campaign. The longer the Catholic church holds out, the shakier its leader’s “moral clarity” on the issue appears. And before you blame the church’s stubborn local dioceses for this inaction, take note: The Vatican itself recently declined to divest its own portfolio of fossil fuel holdings.

– James Militzer



Global poverty, and other ‘rounding errors’


The news: To me, this week’s biggest Google-related – oh, sorry, I mean “Alphabet-related” – story had nothing to do with its much-discussed corporate restructuring. Instead, it was a lighthearted but infuriating report about the Google-sponsored Effective Altruism Global conference, which took place at the company’s global headquarters earlier this month. The event brought entrepreneurs like Elon Musk together with futurists, researchers and other tech luminaries to discuss how those of us who are concerned about our species’ future can do the most good.

For the uninitiated, the “effective altruism” movement has been critical of the often-ineffective methods of many charities, nonprofits and government agencies. It believes social change efforts should be based on hard data of measurable impact, rather than simply on the desire to feel good. And it initially focused its energies on fighting global poverty, helping to inspire efforts like GiveWell, which have measured and compared the actual impact of charitable organizations and initiatives.

So what’s the problem? According to a firsthand report on Vox, discussion at the recent conference was largely focused not on fighting poverty, but on something slightly more esoteric: “funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence-provoked apocalypse.”

Yes, you read that right. According to the report, many conference attendees – including some leading lights in effective altruism – “have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a ‘rounding error.’” Why? Because of math: If our civilization lasts millions more years, these quadrillions of yet-to-be-born humans will vastly outnumber the current global population, making it more important to ensure their survival than to feed and house the measly 7 billion living today.

Our take: It’s easy to point and laugh at a conference full of geeks indulging in a group fantasy that sounds suspiciously like Terminator fan fiction. But these geeks include some of the sharpest minds and most influential entrepreneurs in the country. And beyond the moral repugnance of referring to the grim toll of poverty as a “rounding error,” it seems far more likely that our civilization will be undone by actual, current threats we already face – from climate change or overpopulation to antibiotic resistant bacteria – each of which is closely entwined with poverty. So here’s an unsolicited suggestion for the tech sector: Instead of solving our planet’s potential problems – or seeking ways to break free from the Earth entirely – why not bring your vast intelligence to bear on solving some real problems instead?

– James Militzer


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