Over the years, capitalism has been an effective and impressive shape-shifter. At the dawn of the industrial age, it appeared as a magnificent behemoth, emitting boastful plumes of soot into the sky and flattening vast landscapes in the name of unadulterated progress. Today, its skin is markedly softer, and a few tinges greener. Sustainability initiatives appear in company mandates, and hopeful messages of corporate social responsibility are offered to a citizenry more and more concerned about environmental and social well-being. Yet the internal engine that drives capitalists remains unchanged, fuelled by the same fire: profit.
The pursuit of profit is responsible for capitalism’s uncanny ability to adapt, for better or for worse. If the means of obtaining it are not regulated, profit can lead to corporate self-destruction, as the world witnessed in 2008, when short-termism and greed led to the downturn of the global economy and the shedding of a few multibillion-dollar corporate tendrils (such as Lehman Brothers). It has also resulted in longer-lasting and ultimately more significant external degradation, such as the poisoning of the atmosphere, freshwater and ecosystems. Moreover, the collective emissions of a global economy have brought CO2 levels to a point where climate change is an inevitable part of our long-term future.
While the economy is often perceived and discussed as something separate from nature, it has never been clearer that economic survival is inherently linked to environmental well-being. By necessity, decades of destructive profiteering have ended in a capitalism whose only means of survival is to evolve into a more compassionate and responsible economic model. But is it possible?
“First, we have to recognize that the past 20 years have not been a victory for capitalism at all. Second, to realize capitalism allows for growth in the power of the citizenry. Companies are not ethical or moral, nor are governments. People are ethical; the people create the standards. People need to be educated in an ethical context, and the market needs to be set up in such a way that the people who work in corporations are able exercise their ethics.”
—John Ralston Saul, Canadian author and essayist
“In the climate era, we need all hands on deck. We need innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership from all sectors. In order to ensure that we don’t run from disaster to disaster, as we have from the Gulf oil spill to Fukushima, our society needs to chart a fast course to clean, safe renewable energy systems that ensure climate stability, economic stability and healthy communities. This challenge requires innovation and leadership from all sectors. Most importantly, it requires strong laws from government to change the rules of the game.”
—Tzeporah Berman, co-director, Greenpeace International Global Climate and Energy Program
“We need to make markets work for a better world. Companies must move away from this obsession with short-termism; the financial crisis showed us how poorly resources are allocated when that occurs. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, while increasing disclosure requirements, has not addressed this fatal flaw in the system. Investors and governments must demand long-term planning be integrated into corporate culture.”
—David Runnalls, senior fellow, Sustainable Prosperity
“Capitalism will only work in symbiosis with humankind and the environment if its rules incorporate the full and true costs of pollution. If we don’t sufficiently put a price on pollution, capitalism will ultimately fail humankind.
–Marlo Raynolds, senior advisor, Pembina Institute
“As we look at more disasters happening like the BP spill, and now the major oil spill in Alberta, companies have to start looking seriously at risk management. With that, it becomes about looking to social responsibility, working with the public and with First Nations, using traditional indigenous wisdom and ecological knowledge of the spaces we do business in. We have to look at the long-term use of resources we have, not at short-term profits. I believe we are changing towards more long-term vision as we go forward.”
—Judith Sayers, Hupacasath First Nation, associate professor of law, University of Victoria
“It largely depends on the humans who are running the companies. It comes down to attitudes, and if people are greedy or think they need bonuses and salaries that amount to 500 times of the base employees are making, then you aren’t going to change it. You need to get the narcissists out of the executive suite; they aren’t healthy for the companies, let alone the ecosystems and everything else. My view is that it is their phony leadership that is destroying companies. What we have is a management crisis, with people in management focused on personal and short-term gains.”
—Henry Mintzberg, Canadian author and professor of management studies, McGill University
“Some organizations will wait until their bottom lines are negatively affected by their lack of action related to environmental and social responsibility. Others will act when they realize their employees, current and future, consider it a requirement of engagement. Still others will wait until they are mandated to act via regulatory or legislative pressures. But the leaders of their industries are already illustrating how a commitment to a healthy world responds to the ever increasing expectations of all stakeholders by engaging their staff in driving innovation, improving performance, and ensuring long-term health for all.”
—Kathy Bardswick, CEO, The Co-operators Group, 2011 Best Corporate Citizen
“Today the Arctic, while fully immersed in the modern system of capitalism, must continue to retain the sharing philosophy of our ancestors. Inuit have always lived symbiotically with their environment. Capitalism has taken on a human face here in the North. Nunavut is a society with a rich tradition of sharing and respect for the land, and a ‘cleaner capitalism’ is the natural progression.”
—Eva Aariak, premier of Nunavut