The Next Big Theme

So far as the recent American elections were concerned, Tomasky may have been right that the free market shareholder primacy ideology was the only big coherent picture then on offer; more socially oriented policies lacked coherence. But the next big theme is in sight and may well shift free market shareholder primacy, with its excesses of greed and self-interest, into the long grass of history. The straws in the wind which suggest such a change are many and various: population growth, resource depletion especially water and oil, climate change, pollution, growing inequality between rich and poor, and above all, the ever widening recognition by ordinary people that finite earth and self-interest maximising man are on course for a massive and decidedly unpleasant collision.

So far these various elements have not been widely recognised as having coalesced into a coherent whole. However, the broad picture is simple enough, even for primary school children to understand and voice and act on the basic problems. Many different initiatives have emerged successfully, inviting the mass of people to engage: the Soil Association’s organic movement, Fair Trade, and many others. Local authorities have engaged seriously with the recycling issue, and charity shops have engaged successfully with other aspects of recycling. Governments and international agencies meet and talk about the issues and go through the motions of doing something. But not a lot, because they are still largely in thrall to the free market shareholder primacy dogma which is still supported by trillions of corporate dollars.

But the ground is changing. The Harvard Business Review (HBR), for example, has long featured articles about how firms can make themselves be seen as performing to the green agenda. The emphasis now is on real performance rather than on window dressing, and the various component parts of the green theme are coalescing under the name of sustainability. Sustainability is the title which binds all these initiatives into a big theme which has a context, an underlying theory and a rapidly developing practice.

The context is the collision between finite earth and maximising man. The underlying theory contradicts free market shareholder primacy on almost every count, as has been repeatedly argued on this site. And the developments in corporate practice are recorded with increasing frequency in business journals such as the HBR. Unilever CEO Paul Polman, recently announced his company’s dedication to a “long term value creation model, which is equitable, which is shared, (and) which is sustainable”. Challenged regarding shareholder value, Polman responded “if you don’t buy into this … don’t put your money in our company … Consumers and retailers want this sort of initiative, and the planet needs it … (it’s) the right way to do business.” Where is shareholder primacy in all that?

Sustainability, the next big theme, is almost there. All that is needed is for governments to grasp the nettle, ditch their Friedmanite convictions, and tax, subsidize and regulate according to the imperatives of sustainability.

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