The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 2

Second In A Series
Activists Afoot!

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

As I suggested in my first post in this series on MCRC v. EPA, the complaint filed by the Marquette County Road Commission would have us believe that “anti-mining” forces worked secretly with and even infiltrated the EPA, and the agency’s objections to CR 595 followed a “predetermined plan.” The EPA, it claims, had decided to oppose the haul road even before the MCRC application was reviewed.

This sounds like legitimate cause for concern: permit applications should be reviewed on their merits, not pre-judged and not according to some other anti- or pro- agenda. We certainly wouldn’t want someone in the Environmental Protection Agency to be “pro-mining”; there are enough well-paid mining lobbyists already haunting the hallways in Lansing and Washington, DC. But in this case, the anti-mining label is being used as a term of opprobrium, and to distort and deliberately misrepresent what the Environmental Protection Agency is chartered and required by law to do: in short, to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect the environment.

When it comes to proving the insinuations it makes, the MCRC complaint offers slim evidence.

For example, the complaint makes a big fuss over a November 28, 2012 letter from Laura Farwell, who lives in the Marquette area and is described here as “a prominent environmental activist.”  The letter is addressed to Lynn Abramson, then a Senior Legislative Assistant for Senator Barbara Boxer, and Thomas Fox, Senior Counsel of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, asking them to “weigh-in” with the EPA on CR 595. (Exhibit 1).

EPA must determine whether to uphold its original objections to proposed County Road 595 under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), pursuant to its supervisory authority over Michigan’s delegated wetlands permitting program. Tom may remember that during the August 30, 2011 meeting at EPA Denise Keehner of EPA’s office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds definitively reiterated EPA’s position and stated that the haul road would not happen.
Thus, this letter is to request, respectfully, that you weigh-in as soon as possible with the EPA on its decision.

The MCRC complains about Farwell’s use of the word “definitively” here and casts the 2011 meeting in a sinister light:

on August 30, 2011, a very different type of meeting regarding CR 595 took place at USEPA Headquarters in Washington, DC. MCRC was neither invited to nor informed of the meeting. In attendance (as far as is known at the present time) were top USEPA officials, Congressional staff, KBIC representatives, and a prominent environmental activist opposed to the construction of CR 595. It further appears that USEPA made no formal record of the meeting.

Without a formal record, it’s impossible to know what transpired at this meeting, and if the complaint is going to rely on Farwell’s memory of the conversation, then it should also take into account her intentions in paraphrasing and recounting it, one year after it took place. The language here — “a very different type of meeting,” “neither invited nor informed,” “as far as is known at the present time,” “no formal record” — doesn’t help in that regard, and it’s meant to suggest that conjurations were already afoot.

It’s clear the MCRC was not included in some discussions at EPA. There’s nothing extraordinary or illicit about that. All concerned parties had been meeting with and petitioning the EPA for several years at this point. The complaint is still a long way from proving that the EPA “surreptitiously met with a number of environmental activists vocally opposed to the road,” and an even longer way from proving that there was anything like an anti-mining coalition assembled in secret at the offices of the EPA.

In an ironic twist, these allegations of secrecy and whispering behind closed doors may come back to haunt the MCRC: at a Marquette County Board of Commissioners meeting this month, the Marquette County Road Commission itself faced accusations that it had violated the Open Meetings Act in planning to bring its suit against the EPA. Public officials who intentionally violate that act are ordinarily fined and incur other liabilities; in this case, there would be some eating of words as well.

By November 28, 2012, the EPA had, in fact, “decided against the proposed haul road,” as Farwell puts it in the email she sent along with the letter to Abramson and Fox. The EPA had entered objections to the Woodland Road Application (in March, 2010) and announced their objections to CR 595 (in March, 2012).  Even so, a Fall 2012 public meeting held by the EPA “in Marquette…for more input” had Farwell worried. She was not at all confident the EPA would uphold its original objections to the haul road.  The matter was still far from being “definitively” settled.

Whatever reassurances Farwell was given at that 2011 meeting — or thought she had been given, or recalled having been given, one year later — were clearly at risk of getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. The purpose of her letter is to prevent that.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Those watching new mining developments in the Upper Peninsula are constantly having to chase after the EPA and demand that the regulator step in and do its job.

Jeffery Loman, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a former federal regulator, has repeatedly put the EPA on notice and complained of the agency’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act.

In May of this year, the grassroots environmental group Save the Wild UP filed a petition with the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, arguing that Eagle Mine was issued the wrong regulatory permit. The appeal requested that the EPA require Eagle Mine to obtain a Clean Water Act permit in order to protect the Salmon Trout River and other surface waters from the discharge of mining effluent. The Appeals Board did not contest the facts put forward in the petition, but dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction. They hardly proved themselves to be staunch allies.

So watchdogs and environmental groups, too, have reason to gripe about the EPA and often feel powerless in the face of bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude. Laura Farwell herself seems to have felt that way, and that’s why we find her asking Abramson and Fox for help. The MCRC complaint exaggerates her influence at the EPA when it describes her as “a prominent environmental activist.” The epithet is used here to create the misleading impression that within the offices of EPA Region 5 and the confines of Marquette County there are political opponents with resources to match the power of multi-billion dollar, multinational mining companies.

Laura Farwell and her husband Frank moved to the area in 2006 from Madison, Wisconsin. They are members of the St. Paul Episcopal Church and participate, along with their son Cody, in the church’s Earth Day tree plantings. The couple donated some money to the UP Land Conservancy. Farwell has also organized events for the Cedar Tree Institute, which works to bridge “faith communities and environmental groups.” (She is described on the Institute’s site  as “a concerned mother and local citizen.”) She is thanked for “working quietly behind the scenes” in a 2011 Earth Keeper TV video on the environmental risks posed by the Eagle Mine; and she’s copied along with many other local citizens in a Google Group post dated April 9, 2012, urging people to comment on CR 595 before the public comment period is closed.

Farwell’s commitments to land conservation are pretty clear, and while the complaint asks us to recoil in horror at the phrase “prominent environmental activist,” cooler heads are just as likely to be impressed by Farwell’s dedication to the people around her and the place where she lives. Maybe that dedication is all it takes to be a prominent environmental activist in the view of the Marquette County Road Commission.

Some locals, on the other hand, are legitimately concerned that nationally and internationally prominent environmentalists — like Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, Naomi Klein and their ilk — ignore the current situation around Lake Superior, or fail to give it the serious attention it deserves. National media have barely taken notice. Farwell herself admits that to the great and powerful in Washington DC “the proposed haul road may seem like some little back trail in the middle of nowhere,” but she urges that it will cut through “critical wetlands resources” and “enable the industrializing of this rural Great Lakes watershed by international mining interests.”

Farwell’s letter tries to create some urgency around the CR 595 issue by putting the road in context and specifying whose interests would be served by the industrializing of the region. A serious assessment of CR 595 would significantly widen the lens, taking into account the cumulative effects of all the new mining activities around Lake Superior: all leasing, exploration, development and active mining throughout northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario. Otherwise, we miss the big picture, and without that perspective, it’s just too easy to parcel out the land, the water, and the future of the region to the highest bidders.

The MCRC complaint, too, places CR 595 in the context of “mining and economic development in the Great Lakes region” in a few places, but only to make the specious argument that those who oppose or question the road are opposed to mining and therefore opposed to the region’s prosperity. These are the ideological leaps the complaint makes. Those who don’t make these leaps are called activists or anti-mining obstructionists. That is a political, not a legal argument.

It’s never too late to have a serious discussion of what sustainable economic development and true prosperity for the Great Lakes region might look like. How might we best organize our lives together in this place? is a fundamental political question. But at this juncture, it appears, the MCRC can’t afford to let that conversation happen. This lawsuit is an attempt to shut it down and stifle dissent. Where business leads, society must obediently follow. To question this order of things, as Laura Farwell seems to have repeatedly done, quietly, behind the scenes, is to commit some kind of nefarious act.

This is where the attitude on display in this complaint gets worrisome. With this lawsuit, the MCRC pretends to have the political authority to direct economic development in the region (not just to build and repair roads). But that is only pretense, and things in Marquette County are not as they appear. The public still does not know who is funding the Road Commission lawsuit, what they stand for and what they expect in return for their support. The real powers lurk behind the scenes.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

First in a Series

oretrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

Laudato Si’ on Mining

The views of mining we find in the new papal encyclical Laudato Si’ clearly reflect the Latin American experience — centuries of plunder and absconded wealth, industrial development and economic underdevelopment, violence and ruin, degradation of the land and destruction of communities where mining is done. But in its careful attention to issues of water, water access, and the condition of the world’s poor, the encyclical raises serious questions about mining and the ethics of mining everywhere in the world.

Laudato Si’ explicitly addresses mining in three places, raising the very same issues that I’ve been writing about here, in connection with the new mining around Lake Superior. So I thought I would set out these passages for consideration now, with the intention of returning to them after I have had a chance to read the encyclical more carefully.

The first explicit mention of mining in Laudato Si’ comes at 29, which deals with the “serious problem” of “the quality of water available to the poor.”

Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.

At 51, one of the most powerful passages in the entire encyclical looks at the role of mining in creating an “ecological debt” of the global north to the global south, where raw materials are taken from the land for markets that serve the wealthy, industrialized north:

Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.

Quoting a 2009 Christmas Message from the Bishops of Patagonia-Comahue Region of Argentina, Laudato Si’ goes on to explain that the industrialized world has incurred this debt because mining and other companies

operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”

Finally, at 146, the encyclical addresses the way mining projects degrade and destroy land that indigenous communities regard as “sacred space,” often displacing them and threatening their very survival:

it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?

A White Peacock

A white peacock — like this one in the Children’s Sculpture Garden next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine — may not be a black swan, but it is a wonder.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

Serious Conversations, 8

There’s a serious aspect to what Stuart jokingly says here. Philip Pettit and Michael Smith put a finger on it in their discussion of what they call “the conversational stance” in “Freedom in Belief and Desire” [pdf].

When we engage in serious conversation about what to believe or do, Pettit and Smith observe, we assume, among other things, that our interlocutor can, and will, change her beliefs (about the way things are) and evaluations (about what to do) in light of evidence. We assume, further, that she will adjust her desires and assess her plan of action in light of these evaluations. (So, they will go on to argue, we hold her responsible as a free thinker and as someone possessed of free will.) Otherwise, there is no point in having the conversation, and there might even be reason to fear that we are involved with a zombie or psychopath:

Were you to think that your interlocutor lacked the dispositions to register and respond to the demands of the norms governing evaluations that you both countenance, and lacked them even in the provisoed measure allowed, you would either have to put his evaluative understanding or commitment in serious question or you would have to regard him as something close to a zombie or a psychopath. How could your interlocutor agree that doing such and such is irrational, so you will ask, but not see that the prescription applies to him? Or, if he does admit it applies to him, how could he fail to adjust his desires and actions accordingly? In particular, how could he fail to do these things, when the failure is not to be explained by reference to familiar obstacles [such as fetishes and obsessions, disabling moods and passions]? The only answer available would seem to be that he is not seriously or sincerely involved in the business of practical evaluation, or that if he is, then he is not reliably attuned to the practical values in question. In either case, you lose solid grounds for authorizing him as a conversational interlocutor. You must cease to see any point in conducting a conversation that is supposed to bear on how he should behave.

Deepening the Dow Conversation

“Let’s take this show on the road,” quipped Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, at the close of Dow Chemical’s Google hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business in Society.” Moderator Alice Korngold guided the panelists, three Dow executives and a few big names in sustainability from the NGO world, through the hour-long hangout without a hitch; audience approval (registered via the thumbs up/thumbs down Applause function) seemed pretty consistently high. Everyone played their part well, and they had reason to congratulate each other.

Still, Tercek’s final remark was telling, a sort of gloss on the hour that preceded it. In fact, if I had to offer just one criticism of yesterday’s hangout — and I intend this to be constructive criticism — it would be that this was, essentially, a show. It lacked the spontaneity and the give and take of conversation, as well as the informality promised by the word “hangout” (and which characterizes hangouts I’ve attended and in which I have participated).

As a result, the hangout was less about “redefining” the role of business in society than promoting a settled definition of that role. Dow executives ran through talking points, and at several junctures even the people from the NGO world seemed to have adopted the jargon that Dow has developed around its 2025 sustainability goals. Where conversation would have uncovered discrepancies in order to work toward new understanding, here was little disagreement or dissent, and nothing like irreverence or skepticism — which are ways that interlocutors withhold assent and keep conversations honest.

For example, no one in the hangout challenged what in most other settings would be regarded as a relatively new and extraordinarily controversial idea: that business’s role is to “lead” society; no one suggested that it ought to be the other way around. The most vocal dissent focused on one small point: Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that he didn’t think it would be necessary for Dow to create another sustainability think tank. Maybe he’s right: the world has plenty of talk shops; but in this context, where it was quickly followed by Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris saying we need “do tanks, not think tanks,” it felt like another way to close the discussion, short circuit deliberation, and declare the matter settled.

I appreciate that this may not have been the appropriate occasion to invite others into the circle, to take live comments, or open bigger questions that couldn’t be resolved in the short space of an hour. I appreciate, too, the effort it takes to bring a twentieth-century industrial giant like Dow into a twenty-first-century online social forum, and the legitimate concerns about everything from reputation to litigation that effort raises. But the broadcast quality of this hangout lent it an air of artificiality and, more importantly, just didn’t seem to jive with the commitment Dow has publicly made to collaboration, dialogue, listening, and building social capacity.

Clearly, the sustainability goals Dow has set for itself warrant a more inclusive and dynamic conversation — where the outcome is not set in advance, and which allows heterodox views, strong dissent and unresolved, maybe irresolvable differences. That’s especially true because Dow claims to be serious about its sustainability goals — this isn’t just window dressing — and what Liveris called its sustainability “journey” has only just started.  At the very least, subsequent conversations should tease out and develop some salient points about this ambitious program and the thinking behind it. Here, I’ll confine myself to identifying just three of these points, based on what was said during yesterday’s hangout.

The first issue concerns the historical roots of the corporate sustainability movement. Two participants in the hangout, Liveris and John Elkington (who coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” and has written extensively on the subject) both traced it back to the 1960s, and what Liveris called their “hippy” days.* But, as Elkington came close to suggesting, sustainability thinking also has roots in the reactions of the 1970s and 1980s, which saw the rise of neoliberalism and the idea that markets can offer solutions to social problems, sometimes better, or at least more efficiently, than governments. This is obviously not just a debate with historical interest; it is a question of the commitments — and the ideas about business’ role in society — that sustainability thinking carries with it.

The second point worth discussing and developing has roots in the 1970s and 1980s as well. This is the idea of natural capital. It not only went unquestioned in the hangout; it seems to have achieved the status of an article of faith. The trouble isn’t just that the figures used to calculate natural capital are made of  “marmalade,” as George Monbiot put it in a lecture on the topic, and reduce the inestimable — the natural, living world, all of creation, if you like — to the merely estimable; but there were several points during the hangout where that trouble lurked just beneath the surface. There are other objections that merit fuller discussion here; namely, that the concept of natural capital:

[harnesses] the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction…. what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.

That’s Monbiot again. The point is not that he’s right, though I think he’s got a strong argument here. Agree or disagree, meeting these arguments and others like them when it comes to natural capital would produce a much deeper, more nuanced and truer understanding of the interventions that sustainability thinking requires.

And finally there’s that question of power that Monbiot raises, which I would recast in this context as a set of important ethical considerations that cluster around the idea that you can do well by doing good. At one point, Liveris ran through some impressive numbers to suggest that Dow has figured out how to make sustainability profitable. But there was no mention during the hangout of what agency or power will hold Dow and other companies to account — or oblige them to meet their responsibilities — in case of non-performance.

The unspoken assumption just underneath the surface here seems to be that we are to trust the company, because its intentions are good; or at least the intentions of its executive team are. There’s no reason to doubt that, but if you are rolling out a “blueprint” for society’s future, as Dow says it is, you are also assuming responsibilities toward the people who now live and will live where you plan to build that future. So to get buy-in to the blueprint, earn the trust and engage the energies of all those people, it’s important to enumerate and discuss those responsibilities, to put in place appropriate checks that measure success in society’s terms, not just in business terms, and to prescribe remedies in case of failure.

All this brings me back to Bakker’s suggestion that the world does not need another think tank, and the idea that it’s time for Dow and other companies to partner with NGOs and other social institutions in order to start “doing.” The challenges Dow is trying to address —  climate change, clean water, food security, income inequality and youth unemployment were among the issues Liveris enumerated — are no doubt urgent. But a focus on “solutions” to pressing problems can’t be an excuse to short-circuit discussion or sidestep political process; and we should be careful not to mistake the advance of a business agenda for social progress, or, in our rush to meet the very real challenges the world now faces, confuse the two things. The thing we need to sustain, right now and into the future, is the conversation.

*Postscript, 18 April 2015: The day after I wrote this post, a friend brought this provocative 2006 essay by Slavoj Žižek to my attention. Here, Žižek characterizes professions of “love” for May 68 as a staple of “Porto-Davos” sustainability discourse: “What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the confines of stiff bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! And although they’ve changed since then, they didn’t resign to reality, but rather changed in order to really change the world, to really revolutionize our lives.”

Five Questions On Business And Society

Dow Chemical is currently soliciting questions for a Google Hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business In Society.” The Wednesday morning Hangout will be moderated by Alice Korngold, author of A Better World Inc., and feature Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris along with other “global sustainability leaders.”

I submitted five questions for the group’s consideration. I can’t say whether they’ll address any of them or whether these questions are even appropriate for this forum. This is a huge topic, and there are lots of ways to approach it. Nor do I pretend that these are the only five questions worth asking. But it strikes me that these five simple questions might help others start and structure a conversation about business’s role in society. So, after tweeting my questions and putting them up for easy reference on Google docs, I thought I’d post them here as well.

  1. Governance: Where’s the seat for “society” in the boardroom, and who sits there?
  2. Priorities: Whose role is it within the company to identify and set social priorities?
  3. Non-performance: What mechanisms should be in place to identify and address human rights and environmental grievances?
  4. Authentic social license: What mechanisms ensure all stakeholders — esp. dissenters, skeptics, opponents — are represented?
  5. Metrics: How does [the company; in this case, Dow] currently measure social performance, and factor it into overall business performance?

Zeno and the Invention of the Second Person

When Aristotle remarked that Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was the first to discover dialectic, he was crediting Zeno with the invention of the philosophical interlocutor or second person.

This is how Allen reads the famous passage as well. The remarks attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius make Zeno “the discoverer of the…oral two-party question and answer debate,” not just “argumentative technique.” The only thing I might take issue with here is Allen’s use of the word “debate,” which could give the mistaken impression of a contest in which one person’s view prevails, rather than a dialogue or conversation in which interlocutors reach agreement — or uncover their discrepancies — by asking questions and responding to them.

This is an expansive reading of Zeno’s discovery. But it’s perfectly consistent with the tradition of commentary that makes Zeno out to be the inventor of the prose dialogue and with the ask and answer approach discussed and demonstrated in Plato’s Parmenides (where Zeno is presented as Parmenides’ philosophical apprentice). The inquirer enlists or authorizes an interlocutor — in this case, Aristoteles, the youngest of the group — to answer him. 

Even more restrictive ancient definitions, like those offered elsewhere in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives, emphasize that dialectic is not just a matter of “discussing” topics by means of question and answer, but “correctly” discussing them. That is presumably why dialectic may be regarded as “indispensable and…itself a virtue, embracing other particular virtues under it,” and Diogenes Laertius draws connections between the practice and ethical teachings.

To help elucidate this point, a note in the Hicks edition of Diogenes’ Lives recommends this passage in Plutarch’s Contradictions of the Stoics, where Plutarch cites a passage from Chrysippus characterizing “dialectic skill” as “one of the greatest and most necessary faculties.” Note the word Plutarch uses for “faculties” here: dynamis: a power or capacity.

This is the power that Zeno is said to have discovered. It is — let’s not lose sight of this —  a power shared with others: it’s the “dynamic” of serious conversation.

It strikes me that it’s possible and edifying to connect Zeno’s discovery of this power or second-person dynamic with his resistance to tyranny. Immediately after reporting Zeno’s discovery of dialectic, Diogenes Laertius tells us that Zeno “plotted to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant (or, according to others, Diomedon) but was arrested.”

The story of his arrest has it that on pretense of imparting some important information about the conspiracy, Zeno drew the tyrant near and bit down on his ear “and did not let go until stabbed to death, meeting the same fate as Aristogiton the tyrannicide.” Another version has it that Zeno bit off the tyrant’s nose. Yet another, related by both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, has it that Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face.

In all versions, Zeno’s life ends with his refusal of illegitimate authority.

Postscript: Slightly revised on 2 April 2015, but still just rough notes waiting to be written in earnest. That said, I think there’s something important and worth pursuing in the connection of Zeno’s discovery of the dialectical “power” with his resistance to tyranny. His discovery of the conversational stance in philosophy helped him appreciate, and committed him to the defense of, political freedom, I want to maintain. Victor Cousin arrives at a similar position in his discussion of Zeno in Nouveaux Fragments Philosophiques. For Cousin, Zeno is “l’ἀνήρ πρακτικός” of the Eleatic school, exercising “purely dialectical…genius” in defense of Parmenides’ doctrine of “absolute unity” and defending “the laws” of Elea. Much here to unravel.