Two academics, one based in the UK and the other in Australia, have just had a rather excellent article called “Creative self-destruction: corporate responses to climate change as political myths” published in the journal Environmental Politics. Here’s an interview with the Ozzie, Christopher Wright.
1) Who are you and how did you come to be co-writing the articles that you have?
I am a Professor of Organisational Studies at The University of Sydney Business School and have been researching the role of management and corporations in capitalism for over 25 years. I’ve been personally interested in climate change since the early 2000s and about ten years ago I ran into a new group of ‘sustainability managers’ in some of the large businesses I was studying. I was fascinated by these individuals’ often personal concern with environmental and social issues and the apparent tensions with organisational objectives (maximising shareholder value, promoting consumption and economic growth). So with my colleague Professor Daniel Nyberg, I started a research project focused on how major corporations are responding to climate change. From there the project grew and has become my key research focus. Daniel and I have published quite a number of articles on this topic, exploring issues of emotion, identity, justification and compromise and we are currently writing a book for Cambridge University Press – which brings together our ideas on this subject. There’s links to this research on my blog Climate People & Organizations.
2) In your article “Creative self-destruction: corporate responses to climate change as political myths” you say “myths of corporate environmentalism, corporate citizenship and corporate omnipotence absorb and adapt the critique of corporate capitalism while enabling ever more imaginative ways of exploiting nature.” Some readers will say “yeah, of course”, others will say “er, what are you talking about? Give me concrete examples!” How would you respond to the latter group?
So in this article we were interested in the disconnect between the very clear science of a climate crisis as the outcome of ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the obfuscation and denial within the political and business discourse of climate change. What we think is often missed here is how social concern and critique about climate change and consumption is absorbed by businesses and government and reinvented as a further justification for business as usual. We used the concept of ‘political myth’ as a conceptual framing for this, particularly how business corporations produce convincing narratives that justify the continuation of a process we characterise as ‘creative self-destruction’. Here the criticism of corporations contributing to climate change is absorbed and then adapted such that it serves to reinforce their legitimacy in climate politics.
For instance, criticism of business for environmental harm has led to the promotion of business as leaders in responding to climate change through their marketing and development of ‘green’ products and services, and their promotion of the valuation of nature as a commodity. These political myths reinforce the central role of the corporation and the market as the only viable response to climate change. We see this in the way in which unconventional gas has been framed now as a bridge fuel to lower emissions, or how biofuels and carbon offsetting are viable responses to our escalating greenhouse gas emissions.
3) These “myths” – which you define as “particular narratives that answer a need for significance” – are they like the necessary lie that Plato talks about – the “noble lie” to maintain social harmony?
Yes they are. We actually draw on Chiara Bottici’s reworking of political myth in her book The Philosophy of Political Myth. She defines political myths as ‘the work on a common narrative by which members of a social group (or society)…make significance of their experience and deeds’.” (2007: 133). In our case corporations make use of the political myths of corporate environmentalism, corporate citizenship and corporate omnipotence to promote their significance and actions in ways that support their legitimacy in climate politics.
4) What – in plain English- are “alternative imaginaries”?
The hegemonic nature of neoliberal thinking in our ‘market society’ makes it often difficult to identify alternative visions to the market-oriented business agenda we encounter every day. However, in regard to climate change other imaginaries might include a challenge to unending economic growth through de-growth or the work of people like Tim Jackson who have been trying to envisage an economy based on ‘steady-state growth’; in short a more sustainable economy. Similarly, Bill McKibben’s work with 350.org in imagining a divestment out of fossil fuel stocks is very much an alternative to the assumption that we will always rely on fossil fuels and presents an alternative view where we have to leave 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Another imaginary would be the work many are engaged in regarding a potential zero-emissions economy based upon a massive roll out of renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal). Another imaginary would be around reducing our reliance on global supply chains and hyperconsumption by promoting local communities. Finally, I guess there are the darker imaginaries – conceptualising collapse such as the Dark Mountain project!
5) You mention corporate omnipotence – don’t disasters such as the BP Deep Horizon oil spill and so on undercut that? Or would you argue that the gold-fish memory of our media and politicians means that it’s all a bit “Groundhog Day”? As you say (p 217) “the global catastrophe is only temporarily ‘real’; after each new extreme weather event, the political debate reverts to ‘normality’. And if you are arguing the latter, then “what is to be done?”
Well yes, I think we are arguing the latter perspective. Moments of environmental and economic crisis like Deepwater Horizon or the flooding of New York City after Superstorm Sandy momentarily capture our attention but are then soon forgotten in the realpolitik of ‘business as usual’. Perhaps we will soon experience a climate event of such magnitude that it truly shakes us out of sleep. However, I’m not sure of this anymore – we seem to be becoming acclimatised to increasingly extreme weather events (much like the boiling frog metaphor that is commonly referenced in climate change debate). So in the last few weeks we have heard the collapse of the West Antarctic sheet is now ‘unstoppable’, yet there is a collective shrug of the shoulders and it’s back to the daily grind.
In terms of what to do, the best path is probably to keep challenging the assumptions that the media, business and governments promote. Emphasise the alternative imaginaries in this space and frame the message around the need for change in ways that resonate for different audiences (for instance the geopolitical risk framing seems to work pretty well for the security community at the moment!).
6) Further on corporate omnipotence – isn’t it a subset of a wider “will to power”, and urge to control and dominate nature that stretches back well before the Soviet Union and its disastrous strategies, all the way back to Francis Bacon and the New Atlantis (I’m thinking here of the feminist critiques of technology and technocracy)
Well yes, there is a broader dynamic in human history in mastery over nature. What sets the last 200 plus years apart is the dynamism of industrial capitalism based on cheap fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). It was the decision to go down this path that has set in train the rapid economic growth we have seen over the twentieth century and the escalating growth in GHG emissions which underpin the climate crisis. In particular, I was recently taken by the study by Richard Heede which found that over two-thirds of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 had originated from just 90 ‘carbon major entities’ and over half of these emissions had occurred since 1986! That’s the power of global corporate capitalism in changing our atmosphere in a relatively short period of decades.
7) Was it a conscious decision not to cite Gramsci and his notion of “hegemony” (there is an almost reference to him on page 219). If it was a conscious decision, what was the reasoning?
No this wasn’t conscious. We and others (particularly David Levy) have used Gramsci’s ideas in critiques of corporate responses to climate change in other papers. For instance, we have previously explored how corporations seek to incorporate citizens within their political activities around this issue (e.g. lobbying and campaigning against carbon emissions regulation). A Gramscian perspective is particularly useful in highlighting the ‘war of positions’ that is occurring in climate politics, and indeed between business sectors on this issue (e.g. witness the division between the fossil fuel industries and reinsurance and clean tech companies).
8) Are you familiar with the work of Alex Carey and his book “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty”. If so, what do you think of it?
I’m not familiar with this specific book, but know of Alex Carey’s earlier critiques of ‘quality of work life’ initiatives. There is of course a broader tradition of political economy which critiques corporate power going back to J.K.Galbraith, Baran and Sweezy, Noam Chomsky and more recently management scholars such as Stephen Barley. I think their depictions of corporate capture of political and economic agendas are entirely accurate. I guess climate change really brings a lot of this broader critique of corporate capitalism into sharper relief, in that our economic system is now consuming our species’ life-support systems.
9) Can you describe the underlying research on which the article is based – how did you do it, why did you do it, who paid for it, what was surprising to you. What else are you going to do with the data-set?
Yes, as outlined above, the study has evolved over the last eight years or so from an investigation of individual managers in ‘sustainability’ roles and their activities and responses to climate change, into a more general critical analysis of the role of business in the climate crisis. We received Australian Research Council funding for 3 years to develop this research and it is primarily qualitative, based on interview and corporate documentation from around 25 major companies across a range of industries such as resources and mining, energy, transport, manufacturing, financial and professional services and retail. These included some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations and gave us insight into not only local Australian developments, but also a global corporate terrain. Within this we conducted 5 detailed organisational case studies business responses to climate change. These included: a leading energy producer which was supplementing fossil-fuel generation with renewable energy sources; a large insurer that was measuring the financial risks of extreme weather events; a major bank which was factoring in a ‘price on carbon’ in its lending to corporate clients; a global manufacturer which was reinventing itself as a ‘green’ company producing more efficient industrial equipment and renewable energy technologies; and a global media company that had embarked on a major eco-efficiency drive to become ‘carbon neutral’.
10) What next? Are you going to look at the work and effectiveness of people who are trying to challenge the legitimacy/stranglehold of the myths of corporate environmentalism, citizenship and omnipotence, such as the “culture jamming” proposed by “Adbusters” and so on? Is arch satire and playful detournment an adequate solution to our dilemmas?
Well we’ve written 8 articles exploring different aspects of business engagement with climate change to date. These include studies of managers’ identities and emotions in response to climate change, the role of the ‘corporate citizen’, different orders of worth used in justifying corporate actions and inactions on climate change, the corruption of the environment in favour of the market, and how the discourse of risk is constructed by business in responding to climate change (for those interested, these articles can be downloaded from my blog) . Daniel and I are currently working on a book that brings all this research together around the theme of ‘creative self destruction’. We hope to have this finished by the end of the year and hopefully out in print next year.