Or, put another way, do corporations get to have the rights of real flesh-and-blood people ("natural persons," in legal speak) but not the responsibility to refrain from committing heinous crimes? Crimes like, say, eliminating Nigerian activists opposed to Shell's unregulated drilling practices?
Like many others, I'm curious to hear what the Supreme Court decides. The justices heard oral argument on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum this past Tuesday.
Here is the clearest explanation of the latest salvo in the corporate personhood conflagration I've found so far. [Link]
The tagline of this blog, "Your wallet is a mouth," is aimed at individuals. You know, actual people made of flesh and blood. The idea being that we can use the power of our purses to encourage corporations to behave well and discourage them from behaving badly.
Unfortunately, for the past two years, that slogan has applied to corporations too. Thanks to the wrongheaded Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, companies now have the right to spend as much money as they want in order to influence political discourse around elections. Think of it as a tug-of-war game on a very steep hill, with people at the top and corporations at the bottom. Hmm, who's going to win that, I wonder?
To mark this infamous second birthday, today is a nationwide day of action in which protesters will remind the world that in actuality, corporations are not people—and money is not speech.
It's an issue that's dear to my heart, so I'm taking Micro Mouth with me to help to occupy the San Francisco federal courthouse. Wish us luck!
In the meantime, I present you with some of my favorite talking points on corporate personhood from Move to Amend, one of a gazillion organizations that's mobilizing flesh-and-blood people to fight back.
The Supreme Court has ruled that money equals speech. The corollary is this: people who have money can speak, and people who don't, can't. This is a plutocracy, not a democracy.
A corporation has millions of dollars, exists in many places at once; can live forever; and employs thousands to do its work around the clock.... A human being has little expendable income, lives in one place, dies, and must use her small amount of free time to work for causes she believes in.
A human being needs clean air, clean water, food, and love to survive. A corporation does not.
A corporation has no mind, no conscience, and no motive but to amass money. A human being thinks, tries to make ethical decisions, and is motivated by obligations to family and community. How could we say that these two dramatically different kinds of “persons” have an equal voice in a democracy?
A person is a private entity with rights and sovereignty. A corporation is a public entity with obligations and responsibilities.
Human rights are for humans. A corporation is not a human being.
I didn't make it in time for Bank Transfer Day on Nov. 5, but for me, it's official: I have moved my money. My banking now takes place at my local credit union! (I actually joined it last month but had to keep the old account open until some scheduled payments went through.)
In contrast to the steely blue-gray interior of Citibank, Community Trust Credit Union has this cool work of art hanging on its wall:
The blurry fingertip you see in the lefthand corner is, uh, completely intentional — you know, to go with the hand motif.
Not that interior decor inspired me to move my money. It's more about the words on the mural, such as "community" and "empowerment." I had long been wondering just how aligned Citibank was with my values, but inertia kept me there. Then came the Occupy movement, which drew attention to the Move Your Money initiative.
And then came a letter from Citibank saying I would be charged $15/month unless I kept a minimum of $6,000 in my combined accounts. To Citibank's credit, when I called to express my displeasure, I was informed that I could switch to a different type of account with only a $1,500 minimum. But by then, it was too late. I was already in the sway of the credit union philosophy.
I should add that I don't believe that all big banks should be bombed off the face of the planet. Clearly they have an important role to play in the world economy. However, I'm happy to contribute, in however small a way, to a greater investment in Main Street rather than Wall Street.
Here's what Community Trust branch manager Carlos Brenes had to say when I asked him what my money would be supporting at the credit union as opposed to Citibank:
We lend out money to the community and to small businesses at a lower rate. We do lots of reinvestment. We go out and help nonprofit organizations do financial counciling, in particular helping youth understand the difference between credit unions and banks, and how payday lenders are really bad in terms of charging really high rates of 300% to 400%. We don't spend on things like advertising campaigns; we keep the money in the community.
Here's a shocking revelation: The economy trumps the environment on the majority of Americans' priority lists, according to recent polls by CNN/Opinion Research and Gallup.
Actually, the real surprise (for me, anyway) is that this is a new state of affairs. It's only the second time that economy has beat environment since 1984, when Gallup started asking the question. The first time was last year.
But as water blogger Eric Eckl points out in a recent post on his site, maybe the environment-vs.-economy question is a misleading one. He cites evidence that "everyday citizens actually reject the basic premise of that question."
Not only that, but more and more businesses are realizing that investing in sustainability can burnish not just their image but also their bottom line. As Gil Friend, CEO of sustainability consultancy Natural Logic, states on the cover of his book The Truth About Green Business, you don’t have to choose between making money and making sense.
Eckl's post is well worth a read. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this graph from a 2005 Yale University survey he cites.
...and just wants to meet his maker. But, as he puts it, "nothing could destroy me." Check out this curiously touching portrait of an anthropomorphized tote, directed by Ramin Bahrani for ITVS and narrated by none other than Werner Herzog.
I saw an ad for bottled water recently that caught my eye: For every liter of Volvic that you buy, the sign said, the company will provide 10 liters of clean drinking water to Ethiopian children through a partnership with UNICEF.
Immediately a red flag went up in my brain.
It may be laudable for a corporation to fund new sustainable water supplies and sanitation education programs in an area of the world where such things are sorely needed. However, it's hard to get around how troubling the bottled-water industry as a whole is.
As Annie Leonard's just-released "The Story of Bottled Water" makes clear, agua that doesn't come from the tap is problematic along its entire life cycle, from the oil required to make its bottles to the pollution it causes once it's tossed. It is not necessarily as pure as tap water, which in the developed world is regularly inspected and well regulated (violations of the Clean Water Act notwithstanding), and it costs thousands of times more.
Another video, by Food & Water Watch, emphasizes how bottled-water companies siphon off what most of us think of as a public resource,
straining the environment in the process. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the issue to me: the privatization of municipal water supplies. And as Mother Nature Network points out, the more people get accustomed to consuming bottled water, the more distanced they become from the tap and the less incentive they have to support bonds that would maintain and upgrade public systems.
So getting back to Volvic's campaign, if for some reason I got marooned on an island with no freshwater source and only two water vending machines, one for a company with a do-gooder campaign and one without, I would give my money to the former. Then I'd start sending smoke signals in hopes that the Plastiki would pick me up.
But really, if helping kids in Ethiopia is the objective, I'd rather just contribute directly to a nonprofit like Charity: Water.
Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user @kevinv033.
... and by "greenies," I mean green consumers, not leprechauns.
That's what two assistant professors at the University of Toronto suggest based on their experiments with students. I'm not so sure.
You can read the details in this post from Green Inc., but here's the gist: a group of students instructed in one phase of an experiment to purchase goods from an eco-themed website was less likely to be generous and more likely to cheat and steal in subsequent phases than a second group of students told to shop on a conventional online store.
Meanwhile, students who were asked merely to rate green products were more generous than their conventional counterparts.
To summarize the Canadian researchers' conclusions, being exposed to green products makes
you more altruistic, but actually putting your money where your mouth
is may turn you into a stingy pilferer. Or, as the Guardian put it, "People who wear ... the 'halo of green consumerism' are less
likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal."
My first reaction to this story was, I don't buy it. For one thing, the subjects in the experiment who bought green products didn't necessarily identify as ethical consumers; they were simply students told to buy stuff from a green website. How about some data on "real" socially conscious shoppers—including non-student ones?
However, maybe leaving self-identified greenies out of the experiment was part of its point. After all, "green-ness" is a continuum, and hard-core conscious consumers—people who have embraced environmentalism on numerous levels of their lives—still represent a minority of all shoppers. Given that, it's useful to see how "average" consumers behave when confronted with the multitude of eco-friendlier products currently bombarding the marketplace.
Also, I have to admit that the researchers' contention that "virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours" (quoted in the Guardian)—so-called moral balancing or compensatory ethics—does ring true to me.
But that doesn't mean our new strategy to save the world is to stop buying from companies that do the right thing.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.
In the meantime, I'm off to go pick some pockets!
[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr users Herbrm, top, and steev-o.]
al•ba•tross 2a: something that causes persistent deep concern or anxiety b: something that greatly hinders accomplishment
Thanks to my friend Ben for pointing me to this video. As one of the narrators puts it, "Throwaway living may be profitable, but the consequences are intolerable.... Sadly, these birds are giving their lives to show us what we're doing to the oceans."
On the heels of my New Year's resolution, I'm still pondering the big picture. You could argue, however, that my 2010 pledge represents nothing but small-picture myopia.
And if you're Alex Steffen, you probably would make that argument. Lately I've been reading a bunch of Steffen's old Worldchanging posts criticizing "light-green" environmentalism—the notion that by taking small steps like shopping with reusable bags and buying organic cotton sheets, we can somehow get ourselves out of the huge mess our planet is in—and the experience is not unlike taking a cold shower: extremely unpleasant at first, but ultimately invigorating.
"In the developed world," Steffen writes in this post from 2006, "even those of us
who have committed ourselves to change, consume more resources and
energy than our sustainable share.... Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight,
created through ... vast systems whose workings are often
intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little
influence as single individuals."
Ouch, that smarts, doesn't it? If you, like me, are indeed committed to change, it's not fun to be told that your green actions don't amount to a hill of beans. (Especially if you, um, happen to write a blog about how individuals can make a difference through strategic consumption.) But there's no denying the truth in those statements, and it's good to have a reality check.
I know that in my daily life, I spend a fair amount of time looking inward at my own habits and those of my family. So do other people I admire, like Colin Beavan (a.k.a. No Impact Man) and Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish. It would no doubt behoove me to put more focus on bright-green efforts I can engage with.
But I don't agree with Steffen when he writes that "Consumer-based approaches and 'simple things' lists tend to reinforce
our sense that the only sphere in which we can act is our own little
private lives, and that isolates us."
Au contraire. For me, anyway (and undoubtedly for Beavan and Terry, too), making an effort to live more consciously is all about forging connections. Because I'm interested in sustainability, I naturally meet other people who are too. They turn me on to efforts, issues, and resources that I find fascinating and therefore pass on to yet more people. It's an ever expanding process, and one that the internet and digital tools make more and more expansive.
Furthermore, while it's true that you cannot buy a better future, by supporting companies that are doing things right, we help put out of business companies that are doing things wrong.
"You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint," Steffen writes. "The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction."
I say, let's keep nudging—and let's not stop thinking.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).