Pari Roundtable: Beyond the Bottom Line



I have spent a long time these past N years thinking about the ethics of corporates and would love to take part in a broad discussion. To me the issues are:

I: What exactly is a corporate?

A naive question from an outsider, but definitions and concepts do seem to differ. It would be good in the company of experts to pin down exactly what kind of institutions we are talking about.

But now to the meat:

II: Are corporates a good thing?
I have never quite seen this spelled out satisfactorily.

Beyond doubt, some institutions that are technically classed as corporates do seem to pass all the tests of goodness: they employ people; they treat people fairly; they create worthwhile structures that otherwise would not exist; they do little or no collateral damage. I am sure, for example, that the Illy coffee company, described to us at the meeting in Siena a few years ago, is good by any reasonable criteria (where ‘reasonable’ implies of the human and Earthly domain, rather than the heavenly).

Successful corporates, too, are rich, and any rich institution or individual can transform the fortunes of others by handouts that for the donor are petty cash. Thus in Britain, Tesco has been giving footballs to schools—and footballs can make a big difference. Tesco also employs a great many people, too, and of course sells cheap food.

But huge questions remain, such as:

1: How did the company acquire its wealth? (Tesco has grown rich largely by driving very hard bargains with farmers worldwide—and is known to have driven many out of business. I have heard Tesco executives claim that they are merely ‘weeding out’ the bad ones but in truth the ‘bad’ ones can be the ones whose farms are most environmentally and socially friendly, and therefore liable to be less profitable. Mining companies routinely trash entire regions and their human and non-human inhabitants. And do on).

2: Even when a corporate does seem to do good things, is this necessarily the best way that those things could be done? (Eg Tesco does employ a lot of people. But it also demonstrably puts small shopkeepers out of work. Is society better served by a relatively few supermarkets, or by a plethora of small shopkeepers? Even if the answer is that the supermarkets are better (they do have advantages) is this a fair comparison? After all, most small shopkeepers (like most small farmers) are under-financed. Could the same investment that built Tesco create something less centralized than Tesco that was far better?)

This leads to the general question:

3: If corporates do do good things, what is it about being a corporate (as opposed to something else) that enables them to do those good things? What is intrinsically desirable about the corporate structure?

4: The same question applies in reverse: If we conclude that corporates are bad (as many feel is the case) then what is it about being a corporate that makes it bad? Is it its size? The fact that it is often more powerful than government, and so escapes even the crude, present-day restraints of democracy? Is it because corporates, at the turn of the 20th century, were apparently granted rights as if they were individuals, which in practice gives them far more latitude than is reasonable?

5: In fact, should we approach the issue of corporates pragmatically, like the Founding Fathers of the United States, and acknowledge that corporates are a fact of life—but also insist that they are severely restrained in their powers?

If, after all, we had governments that behaved ethically (a very big if); and if governments constrained the activities of corporates; then we could have a very different discussion about their goodness or badness. At present, they seem to be like runaway trucks, or rudderless oil tankers—immense forces that are more or less out of control.

But there is an even larger dimension:

III: Can we really leave the future of the world to the economy? 
Discussions about corporates in the world at large tend to devolve into discussions about capitalism in general vs centralized economies such as that of Marx. I do not want to indulge in this. I do think the Founding Fathers got it right: that capitalism does indeed have many obvious advantages but it can get seriously out of control (it has indeed an unacceptable face as Edward Heath put it) and therefore needs tight constraint (although of course this raises Lenin’s question: ‘Who, whom?’)

But there is a much bigger issue than this.

In the present world the powers-that-be (governments, banks, corporates, and their expert and intellectual advisers) apparently take it to be self-evident that human affairs must be led by the economy. Any proposed social action (such as agricultural reform) that does not conform to the economic norm of the day is deemed to be ‘unrealistic.’

This is a ludicrous way to proceed whether the economic norm in question is capitalist or Marxist or (to be specific) neoliberal or Stalinist.

In truth, if we want to survive on this Earth in a tolerable state, we have to acknowledge biological reality: how the fabric of the world actually functions; and common morality. Morality is not, as it is widely fashionable to argue, simply arbitrary, to be determined by the market. All human beings that are not actually psychopathic agree on fundamental principles of, for example, justice and compassion. Only psychopaths and idiots actually like cruelty, or defend exploitation.

Thus if we want to survive on this Earth we need as far as possible to understand how it works (though always recognizing that however much science we do, in the end the world must always be beyond out ken); and also to define exactly what we want to do, and why—and what it is good to do: that is, we need to spell out the principles of common morality. Then, and only then, we can create an economy that matches what is possible with what we want to achieve. The economy, in short, should be a purely pragmatic device (which is roughly what Keynes said). In practice (being pragmatic) it should probably be loosely capitalist (some private ownership, plenty of free enterprise) but always within the agreed moral framework and never stretching the world beyond its limits.

The principle of the ‘triple bottom line’ improves on ‘the bottom line’ but is not good enough. It suggests that ‘the economy’ (whatever the economy is) should be given equal status with ‘environment’ (which I call ‘biology’) and ‘society’ (which I call ‘common morality’). But this seems to me to be a mealy-mouthed compromise which in truth is a nonsense. Economies, whether neoliberal or Stalinist (or anything else) when unconstrained can and do lead us in directions that are biologically disastrous (implying unsustainable) and morally suspect, if not downright evil. In truth (to repeat) the guiding principles must be those of biology and morality, with the economy as the maidservant.

I suggest that this is the major transition that humanity now needs to make: out of the Age of Economic Dogma and into the Age of Biology.

The question before us—the role of corporates—seems to me to be subsumed within this.


I would love in particular to discuss:

1: The limits of technology
Modern governments (and corporates) operate as if they believe (a) that technological progress is leading us inexorably towards something approaching omnipotence and (b) that if we spend enough on technology then we can always dig ourselves out of whatever hole we have dug ourselves into. These assumptions seem to lie behind Sir Nicholas Stern’s recent report on the economics of climate change—that a few trillion invested now can solve our problems. But they are serious nonsense. Technology cannot grant us omnipotence any more than science can lead us to omniscience.

Indeed, the present belief in technology and the need to spend more on it are used to prop up an economy that is dedicated single-mindedly to the creation of wealth—in the apparent belief that wealth is the sine qua non and that with enough wealth we can solve all our problems.

2: Tools for conviviality and small is beautiful 
The ideas of Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher, and Buckminster Fuller (and others—John Ruskin, William Morris) seem to me to need constant re-visiting and re-statement. The idea is that technologies must serve well-defined human needs and enhance human freedom and the human spirit. The concept of ‘progress’ as defined by the post-Enlightenment is a serious nonsense (which needs exposure).

3: Who should control and how should science and technology be controlled?
This question is of particular relevance in agriculture. Forty years ago in Britain when I first became involved in agriculture most research was done by a network of government research stations of very high quality, geared directly to the known needs of farmers. Now farming research is run primarily by corporates (such as Monsanto) in order to swell corporate profits (in the apparent beliefs that this is ‘efficient’ and that the corporate wealth benefits society as a whole).

Who controls technology is crucial.

4: What lies around the corner?
But I also agree of course that the question already posed—what impact will new technologies have? —is of key importance.

(I would love to take the Green Revolution as a test case. A whole conference on its motivation and consequences would be well worthwhile—with fact rather than more polemic!).

Global and the West
I would not presume to add to what is in the original proposal—except to make the general and obvious point that we have surely reached the end of the age when westerners in particular and much of the world in general took it to be self-evident that West is best, and that progress means westernization. More and more I am sure that we westerners are a crude lot, even though we have done some wonderful things. Inter alia, the Dawkins-style post-Enlightenment materialist-atheism that is now so fashionable is seriously foul, and seriously dim.

Science, knowledge
Good stuff. Of course I would like to put food and farming right at the centre but right at the end is good too.

Indeed. People in Britain are getting worked up about next year’s election—Brown or Cameron? I confess I think only—‘What difference does it make?’

We need to point out how abjectly modern governments like Britain’s have ceded their power, and lost sight of who they should be serving, and why. Britain’s present government presents us with the worst of all possible worlds—it interferes with our lives at every turn but it does not actually govern, in any worthwhile sense of the word. In this, it is the precise opposite of what was envisaged by the Founding Fathers—who sought to define the broad moral and economic structure but then were keen that people should do their own thing (and had a very Hobbesian, contractual approach to government).

The alternatives really are important. The internet surely is key—not just another technology but an evolutionary step: enabling all human beings to communicate with all others, more or less instantly. At last, democracy becomes possible.

My own Campaign for Real Farming is an attempt to bring about ‘A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply’—and this now seems possible (which it certainly would not have been without the net).

So indeed—governance is the key subject!

Town and Country

Actually there is a good case for building this entire discussion about the relationship between city and country (which primarily means industry vs agriculture: although these days it means agriculture + industry vs banking, since all human activity has been subjugated to the perceived need to maximize money). Adam Smith saw the relationship between the urban economy and the agrarian economy as a key issue—and he was quite right. But since his time, particularly in Britain and then the US, it has been assumed on high that urbanization is good and inevitable, and agrarian life is old fashioned and somehow regrettable, and nowadays traditional farming and agrarian living are seen in high places to be downright anachronistic, a drag on ‘progress.’ This is perhaps the most destructive of all the ludicrous ideas that the powers-that-be now cling to; indeed, the abandonment of the countryside worldwide, the casual assumption that agriculture is just a scion of big industry (engineering and industrial chemistry), the assumption that it is easy, and that it is the economic poor relation, is, arguably (but I would certainly argue it) the greatest single mistake that is being made by the modern world. It is greater even than the mistake of neoliberalism since it is possible to abandon the countryside even in the absence of neoliberalism and all that follows from it, as Britain and many other countries have demonstrated.

So I would make a plea to put farming and other country matters right at the heart!

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, Oxford.  August 30 2009



COLIN TUDGE is a biologist by education and a writer by trade with a lifelong interest in food and farming, politics and metaphysics. His published books include The Variety of Life, The Secret Life of Trees, The Secret Life of Birds, Last Animals at the Zoo, Feeding People is Easy, Good Food for Everyone Forever, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People Are Nice, and Six Steps Back to the Land. His latest book is The Great Re-Think: A 21st Century Renaissance. He is co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture.