Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cleaning Up Our Act: Ethically and Environmentally

Strange Bedfellows: Pollution and Greed

Lately there is a growing amount of public attention in being paid to moral standards and hazards to our environment. These two concerns have rarely shared the limelight at the same time in history.

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In the past collapsing markets have turned scam artists like Bernie Madoff into floaters, rising to the surface of financial cesspools. Certain types of fraud, like Ponzi schemes, only function as long as the general public attitude remains optimistic. In rapidly growing economies corruption is perhaps viewed by some leaders as just one more cost of doing business. It was rare to hear government leaders complaining about CEO's annual million-dollar salaries and private jets while campaign contributions and quarterly dividends kept arriving on schedule.

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In contrast, real environmental threats have often been overlooked when there was no money to support such causes. The original Kyoto Protocol exempted the pollution of poor China and India. In developed nations some coal-burning power plants were granted exceptions to the requirements for expensive smokestack scrubbers. Ships and airplanes have been allowed to continue spewing waste for the sake of global commerce. This is all changing now for a good reason: total cost in terms of health to human society. China, for example, is slowly recognizing that chronic air pollution is sapping productivity.

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Now that money is tight and unemployment is rising it is easy to see why attention is being paid to corporate thieves. Most people find it unthinkable that one man is paid a bonus of $25 million dollars for a year's work, no matter how skilled that person may be. When that same corporate executive comes crawling to government leaders for an emergency loan it takes no genius to cry "Foul!" Like pollution, corporate greed is also sucking the life out of economies all around the world.

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Mismanagement in Exchange for Millions

The system of executive compensation has grown into quagmire. The only solution the top dogs can come with is to fire all the people making $50,000 a year. Five hundred people get shown the exit door to the save the cost of employing one CEO. Finally, the bosses decide to issue more stock and the existing stockholders lose all hope of returns and head for the exit themselves.

These supposedly genius leaders never stop to listen to the solutions offered by the little people. Proposals made by ordinary employees or stockholders are too quickly rejected by the MBAs upstairs. It is time someone in-charge started to listen to the people that invest all their time or money in the enterprises they are running into the ground.

Public Health as a Shared Cost

You need to think outside the banks to discover the reasons leaders are paying attention to the small voices crying out over the environment and public health.

Air pollution, food contamination, and the declining health of the world's oceans are all signs of a greater immorality. Almost everyone is implicated when it comes to the hydrocarbons spewing from our tailpipes. Food producers thought they were saving money by using a cheaper supplier of peanut butter. Baby formula allowed new mothers to quickly return to work, albeit at a cost to their children's immune systems. Now many new mothers are learning they can feed their babies naturally and still go back to work. The chemicals and waste pouring into our bodies, the seas, and skies are the results of our daily decisions, along with a measure of corruption, to be sure.

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The convenience of private cars, cheap labor, and Similac sometimes comes at a steep price in terms of public health. Health care is a public expense in many parts of the world and moving quickly in that direction in places like the United States, India, and China. When people get sick and everyone must pay for it the issue draws more public scrutiny.

People will need to be hired if we are to solve the problems associated with health care and food quality. We can reduce the cost of healthcare paperwork and mistakes by using computers. The jobs of some claims processors may be lost while computer programmers, accountants, and trainers find more work. More food safety inspectors will need to be hired and trained.

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Forward-thinking leaders are even starting to envision the job of cleaning up our planet as a stimulus for economic growth. There are new industries to be created in the fight against global warming. Developing new solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and other sources of clean energy will require new technologies as well as re-tooling factories. President Obama seems to understand this equation even as most Republican leaders refuse to. India is another place where the leaders have already started listening to the little people.

Leaders must do more than say they are willing to take $1 salary for a year. The bosses need to learn to listen more carefully to the people far down the ladder that support, serve, or invest in them. There are voices and minds out there offering real, workable solutions. It is not just a matter of forsaking pride now, it is a matter of survival.


New Yorker Magazine on Breast Feeding
New York Times column on India's environmental ideas

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