Social responsibility doubletalk
By Paul Driessen
All companies should be honest, ethical and devoted to the well-being of the publics they serve: employees, investors, customers and communities. It’s good business, common sense and what’s simply expected of corporations today.
According to social and environmental activists, it’s also the essence of “corporate social responsibility” campaigns. CSR, they insist, is a lighthouse – an ethical beacon – that corporations must follow if they are to “earn their right to continue operating,” underpin “sustainable” economies, and make the world more “fair” and “just.” While this may be the idealized or sanitized version, reality is somewhat different.
“Social responsibility” is now a movement, designed and defined to promote narrow political agendas, silence critics, tarnish corporate reputations, give companies leverage against competitors, and make up for power lost at ballot boxes or in union halls. Liberal foundations like Heinz, Pew and Soros help bankroll the movement – and labor bosses use pension funds for campaigns that don’t always serve their members’ best interests.
A number of companies actively promote CSR and “sustainable development.” Others have capitulated to pressure groups like Rainforest Action Network, to buy “peace for our time” and garner fleeting accolades for acceding to activists’ ethical precepts.
The real danger, though, is that CSR’s “ethical beacon” is actually more like the bonfires pirates once lit along Ireland ’s coast, to lure unsuspecting ships onto the rocks, where they would be plundered and destroyed. The verdict is still out on the movement’s long-term effects on corporate ethics and viability, but its suspect moralizing has been amply demonstrated.
Campaign ExxonMobil employed street theater, shareholder resolutions, kangaroo courts and myriad accusations, in an attempt to force the oil giant to recant its skepticism about global warming and its continued investments in petroleum, rather than “ethical” and “responsible” technologies like solar power that impact vast acreage to produce expensive, unreliable energy. Proponents included ethical icons like the Anarchist Black Cross, Natural Resources Defense Council, Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, Ralph Nader’s USPIRG, Monkeywrench Collective, Father Michael Crosby and UPROAR.
Next, the Foundation for National Progress and its Mother Jones tabloid pilloried the company for supporting public policy think tanks that dare to question catastrophic global climate change theories or point out that there is no scientific consensus on the issue. Exxon donated a total of $5 million to 18 such institutes, including several for which this author works part time. (The Congress of Racial Equality, for example, received $40,000 in 2003 – less than 2% of its annual budget.) By contrast, liberal foundations gave $23 million to just 11 major global warming advocacy groups in 2002.
The latest assault, ExxposeExxon.com, was launched recently by moveon.org, NRDC, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, the Pew Foundation’s National Environmental Trust and others. They’re upset that ExxonMobil still doubts cataclysmic global warming theories, supports development of huge potential oil reserves in Alaska, and continues to focus on its core business: petroleum.
ExxonMobil amply serves the needs of its customers, shareholders and employees. It invested $1 billion in renewable energy two decades ago, before doing so was fashionable. Its energy efficiency and pollution reduction programs have had “a greenhouse gas equivalent to removing over 1 million cars from the road” since 1999, according to company sources. It pours tens of millions of dollars annually into habitat preservation, malaria control, climate research, minority education and numerous other programs.
By any fair benchmark, that’s solid corporate social responsibility. But not by the skewed ethics of political activists, who seek to dominate the political arena, stifle debate, and control personal and societal choices on transportation, housing, heating, air conditioning, medicine and manufacturing.
Over the past century, changes in these sectors have been mind-numbing: from horses to automobiles and jet airplanes, from telegraphs to televisions and computers, from wood and coal furnaces to natural gas and nuclear, from typewriters to laptops and Blackberries, from bone saws to heart transplants. Every advance brings new efficiencies and requires new energy and mineral resources. Few would hazard a guess as to where our talents for innovation (mankind’s ultimate resource) might take us next.
But radical activists claim this progress is not “sustainable,” that it violates the “precautionary principle.” They routinely ignore the very ethical precepts that ExxposeExxon.com claims its coalition members revere: “protecting habitats,” safeguarding consumers from “rising gasoline prices,” and fostering “a more healthy and just world,”
The coalition and its allies demand that wind power replace petroleum, even though a single 555-mW gas-fired power plant (20 acres) generates more electricity annually than all 13,000 of California ’s wind turbines (106,000 acres). They battle wintertime drilling on Alaska’s frozen North Slope and drilling anytime in US coastal waters and western states – preferring to see forests of 300-foot-tall wind turbines ruining scenic vistas and killing birds and bats by the tens of thousands. Their antipathy toward pipelines, refineries and LNG ports further helps create artificial shortages and drive energy prices skyward.
By obstructing hydroelectric, fossil fuel and nuclear power development in Third World nations, they keep 2 billion people permanently deprived of electricity – and of the safe food and water, quality medical care, good schools, economic productivity and other benefits that abundant, reliable, affordable electricity brings. US$1,500 will buy photovoltaic panels, batteries and regulators sufficient to power a small television, mini-refrigerator and dozen 20-Watt light bulbs, says Uganda-born Connie Miranda. However, such systems are beyond the reach of most African families, whose total annual income is a few thousand dollars – and they cannot possibly electrify modern hospitals, offices or manufacturing centers.
The radicals’ even more strident opposition to biotechnology and pesticides helps perpetuate the rampant malnutrition and disease that these modern marvels could help prevent – saving millions of lives every year in developing countries.
The ExxposeExxon coalition’s perverse ethics might in some way foster “a more healthy and just world” for them – but only at a huge cost to billions of the Earth’s poorest people. That’s why, as a former Sierra Club member, I agree with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore: “the environmental movement has lost its objectivity, morality and humanity.”
Perhaps the day will come when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Barbra Streisand, Leonardo DeCaprio, Al Gore, Cameron Diaz, Ted Turner and their compatriots will “go native” and actually live, for even a week, in the squalid “indigenous” conditions they extol and perpetuate: live in Africans’ mud huts, drink their contaminated water, breathe smoke from their wood and dung fires, endure their swarms of tsetse flies and mosquitoes, with no bug repellant – and walk 40 miles to the nearest clinic when they inevitably start convulsing and vomiting with malaria, in hope that a nurse can treat them with medicines that actually work.
Until then, they are simply in no position to lecture ExxonMobil or anyone else about ethics or social responsibility.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and Congress of Racial Equality, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death.
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