Monday morning in the Executive Communication Report, to which you should subscribe because it is interesting, useful and free, I published as I usually do there: without comment, but under the standing line, What leaders are saying, and how they’re sounding. That wording is supposed to remind readers to listen critically.
This was it:
Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman has a piece in Fortune telling business leaders that climate reform is down to them. “The urgency of the crisis is clearly still lost on many of our political leaders,” Polman writes, adding that, “There will be no great superpower pact to save us.” Thus: “Business literally can’t afford to sit back and wait for politics to get its act together. Climate isn’t just an environmental issue: it’s the economy, stupid. Extreme floods, heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes cost billions. They send impoverished nations further into debt, while crippling supply chains, disrupting global trade, and destroying the labor force.” Polman urges business leaders to collaborate on “much-needed reform of our global financial architecture. The idea that we will need a Marshall Plan-style intervention to finance the shift to a greener economy is starting to gain traction. CEOs can help bring it into the mainstream.”
Let’s count up the preposterations (yes, that’s a new one):
- The urgency of the crisis is not “lost” on very many of our political leaders. It may be lost on a few, but it’s cynically denied, deflected or muffled by many more on both sides of the aisle, largely because their campaigns are funded by large corporations who lobby against meaningful climate-change legislation. (The corporations Polman calls on as saviors.)
- Anytime anyone calls on “business” to do this or that, it’s a rhetorical trick. Because there’s no such thing as “business,” beyond the traditional U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the comparatively faux-progressive The Business Roundtable. Ultimately there are only businesses, which are led by people paid to make their own quarterly earnings and not paid to save the planet—even if that’s in the interest of their companies’ long-term economic health.
- Polman calls for “a Marshall Plan-style intervention.” I think he’s leaning pretty hard on a 74-year-old project that most of his readers won’t have heard of that wasn’t initiated or executed by business, but by massive government intervention. Can’t find anything more relevant than that, Polman? Well, pardon my skepticism.
And speaking of musty references, Polman’s pretend polemic puts me in mind of a Mencken essay, on “The Cult of Hope.” He was writing about “the drink problem” that reformers were trying to cope with 100 years ago (and that we’ve long since given up on):
Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp the concept of insolubility. Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion. … These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world … It is the settled habit of such credulous folk to give ear to whatever is comforting; it is their settled faith that whatever is desirable will come to pass. … But the fact remains that not a single and comprehensive scheme has ever come …. All such schemes come from idiots or from sharpers disguised as idiots to win public confidence. The whole discussion is based on assumptions that even the most casual reflection must reject as empty balderdash.
Could it be possible that getting the world organized for real climate reform is, like the drink problem, simply impossible for humans to solve?
When I read pieces like Polmans in publications like Fortune, I do start to think so.