Are big corporations like Ford, Coke and BP a force for good or a doom machine? Mike Freedman from freedthinkers visited our school today. He spoke about the responsibilities corporations have – or if you look at it another way, the opportunities for making a difference.
Our honours students sat quiet as mice while Mike quietly but forcefully put the corporations in the dock. “I will be the prosecution, the defense and the judge”.
He presented both sides of the argument. He spoke about the practice of labeling inconvenient realities as “externalities”. So your business creates tons of waste? Takes opportunities away from local entrepreneurs? Consumes nonrenewable resources? Keeps our workers poor, unskilled and unhealthy? All are externalities. You are only responsible to the shareholders. The only balance that matters is the one on your books.
I have often thought that when people get together in groups they are released from responsibility, from conscience. If you are part of a larger entity you can do all kinds of things that would be impossible otherwise.
In presenting the “case for the prosecution” – the corporation as a doom machine – Mike drew a familiar picture: the consequences of unchecked greed and corruption, of dishonesty, neglect and ignorance. He traced the insane arithmetic of resources. Exposed the outrageous inequalities between countries, classes and hemispheres.
The prosecution gave over to the defense. He dispelled the romanticizing of much eco – idealism, quite graphically with an image of the “rivers of shit” that we would be wading in if we still relied on horses for transportation. Reminded us that some progress is for the good of all. And shared many examples of corporations that rediscover their purpose: not to make profits, but their true purpose which is unique to each business.
Mike presented some of examples of corporations that are “moving along the right path”. My first reaction was my usual one- a cynical urge to pick up the pretty carpet and find the self serving dirt . I tend to believe that there are just too many of us, and that the most acurate view of humanity is the way we look from a great height. Ever looked at a city out of an airoplane window? It looks like blight on a plant, like a mold, a disease. I know this is not a particularly helpful attitude – its actually a bit of a cop out. In any case, here are some of these examples of corporations “acting sustainably to make a difference”:
The American Express red card which allows your social consciousness to be a status symbol: To quote from their site:
“With American Express RED, you can help towards eliminating AIDS in Africa, because with every purchase made on the Card, 1% is contributed directly to the Global Fund. £100 spend on the Card is enough to provide 17 treatments to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.”
The Kia walking bus, a sort of car pool on foot: adults take turns to walk a group of children to and from school every day. Kia is a “motoring company”. Why do they do this? This is what they say:
“Driving can be fun. But let’s face it – there’s nothing great about traffic jams. At 9am nearly 20% of cars are doing ‘the school run’. It’s madness. But the Walking Bus can change this – one step at a time.”
The Marine Stewardship Council which was established by Unilever:
“The MSC is an independent, global, non-profit organisation which was set up to find a solution to the problem of overfishing. “
And many more. I’m not sure if I’m convinced in every case – although I’m fairly impressed with some of them. And in the case of the more dubious ones I geuss its a good thing taking advantage of people’s vanity also has positive side effects. But is this not a case of too little to slowly to late? Isnt our situation so dire that it will take a positive effort from us all to make do with less convenience and comfort in in the intererest of others?
In the average science fiction fantasy the hero saves the world by doing lots of exciting and thrilling things. It strikes me that the forces of evil would be much better off devising stratagems that can only be countered by doing boring taks. Then they would rule the world in no time.
So I guess I am still open to argument on this matter. I will finish with this quote from Antoine de Saint Exupery that Mike shared with us:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.“