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The Incompatibility of Climate Activism and Corporate Greed

Americans want legislation to fight the climate crisis; corporations don’t.

Key points

  • Greed is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon.
  • Studies of individual psyches have difficulty theorizing corporate greed—which may be one of the biggest threats to the environment.
  • Polls show that Americans want legislation to support climate action.

It should come as no surprise that corporate greed is an obstacle to climate activism. We don’t mean radical Earth-first activism, but the kind of activism that should have become routine after the 2015 Paris agreement which set goals to reduce carbon emissions and invest in green energy, biosphere protections, and ecologically sound prosperity.

It is often said that greed is a natural human trait, a survival instinct that helped drive our evolutionary path toward planetary dominance. And yet greed has proven to be the biggest obstacle stopping us from enacting political reforms that we urgently need to prevent our own, and other species’, demise. There are many elaborate ways to explain away this paradox, but most of them boil down to a simple argument: that amassing wealth and fighting climate change can co-exist. We have shown in past columns that such efforts to justify greed can hide the fact that the ultra-wealthy have contributed far more to planetary decline than the majority of the world’s population.

Of course, the kind of greed that exceeds the individual psychology of the greedy person to form the collective greed of a corporation is hard to define. Social psychological studies of greed have difficulty zeroing in on corporate greed, finding it more intelligible to speak of the influence of corporate capitalism on the culture at large where wealth is glamorized and dramatized as an enticement to embrace consumerist and materialist values, driving, “a lot of greedy behavior from folks who wouldn't normally act that way." Altruism diverges from this value system, and in doing so it fails to earn rewards that would counter the allure of a materialistic society. In this account, greedy behavior remains an individual pathology obscuring the existence of institutional corporate greed built into the modern political economy.

In the days of the Robber Barons, it was clear that individuals stealing natural resources, hoodwinking competitors, and luring investment into shady stock pools were driven largely by a kind of pathological cupidity. As Matthew Josephson documents in his magisterial book on the period of the Robber Barons, “the natural, characteristic movements of the appetites of greed…consumed all who marched in the great procession toward fortune. In those who led the procession dishonesty, chicane, vulgarity, and a fierce passion for lucre were curiously united… A mere handful of contemporaries, such as Charles Francis Adams, Jr., shook their heads because the stock exchanges seemed the haunt of ‘gamblers and thieves; the offices of our great corporations appeared as secret chambers in which trustees plotted the spoliation of their wards...the halls of legislation were transformed into a mart where the price of votes was haggled over, and laws, made to order, were bought and sold.’”

As the subsequent era of corporate capitalism developed, and the fictitious personhood of the corporation was given legal standing, individual psychology seemed less able to explain corporate greed—except metaphorically when describing corporate “persons” as having pathological drives to increase wealth without moral compunction. In that sense, corporate greed is psychotic. But in technical legal terms, it’s not a psychological or moral impairment when corporate managers carry out their fiduciary duty “to set aside ethical niceties when they get in the way of corporate profits.” Whereas Robber Barons stole from the companies they created, bankrupting many of them on their path to unprecedented wealth, the modern corporate system enjoys vast, though not total, legal cover for narcissistic, anti-social behavior—from tax evasion to hiding trillions of dollars in offshore accounts.

All the above provides a context for understanding why major corporations, including media platforms like Apple, Amazon, and Disney, have joined Exxon, big Pharma, Alphabet, Microsoft, and others in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to block the passage of the infrastructure-climate bill now before Congress. Leaders of these corporations, some noted for environmental philanthropy, are represented by or are board members of trade organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The Business Roundtable, The National Association of Manufacturers, and the Rate Coalition (Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably, an anti-corporate tax organization). These groups represent formidable opposition to the very tax increases on corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals designed to fund the bill over a decade to ensure that ordinary U.S. taxpayers won’t foot the bill. As Paul Krugman puts it, “it’s hard to think of anything more irresponsible than torpedoing efforts to avoid a civilization-threatening crisis because you want to hold down your tax bill.”

Climate inaction proposed by these firms and the lobbying groups representing them, contradict stated green initiatives of companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Disney, and Amazon and their pledges to stop global warming. None of the leaders of these firms have responded to journalists’ requests for an explanation of their contradictory positions. We don’t expect them to confess that their destructive and obstructionist climate politics are a feature of their collective greed.

Most Americans want to see action on the climate front and have endorsed proposals for large-scale reforms that will ensure decarbonization and ecosystem revitalization, along with economic measures that aim to reduce child poverty and enhance the well-being of our poorest citizens. And most now believe that inaction is leading us into more dangerous, deadly, and frequent climate catastrophes.

The US has an opportunity to set an example to world leaders next month in Glasgow, where the aspirations of the 2015 Paris agreement will be revisited and, hopefully, put into action with the urgency demanded by the American people, the scientific community, and the existential threat of the climate crisis. There seems to be no better time to enact the kind of climate activism embodied in the Paris agreement. Let’s hope that the greedy don’t get their way this time.