The Myopia of “Green” Business at Rio+20

If cliches carry a grain of truth, the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” carries a silo in the business world.  One of the sorriest spectacles of our time is business leaders prostrating themselves before their critics, apologizing profusely for doing what businesses do best: create wealth and meet consumer needs.

That kind of self-flagellation is now routine at the multimillion-dollar junkets for politicians, bureaucrats, and professional activists known as “global summits” — meant to address whatever global problem those  politicians, bureaucrats, and professional activists deem so critical that it makes such multimillion-dollar junkets for politicians, bureaucrats, and professional activists necessary.

One egregious case of such business masochism happened this week at the Rio+20 Earth summit. There, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, speaking at the launch of something called the National Capital Declaration (I can’t really describe what it is; its website’s “about” page only offers some undecipherable verbiage), threw out so many mea culpas that his talk should really be called a confession. Polman told the audience, according to the Guardian:

“The very essence of capitalism is under threat as business is now seen as a personal wealth accumulator.

“We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest.

“We need to fight very hard to create an environment out there that is more long term focussed and move away from short termism.”

I couldn’t agree more that businesses should fight short-term thinking, but if Polman thinks he’s fighting that fight, he’s sadly mistaken. Appeasement of critics who consider your company’s activities a necessary evil at best exhibits the worst kind of short-term thinking that proves disastrous in the long run.

As Ron Arnold notes in his Washington Examiner column today, “The entire Rio+20 conference was directed toward the conclusion that affluent states must cut back on living standards and end development of natural resources. That’s sustainable development for you.”

As CEI President Fred Smith puts it, trying to appease those people is like feeding your leg to an alligator hoping it will become a vegetarian.