"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Will Blog for Food!

The best place to work as a climatologist (if you're not going to sell out altogether) is at an oil-intensive geophysics institute. BP bought me free pizza yesterday, and today I'm getting free barbecue lunch from Devon Energy.

There was a certain amount of what some of you would call "greenwashing" yesterday and there may be some more today. I'll have more to say about the BP presentation that went with the pizza. In many ways it was impressive.

I think people think about corporations wrong, both within corporations and outside them. Corporations are not going away. Social pressures on corporations probably don't suffice but they do make a difference.

All it cost them is two slices of Domino's pepperoni for me to think about making that case. Even modest humanity from a corporation pays off. I think of BP as a collection of people, while many of my readers think of BP as a rapacious, hostile machine. Well, it's a corporation. That means it's both. How to make the corporation act in the best interests of the world while it acts in the best interests of the shareholders is the puzzle. The solution is probably subtle and complex, but the instruments we have to implement it (the press, the web, 19th century governments and 17th century legal traditions) are coarse and clumsy even when they aren't broken. Increasingly, they are broken; on questions of sustainability spectacularly so.

The trouble is that the corporations themselves are the least broken part of the picture. Bashing at them until they are just as broken as everything else doesn't seem like the way to go.


ScruffyDan said...

This, along with Tamino's latest does a good job in demonstrating climate corruption:)

David B. Benson said...

MOre climate dysfunction.

Neven said...

I totally agree with you on this one, MT. The (large) corporations can't be blamed for acting like psychopaths. It is expected of them. The system is built that way.

The system can only change once the neoclassical of exponential and infinite growth is discarded.

Corporations will fight this till the last man stands, but again, that is what they are ordered to do.

Michael Tobis said...

Neven, maybe. But maybe they only think they are ordered to.

I am not sure that is true or insurmountable. Corporate opposition to regulation, for instance, is wrongheaded, and on occasion you will indeed see it vanish.

Oil companies in the early days demanded regulation about how close together they could drill. "Stop us before we ruin each other!" they demanded.

What we see nowadays isn't any different except in scale. If they make the world into a living hell, will their shareholders really maximally prosper?

I think the fact that Wall Street behaves as it does is at least in part because of an ideology infecting its leadership that is not actually an inherent part of the corporate structure.

Hank Roberts said...

I've lost track of the DOE transformer standard, but the Bush Dept. of Energy a couple of years ago set a standard far less efficient than the regulation urged by both the electrical industry and conservation groups to avoid a 'race to the bottom' problem -- nobody in the industry wanted to face stockholder lawsuits for installing more efficient transformers than the other guy even though the longterm savings justify using more efficient and more expensive gear -- but short term stockholder payout suffered.

I wonder what became of that?


Hank Roberts said...

Ah, now I remember. Bush's DOE refused to take into account any reduction in CO2 when assessing efficiency. Brown (Ca. attorney general) sued DOE over this; I think it's still undecided, so the lower-efficiency standard prevailed.


Ames said...

I question whether corporations are, to use your stylistically clumsy phrase, the “least broken part of the picture”. They are the dominant institutions in our global capitalist society. Check out J. G. Speth's well-received 2008 text "The Bridge at the Edge of the World".
First he notes that while only 20% of US businesses are corporations, they produce and control 85% of “US business revenue”, and globally, the thousand largest corp.’s generate about 80% of the world’s output. In Chaptr 8 he proposes radical but thoughtful reforms to corporate law and governmental oversight in order to change their "fundamental dynamics". Three basic types of reform: A) encourage voluntary corporate initiatives; B) promote accountability through regulation and other national and international controls; and C) Change the nature of the corporation itself such as “abolishing corporate personhood” and “the legal mandate that requires the corporation strictly to pursue its own self-interest.”
Chapter 9 presents an absorbing discussion of how our socio-economic institutions may, perhaps rapidly, evolve “beyond today’s capitalism”. He quotes John Dryzek:
“Ecological problems are sufficiently widespread and serious to constitute an acid test for all actual and proposed political and economic arrangements and for all processes of institutional reconstruction, be they incremental or revolutionary.”
Discouragingly, and in accord with your ‘least broken part of the picture’ theme, Speth notes how “Dryzek believes that the combination of capitalism, interest group politics, and the bureaucratic state will prove ‘thoroughly inept when it comes to ecology’ and ‘that any redeeming features are to be found only in the possibilities that they open up for their own transformation.’ ”
Serious reforms to US corporate law will be possible only via real campaign finance reform, and in that policy domain we’ve been going backwards. Campaign finance reform will only be possible if younger people start to vote in their long-term interests, or if the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico become states!

Ames (Sloop)

Neven said...

MT, sorry for the late answer, but if you haven't seen it yet, I think The Corporation is a documentary that could appeal to you.