Trying to cash in on climate change won’t fool nature

We find ourselves in an era of what we might call creative self-destruction. We’re destroying ourselves – it’s as simple as that.

Economic growth and exploiting nature’s resources have long gone hand-in-hand, but as repeated warnings from scientists and reports such as the latest from the IPCC tell us, they now constitute the most ill-fated of bedfellows. Climate change, the greatest threat of our time, is perhaps the definitive manifestation of the well-worn links between economic progress and devastation.

How can we allow this to happen? The sheer scale of the problem undoubtedly makes genuinely united efforts difficult, but there must be other fundamental reasons for the alarmingly limited reaction to the spectre of all-out ecological disaster.

The corporate world’s responses to climate change have a significant influence. Many might be more accurately described as narratives, or even myths. Like Plato’s original Noble Lie (that served to ensure only those “most suited” to governing were able to), they advance an agenda and maintain the status quo. They thrive on the age-old dichotomy of “us” and “them”, and while we may be acutely aware of imminent catastrophe, somehow we’ve become convinced that someone else will save us.

It’s easy enough to condemn these myths. It’s easy to become angry about them and to rail against the self-serving short-termism at their root. But until we appreciate quite how brilliantly they satisfy their purpose to protect the interests of some at the expense of the rest, any meaningful alternatives will remain elusive.

Un-constructive corporatism

Our recent study of corporate responses to climate change sets out not to disprove these myths but to understand how they work and what they achieve. We looked at how 25 major corporations in the resources, energy, manufacturing, transport, finance and retail sectors responded to climate change between 2010-12. The analysis involved interviews with senior and operational managers and an in-depth investigation of sustainability assessments, annual reports, submissions to governments, shareholder briefings, climate-change presentations and policy documents.

Three key myths emerged, each helping to obscure the link between the accumulation of capital and the erosion of natural resources. Each has shown itself to be dangerously seductive.

The first, the myth of corporate environmentalism, portrays corporations as the saviours of the environment. It stresses firms’ willingness – even determination – to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, produce “green” products and services, and to act on environmental criticism of their products, services or policies. Revelling in the ideals of transparency and accountability, it conveys the message that corporations are best placed to respond to climate change and that alternatives – inevitably including government regulation – will inevitably be less effective.

In other words, it’s business as usual. Don’t query the underlying economic system, simply refine our own habits, for which corporations will continue to be the “value-neutral” providers. The suggestion is that the answer to over-consumption is more, but better, consumption. By the grace of their hand, corporations have equipped us with the tools to save ourselves: now it falls to us as individuals to use them wisely.

The second myth, corporate citizenship, strengthens corporations’ moral role in leading us to supposed salvation. It depicts corporations as legitimate entities in public debate and paints them as representatives of “the people”. This is how corporations give us a voice.

In effect however, the only way this voice is heard is through consumption. The result is that citizenship itself becomes a surrogate for corporate interests of profit and shareholder value. This isn’t democracy: it’s the cementing of the narcissistic conceit that says what’s good for corporations is good for all citizens. That corporate citizenship has long since become a dead metaphor highlights the astonishing strength of this myth.

Perhaps even more powerful, though, is the myth of corporate omnipotence, the idea that companies, thanks to their rationality and efficiency, are capable of taming nature itself. And so the most improbable promises and claims go unquestioned. The state isn’t sidestepped, but should be no more than a co-creator or supporter of schemes that put profitability above all else. Even where climate change is concerned, the bottom line still rules.

Is anyone not trying to coin in?

We’ve heard similar boasts before, of course. The global financial system was supposed to be rational and efficient as well – how quickly we forget. But this is what passes for normality. Somehow we now find ourselves content to bear idle witness to the ever more innovative destruction of our world in the pursuit of gain.

As one senior manager interviewed during the course of the research remarked: “It’s all about recognising that this change is happening and taking a leadership position to be able to leverage the opportunities that come out of it.” While stunningly blunt, this pales next to the brutally forthright admission of one CEO: “I’m going to be real frank here. We’re not doing this to save the planet – that’s not the driver. We’re industrialists.”

The principal consequence of this unshakably capitalist mindset is the same inevitable end first identified by Marx more than 150 years ago in The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, but on a magnitude far greater than can be imagined. The inescapable fact of the matter is that while you can fool some people all of the time, or all people some of the time, the environment cannot be deceived.

This was put well by maverick physicist Richard Feynman, who was outraged, when the technical failure that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle before a live TV audience of millions was traced back to NASA’s insistence that the launch go ahead in unusually cold conditions, that NASA – another organisation keen to bask in claims of rationality and efficiency – could be so stupid and arrogant. “Reality must take precedence over public relations,” he wrote, “because nature cannot be fooled.”

Unless we reject some prevailing myths and replace them with responses that are firmly and sincerely rooted in proper governance, human organisation and authentic engagement, we won’t have to wait long until we’re reminded of this truth.

This article was originally published in The Conversation (UK edition) on 31 March, 2014.

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