Climate change protest funded by big business: the power of paradox
Getting to the point straight away, there is a most fundamental paradox at the heart of capitalism, one clearly articulated in the debate over the funding of ‘green’ activities by corporations. The paradox emerges when you weigh good against bad. Corporations create wealth. They create jobs. They spread employment – and therefore wealth – around as they expand into new markets. They innovate, they develop new products and they pay through corporation taxes for a significant part of the state’s spending on social necessities like law and order, affordable healthcare, education, and governance itself, while the the lion’s share is generated by the jobs, direct and indirect taxes that we all pay as employees. All largely to the good then.
Except…except that they also manipulate the crap out of us through advertising and intrusive marketing. They pollute the planet, act in corrupt and rapacious ways, care little and with some infrequency about their workforce, make many kinds of goods that are designed to fail in a set period and be unrepairable when they do. And they display a social conscience inevitably suborned to, and perpetually compromised by, the desire to make ever greater profit.
The paradox. Good and bad then: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
* * * * *
The event known as Climate Week has invoked numerous articles of late, one of which in the Guardian features, amongst other things, a defense of corporate sponsorship – particularly by RBS, EDF and Aviva – by Climate Week founder Kevin Steele:
My view is that the threat of climate change is so catastrophic and the economic transformation required so great, that we have to involve every part of society. This includes large companies as well as charities, schools, public services, government and others. We cannot afford to waste precious time arguing about which organisations are sufficiently green to be allowed to take part in a movement for change.
His regard for ‘precious time’ doesn’t stop the posters from doing exactly that – scorning what they describe variously as one or other form of ‘greenwash’ hypocrisy – and here we see once more the ideological fist concealed in an ecological glove. My problem with these kind of arguments is not the position of those taking part, so much as the lack of nuance, the child-like simplification that reduces everything to black hats and white hats.
First of all, let’s bear in mind how little most environmentalists seem to know about how business operates. Too many comments I read from those I respect and, on environmental issues, largely agree with, smack of infantile ideology: big business is bad, everything they do is terrible, everything they do is exploitation driven by greed. The easy analysis: black hats all round.
I come from a corporate background. Consequently, I have a perspective on how business operates that is clearly very different from the theoretical, and often hilariously naive, criticisms bandied about in public. (Just to be clear on this, and to repeat my oft-stated assertion that I’m not pursuing some kind of socialist agenda behind the camouflage of environmental issues, I don’t really have a beef with capitalism, so much as I do with consumerism: the former is the barter system writ large and the least worst way of developing wealth, the latter a license to consume and waste, where we measure ourselves and our success idiotically in terms of how much we consume and how much we waste).
Board room experience informs my views, so that -for example – I can state that all business is essentially cynical and self-serving, and there is no real alternative. If you employ people, you either acknowledge and service the imperative to keep paying them and provide some notional stability in their lives, or you regard them as fodder for the industrial machine you run, another disposable asset to be discarded when it suits and times are tight. The balance between philanthropic paternalism and the need to turn a profit is forever unforgiving, a tension impossible to reconcile e.g. do you sack the few in order to maintain the employment of the many? Personally, I found making people redundant quite abhorrent, an act seen in a bearable context only when I considered the likely outcome were I to fail to do so. In the end, it was a calculation (as are all decisions in business) and the numbers involved were assessments of collateral damage.
* * * * *
Perhaps collateral damage is the best measure of the paradox I alluded to in my opening remarks. All business, all commerce, does good and does bad. There is profit and loss. There is benefit and detriment. People are beneficiaries at the same time as suffering collateral damage. The environment suffers as society improves. There is always a price to pay – no free lunches – for everything we gain, everything we invent, everything we develop.
That price has become extortionate of late. Climate change is too great a price to pay for the shallow benefits of consumerism. Steep and permanent rises in the price of energy, and subsequent shortfalls of it, are too high a price to pay for a new mobile phone, a second computer, a larger plasma TV. The challenges we now face are invoking collateral damage on the poor, on developing nations, on those who may now be denied the fruits of so much struggle and invention. We are living the paradox, some of us doing nicely while others fare less well. Millions still live in poverty, riddled with disease, blinded by ignorance and corrupted by desire for that which they cannot have, first by design, and latterly by very bad timing.
There will be more collateral damage, and what I’ve been writing about for a decade now is how we can limit it. The issue is transition. Either we manage the change, or it will manage us: evolution versus revolution. In business, a company that doesn’t manage change, that doesn’t evolve, will inevitably experience revolution instead, usually accompanied by bankruptcy, mass redundancies, a change of name and leadership, loss of capital and credit – the worst outcome imaginable.
So when I read all the condemnatory posts about big business and how they sully the environmental movement with their filthy lucre, I am dismayed by the simplistic, and deeply unrealistic assessments on offer. Of course EFD burn fossil fuels and manage nuclear power stations – that’s what they do, and will continue to do. Are they bad because they invest in our energy future, knowing that fossil fuels and nuclear are currently the only way to keep the lights on? And that given the procrastination of western governments, particularly the US and UK, there are no coherent strategies to mitigate our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s all very well comparing an energy supplier to a drug dealer, for it is true we are notionally addicted to fossil fuels, but the notion of addiction is another misleading over-simplification. Drug addiction is either hedonistic or escapist. Fossil fuel ‘addiction’ is a dependency on one form of energy to power our society. Hardly an indulgence then, and perhaps this addiction business is an analogy too far.
As for RBS, of course they invest in tar sands and other fossil fuel opportunities. Fossil fuel will be part of the foreseeable future. If all funding was withdrawn tomorrow, the lights would go out in short order. RBS will invest in sure things, as they will invest in risk too. And they, like Shell and BP and the rest, will also invest in renewables, because they know the future will depend on alternatives. To what extent they commit themselves to long-term investments in alternative energy generation remains to be seen, but the very fact they are making any commitment at all – including support for climate week – is a good thing. Through that engagement, perhaps they can be encouraged to participate further, and deeper, and for longer.
I have been saying for some time that commerce needs to take a long view, because in the end their profits will fail unless they too adapt and evolve, along with the society that supports capitalism even as we also depend on it. It is in all our interests to be involved in, and contribute to, the gradual change that invokes the least collateral damage. Alienating corporations because they obey the imperatives of profitability (and therefore viability) is counter-productive. Of course corporations will be hypocritical, seeking PR advantage from any ‘good’ deed. We should not be surprised, however, because the very nature of consumerism is hypocritical and manipulative. We may hate the corporations for the way they use us, but we do love the employment they give us, and the goods they make for us.
Like I said, it’s a paradox. We can understand it, but I don’t think we can change it unless we dump consumerism altogether. That may be a case of trying to run before we walk, so in the meantime, let’s welcome big business to the fold and seek to promote change from within. Let’s also try to evoke a sense of purposeful evolution towards better things, and recognise that transforming the economic model we all depend on requires us to work with the corporate world, not condemn it as if they were to blame for the ills of the world. We’re all in this together, and since nobody benefits from violent change, it would be well if we could bring a little more subtlety to our opinions on the way commerce works, and our part in it (this last particularly when one considers pension funds, and what they invest in – armaments for example).
If we don’t stop alienating commerce, lambasting them out of some mythical, faux-Marxist angst, we will effectively render cosmetic the small concessions made by big business towards the environment, while failing to promote larger and more sustained commitments from within.