Capitalism with a Conscience

With its $3 million budget, 35 staff members, and
larger-than-life reputation for savvy activist aikido, Rainforest
Action Network (RAN), recently profiled in the
Ecologist (Feb. 2006), is a leader in the fight to
hold corporations accountable for their actions.

The magazine’s Nicola Graydon writes that RAN’s nonviolent
antics are legendary: A life-sized papier-m?ch? cow that eats
rainforest leaves and defecates styrofoam ‘whopper’ burgers called
attention to rainforest damage caused by Burger King’s imported
beef. Clipboard-equipped activists warned Home Depot shoppers-via
leaked store intercom codes-that the wood in aisle 2D was, reports
Graydon, ‘ripped from the heart of the Amazon.’

The tactics are effective, concludes the Ecologist. After a year
of being targeted, Home Depot ‘told its suppliers it wouldn’t buy
wood unless it was Forest Stewardship Council certified, slashed
imports from Indonesia and Gabon-both notorious for illegal
logging-and helped broker a deal between loggers and
environmentalists in Chile to prevent the felling of native
forests.’ A number of big retailers followed suit, including Office
Depot and Lowe’s. As a measure of the sincerity of its conversion,
Home Depot subsequently exerted leverage to protect part of an
endangered rainforest in British Columbia.

RAN’s ongoing focus on the institutions that finance rainforest
destruction has also changed the practices of Citibank and Bank of
America, among others. In late 2005, according to the Ecologist,
RAN helped Goldman Sachs formulate a corporate environmental

Now RAN is going to the source of our oil addiction, campaigning
to ‘Jumpstart Ford,’ whose vehicles have had the worst average
mileage among the big eight automakers for the past six years.
RAN’s campaign demands fuel efficiency of 50 miles a gallon fleet
average by 2010 and zero greenhouse gas emissions across the board
by 2020.

Groups like RAN are right to target corporate practices for
reform. What’s both encouraging and, to some, surprising is that a
growing number of entrepreneurs and executives share these
activists’ agenda, at least to some degree. They are reshaping the
trajectory of corporate velocity, inventing new business structures
that embed mission into the bottom line, and demonstrating that the
impetus for change and for meaningful response to global crisis is
a lot more likely to come from businesses (and social
entrepreneurs) than from our government. In our cover section, ‘The
New Capitalists’ (page 38), we explore how businesses are leading
the way.

And well they should. Business is just another word for
trade, as author, entrepreneur, and activist Paul Hawken
said to me recently, and trade has always been a civilizing
activity because it is based on trust and breaks down barriers. The
inherent flaw of capitalism, as opposed to trade, is that it is
less expensive to destroy the earth than to take care of it. When
corporate structures are designed to make the growth of capital an
exclusive ideal, money becomes the measure of life flow, and life,
inevitably, loses.

As the realities of our vulnerability to climate change (and the
causes and effects of the war in Iraq) begin to trickle up to
mainstream consciousness, the lines between good guys and bad guys
get blurred. Ilyse Hogue, a RAN campaign director, tells the
Ecologist, ‘We forget corporations are made up of human beings,
many of whom have children and who are as concerned with the future
of the planet as we are. Also, the people at the top of these
companies don’t get there by accident: They are some of the
brightest, most creative minds in business, so we often find that
once we’ve alerted them to the actualities of the issues, the
brutal facts, many of them can become very motivated.’

According to one interpretation of Hindu scripture, we are at
the end of the Kali Yuga or iron age, a time of decadence, despair,
and destruction. The end of the world as we know it. The good news
is that the Kali Yuga is followed by the Satya Yuga, a golden age
of paradise on earth. Hawken wryly observes that capitalism,
because its nature is to speed things up, is the perfect system to
hasten us into the Satya Yuga.

The question is how we get from here to there, and how much
suffering we must endure along the way. But there is a certain
elegance in the possibility that the speed of capitalism, which has
contributed so mightily to bringing us to this precipice, may also
help provide the momentum to make the shift.

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