Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Tree-Huggers and Corporate Pigs Share a Beer and Why We Love It

Regular visitors of LL&L will notice that it’s been nearly a week since any new published posts. Frankly, it’s a busy time of the year for all of us—the semester is beginning to wind down, Tim has one of those job-thingies I’ve heard so much about and a few of us are scrabbling to set up what we’ll be doing next semester.

But I swore to myself I wouldn’t let a whole week of inactivity pass by unless absolutely necessary so as not to disappoint our millions (or sixth root there of) of fans, I offer you this bit of good news.

The Wall Street Journal reported today in a front page article by Deborah Ball that environmental activists are increasingly switching sides to work for “the Man.” Mostly former heads of environmental groups, these people literally started working for the businesses they fought against, believing they can do more good from the inside.

Some environmental groups aren’t so happy about these transformations of their formal colleagues and some say it hasn’t resulted in real change. This, of course, does not surprise us and alluded to a fact I’ve repeated over and over: politics is about confrontation and economics is about cooperation.

We’ve all heard the opposite—government is where people come together and the market is where they compete. While competition is an important dimension of market activity, what’s often overlooked is the cooperation behind it. Firms have to work together—newspapers have to work with paper mills that have to get along with lumber mills; computer manufacturers have to be on the same page as software firms and sellers of operating systems; nearly everyone has to cooperate with the power company. These relationships are built on negotiations and contracts, a rare thing in Washington.

Why? Politics is about all-or-nothing power. You win or you lose. There are few benefits to compromise (so there’re lots of reasons to make the other side look evil). If two firms want something from the other but each has conditions on providing their service, they can come to an agreement. But if they have to go through the government, they can use it to force the other to get them all of what they want while sacrificing very little. This is why environmental groups and corporations almost never reach an agreement when the government’s involved (this includes, but is not limited to, water rights, ANWAR drilling and air pollution). Each side wants everything perfectly.

Which is why environmental leaders want to work from the inside. “Defector” Tom Burke said, “I’m not going to listen to someone who says, ‘Go away until I can be done perfectly.’” He’s tired of the inherent confrontation so he adapted. On of the first things he learned was the art of compromise—offering executives real solutions instead of reporting environmental solutions. They can now synthesize using their tacit and local knowledge from both view points. The company Tom Burke went to work for—Rio Tinto—is developing fast growing trees to replace the ones lost in the mining operations and will assist the natives in learning to live off the land in light of the sparse tree population.

Burke also sees his new colleagues as people who also care about the environment (especially after he took them on bird watching expedition), and not as the soulless monsters environmentalists claim they are. Capitalism isn’t just about freedom, it’s about harmony. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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