The Foxes in the Henhouse

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Greenbiz headlines a new global sustainability initiative:

54 CEOs Help Launch UN Program to Ramp Up Sustainability

Chief executives from 54 companies around the world have joined forces with the United Nations to launch a new program aimed at raising the bar for corporate environmental, social and governance performance.

The announcement came from this year's Davos World Economic Forum meeting, which venue should raise some suspicions about the motivations and objectives of the program.

More information can be gleaned from the UN pages describing this initiative.

In January 2011, the United Nations Global Compact will launch a new platform for corporate sustainability leadership - Global Compact LEAD.

The approximately 50 companies that participate in Global Compact LEAD will be challenged to implement the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership, which was developed in close consultation with a large number of corporate participants and stakeholders and widely endorsed by business, governments, and civil society at the Leaders Summit in New York in June 2010.

The launch of this new platform is a reflection of the essential role that leading Global Compact participants have already played in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainability. At the same time, Global Compact LEAD responds to the critical need for leading companies to step up and reach new levels of performance and impact in order for the world to meet today’s social, environmental and economic challenges.

So far the efforts toward sustainability led by these large global corporations have been focused on business-almost-as-usual. They can point to some improvements, particularly in better reporting of what they are doing. My criticism continues to focus on the objectives that drive whatever they are doing. The global business institution, together with those who plan and operate the economic machinery of the largest and fastest developing economies, are committed to growth before sustainability. They want it both ways. In a different universe, they might be able to do just this, but on our planet, it simply is not possible, certainly not in the long term.

The United Nations is still working out programs springing from its 1987 Brundtland Report that defined sustainable development. Global business is still committed to their notion of eco-efficiency as the path to sustainable development. The language has shifted to using sustainability, but the reality is still tied to these two old and tired shibboleths.

David Orr gave an memorable paper in 2003, entitled, "Walking North On A Southbound Train," that I reread often. It is even more relevant and valid today. I'll mention just one of the 10 factors he lists that are keeping us moving in the wrong direction as the title implies: "Our problems are systemic in nature and will have to be solved at the system level.

This alone is enough to raise one's eyebrows at this program and all others like it. The actors represented in Davos refuse to accept that;:

    1) They do not understand the meaning of sustainability;
    2) We cannot grow our way out of the unsustainable trajectory the planet is on;
    3) We cannot count on technological innovation to lead us to the way out;
    4) There is no invisible hand to guide uncoordinated actions in the economy;
    5) the complex system that Orr speaks about cannot be managed and can only be governed by a completely different philosophical and practical framework; and
    6) The two large institutions that have created this initiative are ill-equipped to be in charge as they are presently constituted.

I have also tried in my book and this blog to make the last point clear. These institutions, built on the foundations of ideas coming from the Enlightenment Era, need to be adjusted to another set of basic beliefs and norms that reflect the world as it is today and not the one it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Orr argues that government and business do not adhere today even to those time-honored foundations of our Modern world. Here are a few paragraphs pertinent to the last point in the list.

This leads to a third point. We do not have an environmental crisis so much as we have a political crisis. A great majority of people still wish a decent and habitable world for their descendants but those desires are thwarted by the machinery that ought to connect the popular will to public decisions but no longer does so. We will have to repair and perhaps reinvent the institutions of democratic governance for a global world and that means dealing with issues that the founders of this republic did not and could not have anticipated. The process of political engagement at all levels has become increasingly Byzantine, confusing, and inaccessible. And in the mass consumption society we have all become better consumers than citizens, which is to say, willing participants in our own undoing. The solution, however difficult, is to reconnect people with the political process and government at all levels.

Fourth, it is necessary to expose the mythology that surrounds what Marjorie Kelly calls "the divine rights of capital" and place democratic controls on corporations and the movement of capital (Kelly, 2001). We once fought a revolutionary war to establish political democracy in western societies, but have yet to do so to democratize the workplace and the ownership of capital. These are still governed by the same illogic of unquestioned divine right by which monarchies once ruled. The assumption that corporations are legal persons and thereby beyond effective public scrutiny, control, or law is foolishness and worse. The latest corporate scandals are only that: the latest in a recurring pattern of illegality, self-dealing, and political corruption surpassing even that of the robber baron era. The solution is to enforce corporate charters as public license to do business on behalf of the public that are revocable if and when the terms of the charter are violated. If private ownership is good thing, it should be widely extended, not restricted to the super wealthy. By the same logic, we must remove the corrupting influence of money from politics beginning with corporate campaign contributions and the hundreds of billions of dollars of public subsidies for cars, highways, fossil fuels, and nuclear power that corrupt the democratic process and public policy.

Among all the emotions that reflection on Orr's paper bring, I find sadness the one that comes forth most quickly. Now, almost 10 years later, we have sunk deeper into the morass Orr pictures without a glimmer of the kind of remedies he proposes. The new UN Global Compact program just announced may slow down the train we are on (I doubt it.); almost certainly it will just keep us chugging along on the same tracks.

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