Can “Evil” Corporations Become Conscious Corporations?

A while back there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Will Big Business Save the Earth?” A startling question given that corporations are firmly entrenched as evildoers in the public mind, with an environmental record as black as an oil spill and as toxic as the waste dumps in Bopal. Yet the author, noted professor and counter-thinker Jared Diamond, comes up with a more nuanced view: “…while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.”

He speaks from experience, after serving on the boards of conservationist groups and talking to oil company workers at every level. Corporations face the same decline in natural resources that the world does in general, and they realize that wasting precious resources isn’t the smartest way to make money. Diamond finds a host of reasons why corporations may wind up going green while still pleasing their stockholders.

You and I are entitled to have a skeptical reaction — millions of people would — but there’s a larger issue here. To go green represents a shift in consciousness for anyone, whether an individual or a corporation. What does it take to become conscious if you’re a businessman? The shift isn’t easy. The lack of contrition from Wall St. has been a stunning example of corporations who ignore public outcries, flaunt their greed, and shrug of all moral responsibility.

Is that how things have to go? We need to widen our viewpoint. This isn’t a stark contrast of good versus evil or us versus them. The traits we hate in corporate behavior belong to society as a whole. Materialism, rampant consumerism, a refusal to think long term, isolation from global problems, reckless spending, and the drive for wealth are all around us. They are woven into everyone’s life directly or indirectly. Corporations always point to shareholders as the merciless force that makes them worship the bottom line. A debt-ridden society intoxicated with gadgets, games, and diversion can’t be left out of the equation.

Corporations won’t change, we are told, unless there’s money in it, but I think that’s wrong. Corporations also change in order to improve what it’s like to be in a corporation. Google and eBay aim at high worker satisfaction where a hundred years ago John D. Rockefeller had the troops called out to shoot strikers who displeased him. This is a huge shift, and what it represents is a new idea: work is intimate to life as a whole.

It used to be accepted without question that factory workers were cogs in an impersonal machine, and the most basic things, like safety on the job and medical coverage, were shirked. As workplace conditions went from appalling to acceptable, then from acceptable to fairly humane, it still remained true that a man left for work in the morning and came home at night as if traveling to a world apart from real life. Family, love, spirituality, and often morality were home values, set apart from work values: efficiency, competition, exploitation, the drive for profits.

Perhaps it was the influx of women into the work force or a more intangible shift in social awareness, but home values are beginning to infuse into the workplace. Beginning with worker safety, maternity leave, and rules against sexual harassment, but also including anti-discrimination against the disabled, ethnic minorities, and the elderly, we began to see a workplace where it was possible to be more completely human. You didn’t take your work self to the job; you took your real self.

I look to this shift, in which the worker becomes a unit of consciousness, as a key factor in making corporations conscious. Work and worker have to feel worthy. The job has to be a path to personal growth. Those changes are emerging, not just in the industrialized West but in Asia as well, where workers begin their climb from a much lower rung. Many might think that I’m spouting moonbeams, but is there another way to view work in the future? Three decades of laws and regulations haven’t kept corporations from continuing to pollute and depredate the environment. There aren’t enough enforcement agencies to curb bad practices, and flagrant corporate violators have more than enough money and time to fend off their opponents.

As I see it, change will come from pressure on two sides. There’s the alarming specter of foreign competition, recession, rising fuel costs, and decreased resources on one side. Call those the external pressures. And there’s the desire inside every person to be fulfilled. Call that the internal pressure. We constantly read about the first because externals are tangible, but the second is more important, because who we are inside is what life is really about. Corporations may seem to ignore that side of existence, yet in the end, they can’t go on ignoring it. We will wind up with corporations as conscious as we are.

Posted in the San Francisco Chronicle