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Last Updated: 03/01/2011
Beyond sandbox environmentalism
Wiktor Zaremba

The recent toxic stain on the Gulf of Mexico and BP's reputation and President Obama’s repeated calls for a renewable energy push stand as perfect examples of the tremendous disparity between our technological and social opportunities and the sad reality of corporate mentality.

Ever since the late Seventies, large businesses have been romancing with what can be described as the small-green approach - doing anything that would help cut costs, keep core activities unchanged, while at the same time create the appearances of serving nature.

At present, small-green can range anywhere from outright lies and misinformation (sustainability reports), much-too-hyped rituals of celebrating common sense (“please think before you print” e-mail signatures), up to rare, genuine attempts of helping old granny Gaia cross the street.

Unfortunately, even those honest efforts of corporate environmentalism seldom go against the will of the almighty spreadsheet, leading at best only to the slowing down of nature’s destruction, while keeping the bad, uncreative side of business alive and well.

What is more, with every small-green deed glorified into the sky, the public simply grows tired of the whole “eco fad”, exactly as hoped for by some of the corporate planners.

As a result of this, 40 years after the moon landing, with all the technological marvels at our disposal and no evil empire to shadow our dreams, we haven’t really gone far in the green department. Both, the public sector, as well as the corporate world remain stuck with yet another First-Major-Step (see Hopelesshagen), mixed with the caveman’s paradigm of “find-use-throw-away”, the business attitude of “no profit – no effort”, and the Victorian engineer’s fallacy of “conquering nature”.

None of these work. None of these are sustainable. And it’s about time to move onto the next stage – a large-green approach.

Large-green would mean solving some of our environmental dilemmas fully, comprehensively and with a solid safety margin, just in case. It would denote a shift from “we’re five per cent better than the other polluters” to “we’ve cracked this problem”. It would mean a river passing through a factory, leaving the industrial complex cleaner than before; a large supplier of consumer electronics capturing all CO2 emissions from its product’s whole life cycle; a global corporation offsetting all of its used land with restorative landscaping.

Instead of merely meeting norms set some 30 years ago, the large-green approach is about fixing whole issues, one by one, and slowly building on the positive results, shaping them into systems which, one day, might be honestly described as “fairly sustainable”.

It is a thrilling idea – just as it had been with the invention of corporations, we would witness the birth of an entirely new entity – a species adapted to living not only in the human, social environment of cash and credit, but at the same time fully capable of non-destructive interaction with the surrounding ecosystems, finding a niche of its own in the food webs, or even hosting a vast range of biological partners instead of eradicating them thoughtlessly.

Naturally, a shift of this magnitude would require a lot of efforts from businesses, but also governments. In spite of what the companies keep repeating over and over again, environmental protection is not at the core of their interest; profit is. Since no business is by its nature financially suicidal, without the help of the government legislatosaurus, no firm would risk its life.

Similarly to the Apollo program, however, the efforts of pushing humanity forward have reasons going far beyond money. Only this time it is not a matter of prestige or politics – it’s a matter survival.

Evolutionists measure the average lifespan of a species to be around one million years. After that the creatures of that species either turn into something different, or become extinct. Would our new, dual corporate-environmental creations last that long? Will our great-great-grandchildren study the life cycle of a Conifer Coke Habitat or the Great Greenback Biome of New York? Could this weird partnership between Wall Street and Yellowstone really work?

We have never tried. But it’s bound to last much longer than oil. If nature has proven one thing, it is that – when not trampled by business – it knows much more about sustainability than PR gurus, corporate strategists, and oil bosses. So far, their only gifts for the new generations are the endless streams of toxic waste filling our oceans and airwaves, and a sad pile of glossy sustainability brochures, packed with small-green business-speak declarations of endless love for Mother Earth.

Wiktor Zaremba is a PhD candidate at the University of Jyväskylä.