|Three books in the past year have analyzed the behaviour of corporations and concluded that many of them act in a psychopathic manner, exhibiting indifference to the suffering some of their activities produce and a willingness to act dishonestly and sometimes even illegally if they know they can get away with it — all in the name of “increasing shareholder value”.
But now a new article by George Monbiot suggests that perhaps the majority of corporations would act more compassionately and ethically if they could be assured their competitors would do the same. After listing the latest litany of evidence that global warming is for real and accelerating, Monbiot describes his astonishment at a conference where a number of companies called for tough new across-the-board regulations to start to deal with the problem, only to be rebuffed by governments unwilling to institute them.
The reaction is perhaps not surprising. After all, at the behest of multinationals, many governments pushed through so-called ‘free trade’ regulations that forced participating countries worldwide to lower their social welfare and environmental standards to the lowest of any member country, and imposed huge fines on any country that dared try to protect its workers or its environment. Now, some of these same companies are saying it’s not deregulation that’s needed to make ‘free trade’ and a ‘free market’ work, but consistent regulation, so that there is an even playing field. But now governments, having meekly done what the corporatists told them to do, are arguing that such re-regulation would be “an unwarranted intervention in the market”. Now who’s behaving psychopathically?
In a demonstration of good faith and concern for our planet’s future, a bevy of innovative companies, Monbiot reports, have developed new, and expensive, anti-pollution technologies. Big business has acknowledged these solutions and expressed a willingness to adopt them, but insist “none of this is going to happen if the market is left to itself”. As Monbiot puts it “it is regulation that creates the market” for these new technologies. Unfortunately, it appears that most politicians never got past the laissez-faire chapter of Economics 101, and now cloddishly believe that all regulation is inherently evil.
Caught up in the enthusiasm for deregulation, many governments have shed regulatory authorities, manpower and budgets. Re-regulation to a global standard would cost these governments serious money. Their reluctance to do an about-face is therefore quite understandable. Who’s going to pay for the enforcement? Unhappy taxpayers? The companies themselves? Yeah, right.
Monbiot’s next book will include a detailed proposal to get government and industry, working together, to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2030, which he believes is the minimum needed to prevent ecological meltdown. But now he’s worried that the politicians, not the corporations, will be the hardest to convince.
Now, I can hear the advocates of a single world government saying this vindicates their argument. Only one government to convince instead of hundreds, right? The problem with this is the assumption that any government has the capability to institute and enforce regulations as long as there is a reward (higher profits) for the millions of companies around the world for circumventing the regulations.
Let’s suppose that a suite of new regulations were agreed to by a global government (or by all the world’s national governments), that set high social and environmental standards, from restrictions on child labour to high-tech scrubbers on all smokestacks. There is an immediate incentive for companies, especially in areas of the world where enforcement of the law has always been lax (and that’s most of the world) to defy the law, not by flaunting it but by claiming to be in compliance and bribing the odd inspector who comes by to overlook violations. These companies will be at a competitive advantage relative to the law-abiding ones. No government or set of governments, even of the Orwellian variety, will be able to counter this incentive to break the law, or increase the probability of lawbreakers being caught and brought to justice. This will be particularly true in third world countries (some of which already have strong social and environmental laws, but so little enforcement that residents scoff at them) but it will be true in any country where there is a reward for breaking the law. The raft of recent criminal activities by companies like Enron demonstrates that if the incentive is there to do so, executives will break the law, often with catastrophic consequences. And for every Enron you do hear about, there are dozens of companies like mega-polluter Koch Industries, which simply buy their way out of convictions for their criminal activities, and stay below the media radar.
So as much as I would like to believe Monbiot’s prescription for fighting greenhouse gases, I don’t think it has a chance of working, even if we could garner global government and corporate support for it, simply because it cannot be enforced.
That’s not to say I think it is a waste of time to re-establish high social and environmental standards of conduct that are uniform around the globe. But the only way such standards will be enforced is by the people, by all of us. And before that happens, billions of people need to be made aware of the reason for these standards and the urgency of upholding them. Today, most of the people on the planet are dealing with the daily struggle to survive, and only when and if we are able to bring overpopulation, overuse of resources, and endemic poverty and disease under control will most of the world have any time or inclination to police corporate and government (many of the world’s worst polluters and human rights abusers are government organizations) conduct in their communities. And in addition, we need much stronger whistleblower protections (protections which would need to be enforced not by existing authorities, which in many countries are likely to be in cahoots with the wrongdoers, but rather by the citizenry at large). Without such protections, no citizen will be willing to risk their personal safety to report wrongdoings, and that danger rises commensurately with the extent of the wrongdoing.
None of this will be easy, and it may not even be possible. We’re quickly running out of time to bring those most responsible for destroying our planet into line. But the Internet at least gives us the possibility of recruiting six billion whistleblowers to log social and environmental wrongdoing in their own communities, combine them to provide a clear picture of which organizations are the worst offenders, and use that data to boycott those companies and, at least in the most extreme cases, push regulators to bring them to justice. We simply cannot expect governments, laws and corporations to police (and in some cases self-police) social and environmental misconduct. We have to do it ourselves, together, and soon.
Thanks to Jeff Gold of the Green Party for catching this article.
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