Are You Serious? Redux

Speaking of “Small is Beautiful” (as I did in my last post), readers would do well to revisit E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 work on “Economics as if People Mattered” (1).” But first, this about Jared Diamond. In an Op-Ed piece “Will Big Business Save the Earth” (2) Diamond belies his own thesis of a few years ago. In “Guns, Germs and Steel” (3) Prof. Diamond makes the claim that ” … large societies cannot function with band organization and instead are complex kleptocracies.” Further, in his later work “Collapse” (4) we find that, in Diamond’s view, civilizations collapse because they exhaust resources necessary for survival.

Prof. Diamond admits that not so long ago he shared the view held by many ” … that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil, and driven by short-term profits.” Yet here we find Diamond offering the opinion that corporations, and U.S. corporations in particular, are benign, indeed benevolent, a major force for “environmental progress.” Diamond writes that ” … today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business executives.” What follows is an apology for big corporations. In Diamond’s present view, corporations have sensed that it is in their own interests to be environmentally “friendly.” He claims that giant oil companies avoid oil spills because they are bad for their image! That they are, but they are also expensive, including loss of resources, huge costs of cleanup, and many other costs. Oil companies do not avoid spills to improve their image, and they also do not particularly care about the expenses, except insofar as such expenses are less than those incurred if they did allow spills. If allowing spills to occur were to become a cost-lowering phenomenon, they would allow spills. Astonishingly, Diamond holds up for our approval the environmental practices of Wal-Mart! Even if Wal-Mart were a progressive environmental organization, it is still a premier member of that group of kleptocracies Diamond once held were more or less inevitable.

Diamond has put himself in a dream world. The World Wildlife Fund is among the most conservative of groups claiming to be protecting the environment (5). The WWF and Conservation International are themselves big businesses. The revenues of Conservation International totaled more than $240,000,000 in 2008. Big businesses do not relinquish their privileges voluntarily. Worse still, the big businesses Diamond holds up as exemplary are among the most predatory on the planet.

Of far more importance than their environmental propaganda are the business practices of the corporations Diamond so admires. For example, can he possibly simply cast aside the export of millions of jobs to foreign shores solely to cut costs? If Wal-Mart does not care about people, it certainly does not care about animals and plants. In the final analysis, Diamond’s conversion experience is grotesque.

Whatever Diamond’s opinion may be, corporations exist to make a profit, period. In this respect they are at best amoral, and at worst psychopathic. How can I attribute human characteristics to mere organizations? Easy. Corporations are defined as “persons” under the law. They can’t have it both ways. If they are legal persons, then they must accept the moral consequences as well as the pecuniary windfalls.

1. Schumacher, E. F. , “Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Really Mattered,” Blond & Briggs, Ltd., London, 1973. Published in the U.S. by Harper and Row in the same year.

2. Diamond, Jared, “Will Big Business Save the Earth?,” NYT, Dec. 6, 2009.

3. Diamond, Jared, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” W. W. Norton & Company, NY, 1997, p. 288 et passim.

4. Diamond, Jared, “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” Viking Penguin, NY, 2005.

5. St. Clair, Jeffrey, “Panda Porn: The Marriage of WWF and Weyerhaeuser,” CounterPunch, Dec. 5, 2002.

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