Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Corporations and Conservation: Dr. Carl Safina looks at corporate responsibility

Dr. Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, has a way with words when it comes to the moral obligations we, as inhabitants on this planet, have to the environment. He recently posted an excerpt on his blog of an upcoming book he has completed, The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, available this fall. It's very much worth a read; click here to read the entire excerpt.

In the excerpt, Carl looks at the big picture of corporate development, responsibility, and the "profit-maximization imperative" that has grown over centuries within the U.S. and worldwide. In a sense, the corporate culture has become the new aristocracy - an aristocracy that was challenged by the founders of this country.

"Modern corporations were essentially illegal at the founding of the United States. (The colonists had had enough of British corporations.) In the new country, corporations could form, raise public capital, and share profits with stockholders only for specified activities that benefited the public, such as constructing roads or canals. Corporate licenses were temporary. Corporations were forbidden from attempting to influence elections, law-making, public policy, and civic life. Imagine.

But from the beginning, corporate-minded men chafed for power, prompting Thomas Jefferson to write in 1816, 'I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.'”

Environmentalists and conservationists are faced with a myriad of issues within which to invest their energy and passion. Often these are small skirmishes - regional challenges to a particular species or ecosystem - and we take these on because it is hoped that, collectively, it represents a larger battle that can be won. But the "big picture" must also be addressed, and that can be challenging because it requires societal change, often taking generations to be realized, and long-term strategies that can be subject to revision down the road, weakening the original intent.

Having spent some years in the corporate arena, I have seen the dichotomy in which it exists. In marketing, the customer is king and so products and services are devised to best meet the needs of the end user. But that ethical responsibility is in a perpetual tug-of-war with the profit-maximization imperative Carl refers to - and in that battle it would seem that the profit motive wins out more and more. Al Pacino's line from the Godfather, "It's nothing personal; it's strictly business" has always resonated with me as it succinctly defines the amoral philosophy that has guided economic development over the decades. This is something that I have come to grudgingly accept as it explains the corporate will to survive and to profit.

And on the face of it, that's not a bad thing until one examines the influence and power that appears to be an inevitable by-product of that philosophy. One would think that the role of federal or state governments, as a democratic representation of the people, would be to guard watch over industry in the best interest of society (and the environment in which that society resides).

"Corporations have swept real economic and political power away from most governments. Of the hundred wealthiest countries and corporations listed together, more than half are corporations. Exxon Mobil is richer than 180 countries—and there are only about 195 countries. Without the responsibilities or costs of nationhood, corporations can innovate and produce at unprecedented speed and scale. Yet they can also undertake acts of enormous social and environmental destruction and report a profit."

I have often said that corporations will be brought kicking and screaming into a more environmentally-friendly age until they can realize a profit. They will cleverly skirt the issue ("greenwashing") or cling to current business models (fossil fuels vs. zero-emissions) because of the, admittedly, enormous investment required. (One possible exception would be Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghosn's commitment to an all-electric vehicle. Read about it in the latest issue of Fortune.)

But society does have power, however underutilized. It does not lie in some moral, logical argument that will magically put corporate responsibility on a new path. It rests with devices that affect both corporations and governments: the pocketbook and the vote.

Years ago, I remember listening to an interview with a senior automotive executive where the development of the SUV was being discussed. The executive freely admitted that the SUV was over-sized and fuel-inefficient; a vehicle that just didn't make much sense from a practical standpoint. "But that's what the customer wants," he concluded.

Yes, we are pressured, persuaded, and bamboozled to think one way or another, to buy this or that. But if we as conservationists continue to reach out to others at the grass roots level, to get the word to the people, corporations and governments can change. It's a struggle, but it's one worth doing.

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