This is a critical week for the planet. A United Nations conference on the climate will be preceded on Sunday by the People’s Climate March, which is expected to be the largest environmental march in history. But it would be a grave mistake, for the planet and for ourselves, to overlook another event that is to take place on Monday. That’s when the Flood Wall Street rally will target the role of global capitalism in our environmental crisis.
The profit economy is a root cause—make that the root cause—of climate change.
Wall Street is, in a very real sense, the epicenter of our environmental crisis. To ignore that fact is to risk dooming our other climate efforts to failure, or to use them merely as palliatives for troubled consciences. There’s no other way to say this: Capitalism, as practiced on Wall Street today, is an existential threat to humanity.
To make that statement is not necessarily to issue a jeremiad against capitalism in all its forms. The danger comes, not from commerce itself, but from the extraordinary concentration of wealth and power that has accrued in recent decades to corporations and their Wall Street investors. This has led in turn to an ideological shift that has entirely captured the GOP and has seized large portions of the Democratic Party as well.
There has been a counterrevolution in the boardrooms of America’s corporations as well. The widespread amorality that characterizes the current generation of corporate executives—and their boards—would have been unrecognizable to business leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. While those gentlemen weren’t saints, they understood that society would not tolerate corporate behavior that included widespread fraud, open disregard for the lives of a global workforce, or a rapacious indifference to the fate of the planet itself.
Times have changed. The men and women who lead today’s corporations are a new and more calculating breed. The new culture of corporate America makes every executive a Wall Street speculator. Executive pay packages rely heavily on stock options and bonuses that drive CEOs to push quarterly results without any concern for the future of the company, much less the future of the planet.
They’re aided and abetted by the political class. The cult of Ayn Rand-style libertarianism has infused much of the right with a fanatical belief in the infallibility of executive greed. Democrats in the Bill Clinton mold insist on legitimizing errant executives and their ideas, whether by inviting Goldman Sachs leaders to the Clinton Global Initiative or boosting the pro-corporate “centrism” of the Simpson/Bowles crowd.
Mainstream journalists have idealized the behavior of the ruthless men and women who now lead the private sector. They continued to glorify bank executives like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, even as his institution was paying out tens of billions for rampant and ongoing fraud. (It’s worse than Enron.) They uncritically lionized Steve Jobs, despite the fact that Jobs and his subordinates appear to have engaged in control fraud, and knowingly tolerated the conditions that led to the burning deaths of employees in China. (See “Hell is Cheaper.”)
This ideology of profit über alles has created a climate of public tolerance for corporate greed, at least in certain quarters, which has helped a number of major executives escape public censure – even when their behavior threatens the planet itself. A Newsweek list of the worst companies for the planet includes Archer Daniels Midland (Patricia Woertz, CEO), Duke Energy (Lynn J. Good, CEO), ConAgra Foods (Gary Rodkin, CEO), and Peabody Energy (Gregory Boyce, CEO).
And let’s not forget Koch Industries, whose actions pollute the environment as its leaders pollute the political process.
If large corporations were held accountable for the damage they’re causing – $2.2 trillion per year, by one estimate – many of them would become unprofitable. But, in an unprecedented shift of social responsibility, it has been determined that others will bear the cost instead, one way or another.
Although corporate executives have always misbehaved, society eventually found ways to control their behavior: with regulations, with law enforcement, and with that ancient form of social control known as shame. Now, even shame is failing us. Ironically, in a case of greenwashing on an epic scale, JPMorgan Chase even sponsored a massive rock concert for Hurricane Sandy relief that featured the formerly Ameriquest-sponsored Rolling Stones. (See “Jumpin’ Jamie Flash” for more on Sandy, Jamie, and Mick.)
Regulation, prosecution, shame: Our modern systems of control have broken down, leaving the planet in danger.
Today’s blatantly amoral capitalism is an anomaly in modern history, a throwback to the days of the Industrial Revolution. But it is an anomaly we can no longer afford. The skies of 19th-century Manchester, England darkened with soot and smoke, but the planet survived. Today’s threat circles the globe and is already darkening our future. There is no escaping it—not in space or time.
We need to draw the world’s attention to the harm that corporations and their investors are inflicting on the planet. We need to redeploy the anti-apartheid sanction strategies of the 20th century against the corporate interests that are causing such devastating harm to current and future generations. That means publicly identifying the malefactors, boycotting their products, and bringing pressure to bear on the investors and institutions that finance their environmental destruction.
It can be done—but only if Sunday’s marchers carry on for one more day and walk a little bit further down the island of Manhattan. Monday's demonstrators will gather around the massive statue of a bull that sits outside the New York Stock Exchange. (Apparently the golden calf hasn’t been erected yet.) The rally will feature Naomi Klein, whose new book is on the relationship between capitalism and climate change, as well as speakers like Chris Hedges and Rebecca Solnit.
Marchers will be wearing blue to represent a “flood.” That metaphor will eventually become fact if climate change goes unchecked. Scientists say that rising sea levels will eventually leave most of Manhattan below 34th Street permanently underwater. Of course, the titans of uncontrolled capitalism will be long gone by then. Only the devastation will remain.