Can big business help change the world?
Thursday, April 5, 2007
It was only half a lifetime ago that many young Americans hoped for something like a revolution. It was not impossible, back then, to imagine that a profound change could happen, that a myriad of social ills—war, poverty, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, etc.—might be swept away by the desire for a better world. Now, it’s hard to comprehend how so many people could be so naïve.
Of course, the revolutionary fervor of the times did not possess every good-hearted member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and ’70s. Many progressive-minded individuals, just as critical of the status quo as their revolution-minded peers, and just as compassionate in their yearnings, harbored more pragmatic dreams. They hoped for something less ambitious (but perhaps more optimistic): that the government could be trusted to right the egregious wrongs that plagued the nation. Nowadays, even that idea seems quaint.
Talking about environmental threats, these execs sounded like Earth Firsters.
We find ourselves living in a world that has surrendered its idealistic fantasies, and also, to a certain extent, its belief in the power of democracy. Everyone today understands that our political leaders need money to get elected. We are not ignorant of the fact that the money is in the hands of ever-bigger corporations and their stockholders, and that therefore our elected officials cannot do anything that threatens corporate power.
Most Americans, young and old, are resigned to the knowledge that we are not likely to see a better world unless it’s good for business. But that doesn’t mean we must give up all hope.
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I felt a strong twinge of hopefulness this evening, listening to a recording of a talk that Ted Turner gave Monday morning to students from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. The billionaire media mogul made a passionate case for profound change. He spoke of nuclear disarmament, renewable energy, and a more peaceful foreign policy.
Asked about Iraq, he attacked the very idea of warfare. “War is no longer a way to accomplish intelligent goals,” he said. “I wouldn’t have sent soldiers over there—I would have sent doctors and teachers. If you want to reduce terrorism, the way to do it is by helping people, not killing them. That just makes ’em mad.”
He sounded like a ’60s radical. He also sounded like a businessman. He reeled off numbers: There were two billion people on earth when he was born (70 years ago); there are 6.5 billion now. There are 20 times as many automobiles than there were 40 years ago. American houses are twice the size of European homes; three times the size of Japanese homes. We make up five percent of the world’s population and use 25 percent of the energy resources.
“We need to change the way we’re doing things,” he said. “Everything can be changed. We could turn around completely. We could turn on a dime.” He was, literally, talking about a revolution.
About global warming: “This is going to be the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced, because we’re going to have to change a lot of things we’ve been doing for a long time, and we’re all going to have to do it together.”
Granted, Ted Turner is not a typical corporate leader. But he is not alone.
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Earlier this week, I watched a short video clip that arrived via email from Sea Studios, a local non-profit that produces world-class environmental advocacy films for National Geographic and other organizations. The piece, titled >>Ahead of the Curve: Business Responds to Climate Change, features interviews with corporate executives who describe the steps their companies are taking to combat global warming.
Talking about the environmental threat that the world faces today, some of these execs sounded a bit like Earth Firsters I have known. They spoke earnestly, and seemed to understand that we are facing a deadly crisis. I am guessing that they participated in the Sea Studios project partly to convince their peers that the threat is real, and that it makes good business sense to confront it.
Peter Darbee, CEO of PG&E, explained why his company has cut its carbon emissions to 40 percent below the industry average: “When you recognize that change is there, it’s happening, and then you ask yourself, how can you optimize your position in that environment—that’s fun.”
Such is the language of responsible business. Executives at other big firms are optimizing their positions by promoting women and people of color; by providing day care and generous health care plans; by giving money to progressive political candidates.
If the revolution had come in the 1960s or ‘70s, big business would have been the enemy. Could it now be an ally?