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 (hes
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 (Gildings view) or
sell-outs consorting with the devil (Staubers).
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. Staubers was either/oryou
could be either corporate or a progressive, but the term corporate
progressive was an oxymoron. Gilding, by contrast, was arguing
for yes/andthere were synergies to be found in
combining the two cultures. I went on to say that I favored Gildings
positionand 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 conferencethe 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 irredeemableand 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 isnt corporations themselves that
are incorrigible so much as the system within which they operate.
And its true: the rules of the game make it very, very difficult
for executives to steer their enterprises in a truly sustainable
Whether its better to shape or shun corporations is an interesting
and perhaps inescapable debate. For me, however, it has reached
a dead end.
Heres 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?
Its worth noting that redeemable is a theological
word. Thats not actually all that surprising because this
conversation is fraught with theological undertones, despite all
the political-science jargon. Its about whether people like
me and Gilding are doomed to hell or can be redeemedyup,
that word again!along with the corporations we rode in on.
Not to carp, but isnt this pretty wildly off the point?
Theres another problem, too. These questions can only be answered
by deciding that corporations are either doomed or salvageableand
thats another of those either/or propositions I seem to have
so much trouble with. It assumes that corporations are monoliths
with fixed identitiesand that misses their essence. Its
much more useful to view corporations as dynamic organisms that
are constantly in flux. They are living systemsecosystems,
if you willand 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. Lets step inside
the systemlets put our shoulder to the wheel and get
beyond the judging. Thats my view, anyway.
And if that makes me a sell-out, so be it.
Carl Frankels 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@