Amazon’s 0.05% U.K. Tax Rate

Amazon is in the news this morning, for paying only £67 million in tax on £7 billion revenue over 20 years. That £67 million is less than Marks and Spencer paid in tax last year alone, besides a much lower revenue

If you look at Amazon’s effective UK tax rate last year, it works out at 0.05%. It does this by basically basing its main sales operations in countries with a low tax rate… it basically ‘sells’ products to it’s UK subsidiary for next to (or probably 0) profit which then ‘sells these on’ for no profit to actual UK customers, hence very low tax.

Amazon is basically scamming the global tax system.

All of the big four global tech companies are notorious for avoiding tax, but Amazon is by far the worst…In terms of tax paid as a proportion of sales and profits,  Amazon is the worst offender of the ‘big four’ tech companies.

In fact, Google is the only company whose paid taxes you can actually see with the naked eye, when shown to scale against the sales of the three companies! (Link to Tableau doc here):

Amazon tax.png

Amazon paid even less tax than Facebook last year £4.5m on annual UK sales of £8.7bn and pre-tax profits of £72 million.

Google has the best tax record – it paid £49.3m in UK taxes last year, on UK sales of £5.7bn, on pre-tax profits £ 202.4 million.

I’m not going to comment on Apple here, because I think its figures might be distorted by its paying historical taxes in the last tax year which it failed to pay in recent years, following a recent HMRC investigation.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This example goes to prove the power of Transnational Corporations compared to Nation States. Where money is concerned, large global companies can easily avoid national taxes. This form of economic globalisation seems to suggest the decline of the nation . state!

Combatting this would take global co-operation, but it would require the vast majority of companies to agree… all it takes is .a handful of ‘rouge tax havens’ and any co-operation falls apart! It’s one of the many challenges in a global age!

Sources

The Guardian – Facebook’s UK tax bill rises to £15.8m – but it is still just 1% of sales

The Guardian – Amazon halved corporation tax bill despite UK profits tripling

BBC – Google’s tax bill rises to £50m

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The Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, at least according to Stacey Dooley’s Google investigation during her latest BBC documentary: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets.

The program is only available on iPlayer for another couple of weeks, but what I’m going to do here is link into the people and issues covered in this excellent documentary.

Issues brought up in the documentary…

  1. Fashion is a surprisingly polluting industry – the reason it comes in at number two is because of all of the pesticides, fertilizer, and not to mention the sheer volume of water it takes to make many of our most basic threads, cotton being the biggest problem, given its popularity. Check out Lucy Siegle’s writings for more info.
  2. Stacey visits Kazakhstan to witness one of the biggest human made environmental disasters in history. The country used to be home to the Aral Sea – which used to span 68K square kilometers. HOWEVER, now most of it has dried up because of dams being put in place to supply water to massive cotton plantations in neighboring countries. The region is now a desert plagued by sand storms.
  3. It takes a staggering amount of water to produce cotton… 15 000 liters to grow the cotton in one pair of jeans, for example.
  4. There’s the obligatory trip to Indonesia… where we see clothes producing factories churning out chemical polluted water into local rivers, and local slum dwellers washing their clothes in said water with strange skin rashes. This article by Al Jazeera covers the same ground.
  5. Not one single Chain store (e.g Primark etc.) accepted an invitation to appear on the show, and even the Department for the Environment gave a ‘standard reply’ not focused on fashion, but rather on their plastic bag policy, strongly suggesting all of the Corporations involved in fashion and the UK government couldn’t give a toss about the environment.
  6. Stacey did interview a few fashion vloggers, thinking that these ‘influencers’ could be a way to get consumers to switch to less polluting threads. They seemed extremely ignorant of the high environmental costs of ‘fashion as usual’, but willing to push the moral imperative to shop for more environmentally friendly brands. HOWEVER, only one of the four interviewed actually took this up on her vlog.

Relevance to A-level Sociology…

mainly relevant to Global Development the material in this documentary is yet more supporting evidence for TNCs not promoting development, and both the Aral Sea disappearance and the river polluting factors in Indonesia are good examples of green crime.

McDonald’s – Are they really offering their employees a better deal?

McDonald’s is one of Britain’s biggest employers, employing 115 000 workers in over 1300 stores. It is also one of the biggest users of zero hours contracts.

However, following a series of protests over these contracts, the company has recently offered all its workers the choice of staying on ‘zero hours contracts’ or moving onto a fixed contract, with varying hours in length on offer (from 8 to 35 hours a week in line with the average hours they worked). (News article here.)

Based on an initial trial of 23 stores, McDonalds reported that 80% of the workers opted to remain on zero hours contracts, rather than shift to the guaranteed hours contracts.

Personally, I’m suspicious about this. It just doesn’t sound right that 80% of employees would choose to stay precariously employed.

Could it be that the offer of fixed-hours contracts weren’t that appealing – maybe they came with a total lack of flexibility, with workers only being allowed flexibility on zero hours contracts. Maybe the contracts offered some employees the kind of hours that they could not work – early mornings for those with children, for example. Again, a non-starter.

This would fit in some recent survey research conducted by McDonalds which revealed that

  • 60% of people wanted to start earlier than 9 a.m.
  • Nearly 60% saw flexibility as an important aspect of their job
  • 50% of employees would rather work longer days 4 days a week and get a longer weekend.

(Based on a sample of 4000 people, 1000 of whom were McDonald’s employees.)

Or it could be that many of these workers were only getting an average of 16 hours a week or less, which is not enough hours for them, so having a guaranteed contract of 4, 8, or 16 hours, with the possibility of no additional hours, was not a viable option.

Of course, McDonalds are now bragging about the fact that they offer their workers the choice of guaranteed hours, or zero-hours contracts, but we don’t know is how viable those guaranteed hours contracts are for the workers offered them.

Personally, I’m suspicious. It’s probable that those fixed hours contracts had a combination of insufficient hours, or the wrong kind of fixed hours, and thus the workers offered them had no realistic choice at all!

Another thing McD’s may have done is deliberately select those stores with high numbers of people who want zero hours – those with a lot of further or higher education students working in them, for example, thus skewing the stats. (That’s what I would have advised them to do, if I was evil enough to work in the business of manipulative market research.)

In any case, this is a great example of some research that probably isn’t value free, and also a great example of biased media reporting.

Related posts

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my summary of Mathew Taylor’s review of modern working practices, which very much focuses on flexibilization.

The ‘Postmodern’ Tech Companies Embarking on ‘Modernist’ Projects

Technology Transnationals such as Apple, Google and Facebook have effectively embedded themselves into the lifeworlds of billions of people the world over through weaving their products and services into the fabric of daily life.

While in many ways these tech firms are quintessentially postmodern, there are some ways in which they seem to harken back to the modernist era.

Firstly, some of these tech giants are employing top architects to build massive buildings for them, spectacular symbols of their immense global power. While the design of these buildings is ‘obviously’ (?) postmodern, personally I think the sheer scale, cost, and the ultimate profitability-function of them  screams ‘modernism’.

The building that commands the most attention is the Apple/ Foster circle – so big that it’s said to be visible from space. It’s built on 150 acres, and is designed to cater for 12 000 workers. It’s something like a permanently landed space ship with a garden area in the middle.

Inside this building, you’ll discover a world of whiteness, greenery and silver, with a 100 000 square foot cinema, a cafe that can serve 4000 at once, which has sliding class doors 4 stories high, each weighing nearly 200 tonnes.

There is also a 1000 seat Steve Jobs cinema, surmounted by a 165 ft wide glass cylinder, for Apple’s famous product launches, and with a landscape designed to emulate a national park.

The doorways have perfectly flat thresholds because, according to a construction manager reported by Reuters, ‘if engineers had to adjust their gait when entering the building, they risked distraction from their work’.

Writing in the Financial Times, George Hammond also suggests that Facebook is ‘going back to the 19th Century’, more evidence of the modernist turn these postmodern companies are taking….

Facebook us trying to combat soaring rents in Silicon Valley by building new houses, which marks a revival of the 19th century concept of the ‘company town’: its new Willow Campus includes plans for 15% of the 15000 houses to be made available at below market rates, for example.

Hammond is sceptical about whether such a scheme will work, noting that there was a mixed record of success in the 19th century – Cadbury’s Bournville in Birmingham dramatically improved conditions for workers, but Henry Ford’s Fordlandia in Brazil was a spectacular failure.

Whether these massive-buildings and ‘city projects’ are successful or not, they certainly demonstrate the huge power these companies have alter the physical environment in which we work and live in addition to their power to influence the way we access information.

What next for Corporate Power? 

Sources:

The Week (5 August 2017 and 29 July 2017)

 

Technology Companies and the Digital Privatisation of Public Education

Education has long been influenced by private companies, but the rise of digital education has expanded the role of private technology companies, in public education enormously. Such companies range from the big global technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook to smaller, silicon valley tech startups.

This post explores the companies involved, and the neoliberal, Silicon Valley mindset that lies behind what I call the ‘digital privatization of public education’.

Introduction – Digital Capitalism and Education

Schooling in the 1700s and 1800s was provided largely through private institutions, and the expansion of public education in the late 19th and 20th centuries was influenced by the commercial interests of text book publishing companies.

Digital Technology gives private, commercial interests greater potential to influence how public education is organised and delivered.

The reason for this is simply logistical – Nation States do not have the scope to develop digital technologies, and so it is massive, Transnational private technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft which are  driving the development of these technologies, and the public education sectors of national governments who are their largest potential market.

All of the above mentioned companies have education divisions, oriented to developing education software and applications for use in schools, and many other companies are developing educational products: from Pearsons to Lego.

At the other end of the scale from the massive TNC sector there are hundreds, if not thousands of smaller educational technology start ups, as small-fish seek to gain a foothold in the education market.

The fact that digital education is very big business is due to the fact that the global market for education is estimated to be around $5 trillion, with the estimated market for online Higher Education ‘e-learning’ products alone estimated at $91 billion.

In short, the potential expansion of for-profit digital education is huge.

The benefits of commercial involvement in digital education

Selwyn identifies a number of (potential) benefits of the involvement of private ICT companies in bringing digital technology more into public education:

  1. TNCs enjoy economies of scale that dwarf public sector organisations – they have global reach, and enormous sums of money to invest, and they tend to ‘think big’… as one of Google’s international heads of education puts it: ‘Technology was hard to deploy in schools and we’re making the solutions we supply very easy to manage….new technology is finally able to work for us in schools’.
  2. The private sector emphasize the importance of quick results and demonstrable outcomes – they are, after all, ultimately accountable to their share holders.
  3. The IT industry is clearly well poised to bring innovation into education – innovation being defined as introducing new products and ideas that support changes in the established way of doing things. These organisations thrive on thinking big and acting quickly. They pride themselves on thinking differently – they see themselves as risk takers and boundary-pushers, cultivating an ‘outsider perspective’ unfettered by establishment thinking or old money. This is especially true in the ed-tech start-up sector, in which millions of dollars are invested in hundreds of companies, only a few of which will go on to be the next ‘big thing’.

Digital Education and rise of ‘Californian Capitalism’

Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of online learning company Udacity Inc reasoned ‘Education is broken. Face it…. it is so broken at so many ends, it requires an little bit of Silicon Valley Magic’.

The idea of ‘Silicon Valley Magic’ alludes to the set of business practices and approaches that underpin the new high-tech economy and its increased interest in education.

This mentality was described neatly by Will Hutton, based on his account of a visit to Palo Alto during the early 2010s following which he wrote of the global significance of the strain of ‘Californian Capitalism’ that characterizes Silicon Valley institutions such as Google, Oracle and even Stanford University.

‘We are increasingly living in a world where economics, politics, culture and society are being shaped by West Coast ideals of the power of computing, entrepreneurialism and risk-taking approach to investment.

The ways Silicon Valley firms seek to do business are shaped profoundly by the programming and hacking backgrounds of their main protagonists such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergcy Brin, Larry Ellision, Peter Thiel and so on. All of these high-tech billionnaires remain steeped in a programmer mindset where a faith in computational power and an always on networked way of life fuel a relentless focus on invention and innovation.

This is a culture of all night coding sessions and a succession of ambitiouss start-ups, most of which quickly fail, backed by investors keen to take a punt on the next ‘big thing’.

These are ventures which are based on big ideas, solving computational problems, entrepreneurialism, openness, collaboration, learning through failure and relentless self belief and optimism, based on a relentless mindset that revels in the power of individuals rather than institutions, and the creative potential of manageable amounts of renewal and disruption.

Although all of these high tech firms seek to make a profit, many of the main industry protagonists also want to ‘make a difference’ and seek to use frontier technologies to engage with immense societal challenges such as world health and global poverty, and it understands that it is part of society and owes a debt to the culture and public infrastructure that created it.

Thinking Big, spending bigger

Education is one of those sectors in which silicon valley firms seek to ‘make a difference’. This is evidenced in many different forms:

In the well-established and vast educational programmes run by all of the large multinational IT companies – often under the aegis of ‘corporate social responsibility’. These activities range from the physical design and construction of ‘schools of the future’ to the development of teacher training programmes, alternative curricula and the provision of computer hardware, software and the infrastructure to educational institutions.

There are also a range of far more ambitious initiatives such as Peter Thiel’s ‘Thiel Fellowship’ through which young people are awarded $100 00 to drop out of college and pursue their dreams by setting up a world changing business idea’; Mark Zukerberg’s ‘Start-up: Education’ through which Zuckerberg has made personal donations of $100 million to the Newark school district and $120 million to schools in the Sanfrancisco Bay area; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation boasts an extensive educational programme, including its key role in driving recent US school reforms around standardised testing and the common core curriculum. It has also spent over $470 million on US higher education reform, funding projects and generally creating what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls an ‘echo chamber of like minded ideas’.

We should also not overlook the considerable ‘soft power’ of high tech corporations in education decision making, such as with the computer industry’s considerable lobbying governments to focus more on teaching coding in schools, which now seems to be accepted universally as a ‘good thing’. The Chairman of Google, Eric Smidt has been a leading proponent of this push since 2010.

Finally, there are the various companies involved in setting up MOOCs, one of the largest of which is Coursera, bolstered by $85 million of venture capital funding.

All of these activities shows that corporate involvement in education is sometimes submerged in complex networks of influence and power, and if one finds time to follow the money, one finds that high-tech firms are in some way involved in seeking to profit from most, if not all, of the digital education initiatives out there.

It follows that the biggest movers and shakers in digital education are not educators and teachers, but rather programmers, hackers and the trillion dollar tech industry which has grown up around them.

These interventions illustrate the power which IT corporations can wield over public education, and these are increasingly strong voices in conversations about education reform, setting the tone for how education should be reimagined in the ‘digital age’.

Sources: Nick Selwyn (2016): Is Digital Education Good for Education?

Forthcoming Post:

The problems of the increasing role of Tech companies in public education

 

 

 

 

 

The Scale of the World’s Largest Corporations

I thought it’d be useful to do a little post on the sheer scale of global corporations, so below I simply list the top 10 by revenue and then in italics next to them I’ve put the countries who rank immediately below them by nominal GDP* at 2016 figures.

The Fortune 500 magazine publishes the list of the top 500 global corporations by revenue annually.

wal-mart.jpg

The Fortune Global 500 top 10 list by annual revenue (published 2017) are:

  1. WalMart Stores (US)  – $485.8bn (Poland – $467 bn, GDP rank 35 )
  2. State Grid (China) – $315.1bn (Denmark – $306 bn, GDP rank 24 )
  3. Sinopec (China) – $267.5bn
  4. China Natural Petroleum (China) – $262.6bn (Chile – $247 bn, GDP rank 44)
  5. Toyota Motor (Japan) – $254.7bn (Finland – $246 billion, GDP rank 45)
  6. Volkswagen (Germany) – $240.2bn
  7. Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands) – $240bn
  8. Berkshire Hathaway (US) – $223.6bn
  9. Apple (US) – $215.6bn
  10. Exxon Mobil (US) – $205bn (Portugal, $204 billion, GDP rank 47)
  11. (The 10 poorest countries in Africa – approx combined GDP = $190bn)

The top 10 companies in the list above consists almost entirely of Chinese and American firms – just three are from different countries: Germany, Japan and The Netherlands. The largest British firm on the list by revenue – BP – comes in at number 12.

More than a fifth of those on the latest list – 109 companies – call China home, up from only 29 companies a decade ago.”

Banking was the industry with the most number of companies on the list, at 55, followed by automakers/parts suppliers with 34, and petroleum refiners with 28.

In terms of countries, all of the very large population countries are way more economically powerful than any of the TNCs, and nearly every relatively large population Western European countries are richer than those TNCs.

However, there are plenty of European powers which are mixing it in with these corporations and only TWO African countries which mix it with the top ten TNCs – Nigeria and South Africa.

POLA0001
Walmart – had a higher 206 Revenue than Poland’s 2016 GDP

*I know there are problems comparing GDP and Revenue! I covered that in a previous post

Just for contrast… the Top 10 Largest UK companies by revenue are:

  1. BP – $186,606m
  2. Legal and General Group – $105,235m
  3. Prudential – $96,965m
  4. HSBC Holdings – $75,329m
  5. Aviva – $74,628m
  6. Tesco – $74,393m
  7. Lloyds Banking Group – $65,208m
  8. Vodafone Group – $58,611m
  9. Unilever – $58,292m
  10. SSE – $37,813m

It’s probably worth noting that 5 out of 10 on the above list are finance related companies (banking or insurance), while the rest really just provide ‘basic’ products – energy, communications and retail products. So the top end of the UK economy consists of a wierd combination of companies producing ‘the basics’ and ‘the evil dark arts of finance’. Thus you might say that our economy is 50% tangible or real.

Are Corporations more Powerful than Nation States?

This is all very well and good, but what does all this tell us about the power of TNCs compared to countries? Are TNCs actually more powerful, or is using revenue and GDP misleading? While they do both provide a measure of money flowing into a Corporation or a country on a yearly basis, they don’t take into account the nation state’s power of taxation and its (supposed) monopoly on certain forms violence…

Of course if we take the countries which rank above the top 10 companies – the USA, China and so on, it seems sensible to suggest that these two entities work hand in hand (Rex Tillerson being just the most obvious example), but when it comes to African nations, who barely register among the big boys, do they have any chance of standing up to such huge TNC entities?

Or is all of this moot with the rise of alternative economies, given that all of the above is measured in dollars?!?

 

 

Assessing the view that TNCs harm developing countries.

It’s fairly standard practice in A level sociology to teach that transnational corporations are basically evil and harm developing countries. I subverted this a little bit today and got students to make presentations assessing this view.

The instructions were quite simple:

  1. Outline four case studies of corporations harming developing countries.
  2. Outline three to four imitations of the above evidence/ criticisms of the view that Corporations harm developing countries.
  3. Suggest what strategies might be adopted to make TNCs more effective agencies of development.

Here are some of the posters they knocked up… there’s some excellent work here!

20171004_1626271.jpg20171004_162647.jpg

Transnational Corporations

You just CANNOT go wrong with a poster session!

ExxonMobil – The Worst Corporation in the World?

ExxonMobil is the world’s largest oil and gas corporation – its main ‘business lines’ involve producing a range of fuels for cars, planes and ships, as well the technologies surrounding the extraction and refining of these fuels.

Exxon Mobil.jpg

ExxonMobil: Key Facts and Stats

  • Registered in Texas, USA.
  • Assets (2016) – $330 billion
  • Revenue (2016) – $218 billion
  • 75 000 employees globally
  • The CEO from 2006 to 2016 was Rex Tillerson, until Donald Trump appointed him as the 69th Secretary of State, a position he formally took up in February 2017. Tillerson has a relatively modest Total Net Wealth of $245 million (although I simply CANNOT believe that’s an accurate figure.)
Oil and Money
Rex Tillerson: Putting Oil and Money First?

Criticisms of ExxonMobil

This video outlines a fairly basic criticism of Exxon’s dealings with the ruling family of Equatorial Guinea – which is the richest country in Africa in terms of GDP, but not in terms of social development, because although Exxon pump a lot of oil out of the country, pretty much all of the money from that oil revenue gets pumped into the hands of the ruling family. They’re so rich, that the Vice President (the president’s son) owns a $30 million dollar mansion in Malibu.

I posted about Equatorial Guinnea a while back – this post covers some of the figures surrounding oil extraction.

Teodorin Obiang
Teodorin Obiang – Total Net Wealth of $115 million

NB – Obiang is going on trial in Europe to investigate the obvious corruption that has led to his vast wealth, thanks to the French courts, no thanks to the TNC Exxon.

A second criticism of Exxon is that it could have effectively prevented climate change: its own internal memos show that the company proved the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming in the late 1970s, but then buried the research and instead funded climate change sceptics to spread doubt about man-made climate change, and cynically invested in areas such as the arctic which it thought global warming would open up for further oil extraction.

According to this Guardian article, Bill Mckibben argues that if only Exxon had been honest, we could have taken much early steps to avert global warming.

Further Sources of criticisms of Exxon…

http://www.cracked.com/article_24303_5-leaked-memos-that-prove-famous-companies-are-evil-as-hell.html

Related Posts/ how to use this material

The most obvious use of the above information is to use it to evaluate the role of Transnational Corporations in Development, summaries of which are provided here:

 

 

 

Glencore – The World’s Worst Transnational Corporation?

Glencore is one of the world’s largest commodities companies – it operates in 150 countries extracting natural resources such as iron and copper, but also has interests in  coal and oil, as well as numerous agricultural products.

Swiss commodities trader Glencore's logo is seen in front of its headquarters in Baar

Glencore – key facts and stats

  • It is registered in Switzerland
  • Has £128 billion in assets (2015)
  • Had a revenue in 2016 of $150 billion
  • Employs 150 000 people globally
  • The CEO is Ivan Glassenberg, who has a total net worth of around $5 billion.
Glencore revenue
Glencore’s total revenue over the last decade  = around $1.6 trillion

Criticisms of Glencore

Below are some arguments and evidence that Glencore is an example of a Transnational Company which is not really interested in promoting development in poor countries, but really just interested in extracting as much as it can for as cheaply as possible. 

Glencore commodities
Glencore – extracting commodities from 6 continents

Glencore has been widely criticized because it has made staggering profits by extracting huge volumes of natural resources out of poor countries. To put the size of Glencore in perspective, the annual revenue of the company is 10 times greater than the GDP of Zambia.

The 2013 video below documents how the company struck a deal with Zambia to mine its copper in which it extracts around $1 billion of copper per year but pays only 8% tax to the government, and gets free electricity for its mines into the bargain (paid for by the government).

This report from War on Want estimates that a combination of poor trade deals and tax avoidance costs the Zambian government $3 billion/ year, or 10% of its GPP. The report isn’t limited to just Glencore, it focuses on other mining companies such as Vedanta, none of these companies comes off as effectively promoting development in poor countries.

Glencore has also come under heavy criticisms for poor health and safety conditions in many of its mines, its record on environmental pollution and benefitting from child labour in the DRC.

Further Sources

Students might like to use these sources to assess the role of the TNC Glencore in promoting economic and social development in poor countries.

Glencore Wikipedia entry (useful for basic history/ stats)

Glencore’s ‘Supporting Development’ page – have a look at Zambia and the DRC.

Glencore paid £30 000 to compensate for a pollution related death – Guardian article

Criticisms of Glencore in Zambia by Facing Finance 

Glencore denies benefitting from child labour in DRC – Guardian article

 

 

 

The Mars Trilogy – Good Sociology Novels!

I thought I’d take the unusual step of plugging a series of novels in this post….

The ‘Mars Trilogy’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (1990s) may well be a work of science fiction, but it’s full of sociological themes. I guess you’d call the genre something like ‘ecological science fiction’ – a lot of his novels are set in a future in which ecological limits play a major role in the story-lines, and the characters, like it or not, cannot escape such limits. Similarly, his novels, although science fiction, tend to imagine a world where corporate capitalism still remains the dominant power in society.

I actually first came across the author thanks to a quote by Naomi Klein in ‘This Changes Everything’, I guess it’s no surprise to find her linking to him, given that capitalism and climate change is her bag too.

In this particular series of novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) – the story follows Earth’s settlement of Mars, which starts with the ‘first hundred’ leaving for Mars and establishing a colony, soon to be followed by millions of other settlers.

The novels span about a couple of hundred years, and in the first novel (Red Mars) there’s lots of discussion among the first hundred about how to organise the environmental, social and economic aspects of ‘life on mars’.

A recurring theme is whether they should terraform the planet to make it suitable for human habitation – with views on the matter ranging between ‘Reds’ who want to leave Mars as it is and for humans to just live in ‘tents’, to the fullest supporters of terraforming, who want to turn the environment into one with liquid seas and breathable air.

Robinson also introduces the concept of ‘Aeroforming’ – a small group of the original settlers end up going ‘religious’ believing that the planet and themselves and their children need to co-evolve in a spiritual mutual-evolutionary process, and at various stages throughout the novel, Robinson comes back to the idea that New Mars needs some kind of religion to bind all of the disparate elements together.

Another major theme in the novels is the power of Transnational Corporations – which have become so powerful they effectively control the UN in the early stages of the of novels, but by the end they have effectively taken over whole countries on earth (because of bailing them out of their debts, sound familiar?).

The Transnationals basically see Mars as a place from which to extract resources to be shipped back to Earth, and idea which, in the second novel, is resisted by the third and fourth generation ‘Martians’ (who have never been to Earth) who have grown up in a world run largely on the basis of a ‘gift economy’ (made possible mainly by technological advances) rather than a profit economy.

Over the course of the novels, there are various conflicts between the TNCs, who have their own armed security forces, supported by various countries on Earth (rather than the other way around!) and the Martians, who actually reject the concept of ‘revolution’ because of it’s tainted history on Earth, developing a more selective and targeted, scientifically informed approach to getting rid of the TNCs.

Anyway, that’s a brief summary of some of the political and sociological themes in the novel, which also touches on issues of ageing (early on a treatment is invented that allows people to live well, well beyond 100 years); the issue of global warming (one key event on Earth is the collapse of a major Antarctic Ice Shelf) and obviously the role of technology in human relations (Robinson imagines it as mainly a liberating force); metaphysics (science vs religious frames of knowing the world); and the good old issue of cosmpolitanism (how can different cultures get along!?)

If you’re looking for sci-fi that imagines completely different futures, this isn’t it (so maybe it’s not actually sci-fi?), but if you want something that’s set in a future that seems like it’s a distinct possibility and in doing so reflects on many of the problems we face today, it’s a great read.

Just one criticism – each book is about 700 pages long, and each book IMO would benefit from loosing about 100 pages: too much unnecessary time is spent in ‘characters heads’ while adding little to the plot.