Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Changing the Scorpion's Nature

VW joins the Dark Side

Fans of the Citroen 2CV may object, but once upon a time if you drove anything other than a VW Beetle or Camper, then you couldn't call yourself a true environmentalist.

The company that had made Adolf Hitler's People's Car', and which owed its post war survival almost entirely to a single officer in British Army, had successfully made the leap from the Nazis to the New Age.

The good vibes generated in the sixties carried forwards to the modern era where VW were regular receivers of awards for Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility.

But all was not what it seemed.

In 2011 Greenpeace took them on for their lobbying efforts to reduce European Union emissions standards. VW won and, in a dirty deal with the United Kingdom, the Germans agreed to help block the regulation of coke-snorting British bankers in exchange for the UK helping to block regulation of the gas-guzzling German cars.

Then, in this last week, the true scale of the extent to which VW had sold its soul became apparent.

A sophisticated electronic device told the car when an emissions testing device was attached, causing the engine to reduce its otherwise illegal emissions.

The alternative would have been to fit a system that uses urea, under the slightly more appealing trade name of AdBlue. Just refilling your tank of AdBlue costs around £200, so with 11 million cars on the road VW had clearly saved themselves a lot of money. However the "defeat device" meant that these vehicles were pumping out between 10 and 40 times the permitted amounts of nitrous oxide. That really is taking the piss.

For VW, this is big.

For those of us who want a cleaner world, and who recognize that, for better or worse the corporations will be running the show for a few years yet, it's potentially even bigger.

Jefferson Randolph 'Soapy' Smith

In 1897 the Yukon, part of Canada's frozen north, experienced the last gold rush of the nineteenth century. To get to Canada the prospectors had to pass through the town of Skagway, part of the US state of Alaska. Possibly the most lawless town in the world, it was the place where "a bunch of the boys were whooping it up" in Robert Service's poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

But Skagway was also one massive confidence trick. Virtually the private property of one Jefferson Randolph 'Soapy' Smith, the entire town was built around ripping off the gullible gold seekers. Smith owned the newspaper, his own militia, the US Marshal's office and scores of pickpockets, robbers, crooked lawyers and prostitutes. New arrivals paid to send overpriced telegrams on the non-existent telegraph, lost money on the rigged gaming tables and were ripped off by apparently benevolent friends who met them off the ships from the south.

Sometimes, when the unfortunate soul was left penniless on the freezing streets, Smith would meet them, express concern and, reaching into his bulging wallet, give them just enough money to get back to Seattle. The victim would then leave Skagway convinced that they had just met the one honest citizen in the town.

To those of us on the outside of the corporate machine the behaviour of many of our bog companies seems little better than that of Soapy Smith. They rob us, poison us, engorge themselves at our expense and then, when the hordes of outraged people gather at their gates to demand justice, they deploy a little largess to make themselves look good.

For far, far too many corporations this is indeed how they work.

Dick Barton

But not all of the corporations are evil all of the time. The reality is rather more complex.

The 1940s British radio drama Dick Barton, which was very popular with small boys my Dad's age until it was replaced by an educational farming program called The Archers, allegedly used to employ two teams of writers. One had the job of inventing dire predicaments to land the daring detective in, whilst the other had the task of coming up with ingenious ways for the square jawed hero to escape.

It certainly seems as if many companies run a similar system. One team tours the world driving down prices, encouraging suppliers to cut costs and uprooting entire factories and moving them across the world when governments or Trade Unions threaten to spoil the party. Simultaneously the other team tries ensure the company obeys the law, respects human rights and doesn't trash the planet.

I expect VW operates in a similar way. Team B that puts together the Corporate Social Responsibility reports and strives  to ensure the company treads lightly on the earth are probably dedicated professionals who really want to make the world a better place. The problem, as the Dick Barton script writers found, is that Team A tends to win.

On the radio this led to them inventing the cliche 'with one bound he was free' as the hero was trapped in ever more fiendish plots. In real life there is no such easy way out when the profit motive trumps ethics.

And VW certainly isn't the only Janus-faced company trashing the planet whilst trying to be good.

BP broke the mould by ending the denial of climate change by the oil industry and genuinely put a lot of effort into cleaning up their act on human rights. Green groups never fell for it, but John Browne's company became poster-boys for the sustainable corporation. At the same time a policy of reckless cost-cutting led to disasters in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Scorpion and the Frog

So how does it all end?
For Soapy Smith not well. He was shot dead by a vigilance committee.

For BP not much better. The Gulf of Mexico cost them billions and destroyed their 'Beyond Petroleum' image so completely that anything they did to try to recover was just seen and a bribe or utter hypocrisy.

It doesn't look much better for VW either.

So why do they do it?

Why, when all their highly paid CSR professionals in Team B are telling them of the huge risk to reputation, to profits and to everything else, do companies that publicly claim to be on the Light Side of the Force keep going over to the Dark Side?

Well, the answer is obvious: because they're greedy and because they can. The for-profit corporation, if it was a real as opposed to a legal person, would be a psychopath. Psychopaths can live useful and productive lives, but you don't take your eyes off them.

In the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, the latter reluctantly agrees to give the former a lift across a river, having been convinced by the argument that treachery would doom them both. This though is indeed what happens, and the scorpion stings the frog to death. As they both sink beneath the water to their deaths the scorpions only defence is it's just his nature.

In the aftermath of the VW scandal we should all be minded to remember just what the nature of the modern corporation really is.

1 comment:

Nathalie Uy said...

We're just trying to find some color in this black and white world.
Keep on making inspiring article :)