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By the Pond

Corporations - too big to be benign


I have a new pond, about which more in a moment.

Right now, pressing business -- saving the world. From business? From capitalism?

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute believes we may be on the edge of an environmental revolution. In the past two years, Brown believes, corporate attitudes toward environmentalism have changed so markedly that “the CEOs of some prominent corporations are beginning to sound like spokespeople for Greenpeace.”

He mentions but one by name, ARCO’s chairman and CEO, with nods to British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. Brown could have mentioned Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Inc. of Atlanta, which has sales of $1 billion a year.

It was Anderson who told a roomful of business executives recently, “The largest, most powerful, wealthiest institution on earth must take the lead -- the one doing the most damage -- the one we’re all a part of: business and industry.”

Commercial carpet-maker Anderson said his head was turned around on the environmental issue by Paul Hawken’s 1993 book, The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability (HarperBusiness). Hawken has a new book coming out soon, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little Brown).

I approach this column seasonally. It’s the fall and it was October of 1997 when I wrote my first By the Pond column. Some time later, in January of 1998, I used Stephen Scharper’s book Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment to provoke much of that winter’s conversation.

This season I intend to do the same with Hawken’s new book.

I’ll begin by doing a precis of The Ecology of Commerce, catch up with carpet-maker Anderson to see what’s happening within his corporation, and then delve into Hawken’s latest offering. I want to see if, as Worldwatch’s Brown postulates, this is a trend to catch, a change to welcome or gnaw on -- or to brickbat.

To this end, I’d ask readers spotting incidents, items, people or books, pro or con, that will broaden or deepen the conversation, to pop them in the mail to me c/o NCR, 115 East Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111, or e-mail me (ajones96@aol.com).

It is right that capitalism’s behavior worries us.

Corporate capitalism’s control of Congress and the White House, and even more so state and local governments, and its marked influence at times on the regulatory systems intended to protect us, is one with the environmental concerns. It’s why we’re wallowing in toxics, why Louisiana has a “cancer alley.”

Corporate behavior is never benign. Corporations are too big for benignity. Collectively the corporate world is wealthier than the Soviet Union was under Stalin, and for the rest of us, peaceful coexistence isn’t enough. So the Lester Brown trend speaks to something beyond that. If it’s there.

I do have strong views on the topic. I believe business -- from the job-creating spark of entrepreneurship to the well-managed good corporate neighbor -- can be morally neutral and/or a force for good. I believe the local garage owner can be (not saying mine is) as corrupt as the largest corporation and just as environmentally careless or destructive.

Capitalism -- shifting the money around for the best returns -- is not business. It is skimming the profit from the labor of others, without laboring, without any regard except the immediate return. Capitalism in this sense is destructive of business and labor. It glimpses a goal of 17 to 50 percent returns, buys up whatever might achieve it, carves up and kills what might only be making an otherwise laudatory 8 to12 percent, and spits out the detritus for whatever price it can get.

Then capitalism sits back with the money and -- more important -- the line of credit, waiting to pounce and swamp the next opportunity.

Business works. Capitalism preys.

The idea is caught in the 19th-century Scottish saying that business and labor should combine against finance.

So when Hawken and Brown are saying nice things about corporations, I’ll be exploring their words -- looking to see the extent they’re also whitewashing capitalism with business’s good brush.

Ralph Nader, in an introduction to the 1999 book Corporate Predators: the Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy (Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, Common Courage Press), puts the true raiment on the skeletons I described six years ago in Capitalism and Christians (Paulist) about capitalism the good, the bad and the ugly.

Where I was somewhat generous on the side of business, Nader lassoes business (as in corporations and capitalism) more tightly together.

So I’ll be matching Nader’s words, too, against Brown and Hawken. Nader writes, “The opportunities to control or defeat governmental attempts for corporate accountability [Reader: Think environmental responsibilities here] that flow from transcending national jurisdictions into globalized strategies to escape taxation [Reader: and other forms of regulation] appear to be endless.

“Taken together the world is witnessing its subjugation to the large corporate model of economic development, the large corporate model of technology and the large corporate model of culture itself.”

Hawken, in The Ecology of Commerce, is making some of the same points by asking:

“How do we conduct business honorably [Reader: business, mind you] in the latter days of industrialism and the beginning of the ecological age? The question is, can we create profitable, expandable companies that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them.

“Making matters worse, we are in the middle of a once-in-a-billion-year blow-out sale of hydrocarbons. They are being combusted into the atmosphere at a rate that will effectively double-glaze the planet within the next 50 years, with unknown climatic results.

“The cornucopia of resources that are being extracted, mined and harvested are so poorly distributed that 20 percent of the earth’s people are chronically hungry or starving, while the rest of the world, largely in the North, control and consume 80 percent of the world’s wealth.”

Hawken contends that many corporations no longer accept the maxim that business is business is business. “So if,” he says, “a tiny fraction of the world’s most intelligent managers cannot model a sustainable world, then environmentalism as currently practiced by business today, laudable as it may be, is only a part of the overall solution.

“Rather than a management problem,” argues Hawken, “we have a design problem, a flaw that runs through all business.”

There we have it, readers. Somewhere in there tectonic ecology plates may be shifting in the minds of men (it’s the men who need shifting). But it’s a tricky arena, and I’m depending on you not only to keep me honest, but also to argue at the margins and to spot the issues others raise or overlook.

One cannot pass through September without noting that the Corporate Crime Reporter has issued its Top 100 Corporate Criminals List. Nader has long noted that the U.S. government nowhere keeps white-collar crime statistics -- only crime statistics from crimes committed (generally speaking) by the middle of the middle class on down.

Reporter editor and list compiler Russell Mokhiber once again has urged the Justice Department to include a Corporate Crime in the United States report along with its annual report on Crime in the United States.

Thirty-seven of the top 100 crimes Mokhiber lists are environmental. Good old Exxon is at the top of the list and gets a second mention further down. Oil companies, cruise lines, pipelines, chemical companies, manufacturers, waste management. Paper companies -- by their stock market tickers you know them.

Let’s hope Lester Brown is right.

Now for my new pond: it’s Walney Pond, two congestion-clogged highways removed from my old neglected, overgrown and threatened patch of water at Indian Run.

Quite simply, we’ve moved.

Walney is a beautiful park. It’s nearly 700 acres of woods, walkways, deer, 18th-century kitchen gardens and a center where kids can look at old bones and stones under magnifying glasses. The customary amalgam of facilities includes soccer pitches and a small open stage that takes advantage of a natural miniature amphitheatre created by the sloping grassland.

The deer never have a minute’s peace. That’s because the jets landing at Dulles fly overhead every 20 seconds. So it’s possible to walk in the woods, luxuriating in the escape from the urbanization barely a shopping mall parking lot’s distance away, in short -- jet-engine free -- bursts.

Nonetheless, the entire area is charming and a place and a topic to be returned to.

What Walney Pond can’t be protected from is the drought. But there’s been enough drought coverage for one year. That’s a topic for the spring.

Finally, hummingbirds. In an earlier piece I referred to my troubles with hummingbirds and identified the red-throated ones whose vines I’d ruined as rufous. A withering letter from a correspondent said those hummers would have to be 3,000 miles off-route. Think rufous, think West Coast. (As mentioned, I never have luck with hummingbirds.)

If I can get it wrong with hummingbirds, I can get it wrong with corporations and capitalism. Keep me on track, folks; we’re literally all in this together.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999