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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2003 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

A Tale of Two Cultures
Corporations aren't monoliths. They're evolving systems.


By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

Last October, I attended the annual Bioneers conference, which brings together thousands of progressives to connect and ventilate and learn. One session featured a debate between Paul Gilding, a friend, sometimes colleague and fellow contributor to these pages (he’s the one with the Australian accent), and John Stauber, a freelance journalist who is best-known for his anti-corporate polemic, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. The topic was whether people like Gilding, who once ran Greenpeace International and now consults with global corporations, are pragmatists serving sustainability (Gilding’s view) or sell-outs consorting with the devil (Stauber’s).

After the debate, which in my view Gilding won hands-down, I rose to ask a question. It seemed to me, I said, that Stauber and Gilding embodied two quite different mindsets. Stauber’s was “either/or”—you could be either corporate or a progressive, but the term “corporate progressive” was an oxymoron. Gilding, by contrast, was arguing for “yes/and”—there were synergies to be found in combining the two cultures. I went on to say that I favored Gilding’s position—and would Stauber care to comment?

Stauber never quite got around to answering the question. Instead he denounced me. He suggested to the audience that I had been planted there by Gilding (not true), and more broadly that I was a corporate stooge who was there to sow dissension among progressives. As evidence, he offered the facts that I have written for “green” business magazines like green@work and collaborated with people like Gilding.

It was, shall we say, a learning experience.

Cut to April of this year, when I attended a very different type of conference—the annual gathering of CERES, a coalition of environmental, investor and advocacy groups that are committed to constructively engaging corporations on issues of sustainability. Executives from companies like Ford, GM and ITT were present, and their input was encouraged and appreciated.

I came away from the CERES gathering confirmed in my impression that there are two quite distinct progressive cultures. One essentially views corporations as agents of the Dark Side. The other views them as a mixed bag, but not irredeemable—and also as a potentially useful, and maybe even indispensable, partner.

At the Stauber-Gilding debate, I had spoken up for the latter position. Yet I also think I understand why so many thoughtful people view corporations as basically beyond redemption. Underlying their attitude is the assumption that it isn’t corporations themselves that are incorrigible so much as the system within which they operate. And it’s true: the rules of the game make it very, very difficult for executives to steer their enterprises in a truly sustainable direction.

Whether it’s better to shape or shun corporations is an interesting and perhaps inescapable debate. For me, however, it has reached a dead end.

Here’s why: The underlying context is moral and judgmental. It goes to questions like: “Are corporations good or bad?” And to a very close cousin to that question: “Are corporations unsalvageable or redeemable?”

It’s worth noting that “redeemable” is a theological word. That’s not actually all that surprising because this conversation is fraught with theological undertones, despite all the political-science jargon. It’s about whether people like me and Gilding are doomed to hell or can be “redeemed”—yup, that word again!—along with the corporations we rode in on. Not to carp, but isn’t this pretty wildly off the point?

There’s another problem, too. These questions can only be answered by deciding that corporations are either doomed or salvageable—and that’s another of those either/or propositions I seem to have so much trouble with. It assumes that corporations are monoliths with fixed identities—and that misses their essence. It’s much more useful to view corporations as dynamic organisms that are constantly in flux. They are living systems—ecosystems, if you will—and like every ecosystem they are constantly evolving.

Instead of asking, “Are corporations good or bad?,” it would serve us better to be asking, “In what direction do we want them to evolve?” and “In what ways can we best influence them to evolve toward sustainability?”

Stand apart? No. Pass judgment? Again, no. Let’s step inside the system—let’s put our shoulder to the wheel and get beyond the judging. That’s my view, anyway.

And if that makes me a sell-out, so be it.


Carl Frankel’s next book, The Integral Way: Who We Are, How We Go Wrong, and What We Can Do About It, will be published in 2004. He can be contacted via e-mail at: carlfrankel@ manyone.net.

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