Last year I was invited to speak at a Green Energy Event in the West. Most such events make their actual money from their vendor halls, and this one had as one of its focal events the premier of the new Ford Hybrid, which was just being released. Thus, there were many Ford executives at the event. I arrived early to the drinks-and-food-for-the-speakers-and-vendors bit the night before the event formally began, since I had been told it would take longer for me to walk there than it did, and the only other person present from the event was a Ford executive. We got to talking – he was a lovely man who told me about his family, the community and a great deal about Ford, and after a while, we were joined by other Ford executives – until there was a table full, plus me.
They kindly asked about my work, and when I told them I was a writer about environmental issues, they started to tell me about all the environmental initiatives undertaken by Ford over the last decade or so. Apparently, the most involved Ford descendent is an active environmentalist, and they discussed water recycling, green roofs, sustainable metal production and a whole host of other things. And I found those things genuinely interesting and heartening.
Finally, the executive I’d been speaking with all this time asked me why it was that the Ford Corporation got so little credit in the media for all of its efforts to become more environmentally sustainable. Why did people pay so little attention to how hard they were working? It was a sincere question, and a legitimate one.
I answered him. “Well, you do make cars, you know.” He looked at me blankly. I continued “We can’t have a world where everyone has a private vehicle and still have a viable planet, right?”
That was pretty much the end of our discussion. The level of difference in our assumptions was simply too great – to the Ford Executives, reducing waste but continuing to make more cars made a lot of sense – and ideally, making more and more of them. The problem, however, is that as we’ve seen over the years, waste reduction in the absence of constraint leads to more efficient products – and more of them, for a net increase in energy use. What is needed, if we are to soften the simultaneous blows of climate change and energy depletion is to use dramatically fewer fossil fuels – and that’s only possible with fewer cars on the road.
Ford’s commitment then can only go so far – they can engage in small refinements and reduce waste, reduce toxic outputs. But the base issue that we face – the enormous pressure for endless growth in the economy, which is always accompanied by rising resource use – one cannot expect the Ford corporation to participate in anything that will reduce its profits. Thus it may be an ally in metal recycling, but its underlying goal is to make and sell as many cars as possible, and this will always be so.
I thought about that conversation when I read Jared Diamond’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times this weekend. Jared Diamond is the author of a number of important books, including the best-sellers _Guns, Germs and Steel_ and _Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail_. In _Collapse_ Diamond tracks the choices societies make and articulates the ways that our own society is in danger of failing. He’s written a number of important pieces on ecological issues, and drawn attention to the role of environmental degradation in civil conflict.
He’s also apparently gone completely insane. His essay “Will Big Business Save the Earth” shows precisely the incomprehension of scale that the Ford Executive showed – except that Diamond should know better, while the executive in question probably didn’t. HIs essay, motivated by time spent on the boards of environmental agencies hanging out with business executives says that he’s changed his opinion about large corporations, and he gives examples – WalMart, Chevron and Coca Cola of how “good corporate citizens” can help address global warming. He writes,
“Let’s start with Wal-Mart. Obviously, a business can save money by finding ways to spend less while maintaining sales. This is what Wal-Mart did with fuel costs, which the company reduced by $26 million per year simply by changing the way it managed its enormous truck fleet. Instead of running a truck’s engine all night to heat or cool the cab during mandatory 10-hour rest stops, the company installed small auxiliary power units to do the job. In addition to lowering fuel costs, the move eliminated the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 18,300 passenger vehicles off the road.
Wal-Mart is also working to double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet by 2015, thereby saving more than $200 million a year at the pump. Among the efficient prototypes now being tested are trucks that burn biofuels generated from waste grease at Wal-Mart’s delis. Similarly, as the country’s biggest private user of electricity, Wal-Mart is saving money by decreasing store energy use.”
And I will cheerfully agree that all of these are good things. He might have mentioned other environmental initiatives my WalMart as well, including their investment in organics. There is no doubt that these things reduce WalMart’s enormous negative impact.
The problem is that it isn’t enough. WalMart still makes its living selling goods made of toxic plastics, mostly imported from China at tremendous fossil energy cost. The goods are mostly of poor quality and not durable, and encourage people to discard items into landfills and replace them with more cheap goods.
The same goes for the other groups – it is wonderful, sincerely that Coca-Cola is so concerned with water resources, and indubitably, Coke is now a better citizen than it once was, and its investment in cleaning up contaminated water is an unadulterated good. That said, it would be an overstatement to say that Coke always operates in the best interest of communities – a 2008 report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) suggests, for example, that the Coke bottling plant located in Kala Dera near Jaipur India knowingly located its plant in an area of water scarcity, causing serious consequences for nearby farmers. Coke refused to release its own environmental impact studies. It would also be an overstatement to suggest that Coke has been acting from its own interests – in fact, it has bowed to pressure from a student campaign to remove Coke products from universities.
But the major problem isn’t whether Coke is good or bad, it is whether we can afford, in a world of rapidly increasing water scarcity to prioritize resources for something as non-essential as sugar-water. Can we afford to ship water mixed with a few other ingredients around the world, using fossil fuels? Moreover, what happens when Coke’s eternal need to expand its market runs up against material limits? Can we expect Coke to voluntarily say “ok, enough growth, enough market share, other people need that water for agriculture and drinking?”
Diamond goes on to explore the issue of climate change, and why we have to do something about it. And he’s absolutely right. So what does that mean? We can see from “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” the recent updated review of climate literature that the scale of the problem will rapidly bring the limits of corporate good citizenship into clear view.
The Copenhagen Diagnosis, overshadowed in many place by the East Anglia Climate Scandals, was a review of all the major climate papers published since the latest IPCC report, and the picture it paints is deeply disturbing. The window for radical action is getting much, much smaller very rapidly. For example, we’ve seen rapidly increasing greenhouse emissions – and increases not just in the Global South, but in the developed world as well. That is, despite all this good citizenship, in the net, we’re still doing way too much harm.
The window for action is very small – the Copenhagen Diagnosis suggests that if we don’t make rapid changes by 2015, it won’t matter even if we drop emissions to 0 by 2030. Does anyone think that corporate good citizenship is going to make a critical difference in emissions drops on that scale? The truth is that small refinements in energy usage don’t address the more basic issue – the need for deeply curtailed fossil fuel emissions. And that curtailment is something that corporations just can’t do – they have an obligation to make more and earn more for their shareholders. Even the best willed, kindest CEO on the planet can’t do what is most needed.
The only people who can are governments, and us. That is, we can stop giving our money to these large corporations, get the vending machines out of our schools and our neighborhoods, stop shopping at WalMart and stop driving so much so we can cut our Chevron usage. And we can ultimately deal with climate change as we must – on the appropriate scale. At this point, all claims that addressing climate change will magically be painless and easy should be completely off the table. The truth is that someone will have to create public transportation and disincentives for buying private cars. The truth is that someone will have to regulate Coca-Cola and say they simply can’t have plants in places where water stresses are profound – or going to be. And we will have to stop buying so much gas and driving so much. There is no other way, and we should not fantasize that corporations will act against their own basic interests.
Jared Diamond seems to have missed one of the central observations of his own _Collapse_ – that when societies actually avert collapse, the tend to do so with strong levels of prohibition and regulation. That is, Japan didn’t ask the gun manufacturers to self-regulate, they prohibited the use of guns entirely. The reason the Dominican Republic is so much better off than Haiti isn’t because people refined their logging practices, but because they restricted them.
And that’s how we’ve dealt with massive crises in the US, in Britain, in other countries in the past – we’ve gone to a war footing, and engaged in restriction. Famously, Niels Bohr claimed that the only way we could produce the atom bomb was to turn the entire nation into a factory – and we effectively did. In World War II, the car companies stopped making cars and made bombers, the clothing companies made uniforms, toy companies made weapons. We had restrictions on sugar, corsets, gas and tires, meat, and metals. The only way we’ve ever rapidly changed our society’s practices and consumption is by radically limiting both personal and industrial options. It isn’t pleasant or easy, but if there was to be a chance of dealing with climate change, it would have to begin by rapidly and radically reducing our emissions, and corporations simply can’t do that.