Corporations as psychopaths environmental lessons

The anti-social legal foundations of the modern corporation are dissected in the new award-winning documentary, THE CORPORATION. The film, which recently won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, analyzes the behavior of these legally-created business entities that are unfortunately regarded as “persons” under the law. Ironically, the Sundance award was sponsored by global capitalist titan the Coca-Cola Company.

Directed by Vancouver filmmakers Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent) and Jennifer Abbott with contributions from University of British Columbia Law professor Joel Bakan, the film raises serious questions about the role of corporations in our society that are particularly important to environmentalists.

While the legal foundations of corporationsxED sounds like an obscure issue of interest only to legal pundits, it should be central to environmental activism. A corporation has fundamental structures that distinguish it from other forms of business associations such as partnerships, joint ventures or sole proprietorships. Corporations are the structure of choice for those that want to limit their liability. This allows businesses using a corporate structure to take risks that could produce impacts that damage other people or the environment while protecting its owners (shareholders) from being held accountable for the damages they cause.

What public policy reason justifies to allowing certain “persons” under the law to cause damage and not be held fully accountable? There is none! Combined with legal requirements that corporations maximize value to its shareholders, as well as the global neo-conservative trends toward privatization, deregulation and a reliance on unconstrained markets, and, surprise, you have a big problem. As our world and our society does!

In response to the growing crisis, many North American environmental organizations have ignored these fundamental social and legal issues and focused almost exclusively on reforming or stopping individual corporation’s, or specific industries, bad practices.

Unfortunately, and to its long-term detriment in my view, the North American environmental movement has generally left unchallenged the anti-social role the corporate structure plays in our society. We have generally avoided focusing on the structural impediments to sustainability, creating the impression that we want the world to remain exactly as it is with our privileged position as mega-consuming North Americans maintainedonly with the bad practices of a few bad acting corporations reformed.

Younger people, often facing the unsympathetic heel of corporate hegemony in the entry-level workplace, are increasingly challenging the fundamentals of corporate privilege. This is illustrated by the growth and passion of grass roots activism facing denizens of corporatism like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. At the same time, we, the mainstream environmental movement often obsessed by protecting wilderness and nature in its pristine stateis increasingly distracted by attempts to negotiate with these structurally anti-social businesses to achieve victories on the ground. Our movement, increasingly peopled by greybeards and blue hairs is spending less and less energy and resourses challenging the foundations of the unsustainable economythe increasing power of corporations.

This needs to change. Perhaps if we broadened our focus, we would simultaneously address the graying of our movement and the distain that many young progressive activists hold for the environmentalist label.

Hopefully, films like The Corporation, combined with the growing popularity of anti-corporate critics like Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and Noam Chomsky, will encourage environmentalists and environmental organizations to focus more broadly, as Dogwood Initiative is attempting to do, on corporations’ role as structural impediments to sustainability.

Sustainability cannot be achieved where the largest economic drivers have limited liability and are judged by their ability to continue to grow unchecked.Until, collectively we address these issues, we may win some skirmishes, but we will lose the real battle.

REVIEW:
Toronto Star,

Jan.23/04
The Corporation Rating: PG
Compelling, comprehensive and unsettling documentary account of the rise and global impact of big business, by Vancouver filmmakers Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent), Jennifer Abbott and writer Joel Bakan, is based on the thesis that, since corporations are legally regarded as persons, analysis of their self interested, profit-driven, globally omnivorous capitalist structure can only conclude that they behave like psychopaths. Featuring interviews with anti-corporate diagnostic witnesses like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman, Naomi Kline and Howard Zinn, it is as relentlessly damning in its deconstruction of corporate history and “culture” as Moore’s Bowling For Columbine was in its assault on American gun craziness, yet most of the spokepersons being skewered appear cheerful when facing the camera, as if it’s easy to be

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