The ecology of commerce

It strikes me that we in America understand little about what business is. Given that business and the free market have become the most dominant social force in this century and, presumably, of the one to come, I realize that this is an odd observation. Yet most of us still do not understand how business works. I think our understanding of business — what it does, its effect on society, what makes for healthy commerce — is at about the level that medicine was before Louis Pasteur.
Now, 100 years ago it may not have mattered how much we understood about business — what makes for healthy commerce — but today it does because I think we can say in no uncertain terms that business is destroying the world. And while consumers and producers are becoming aware of their interrelated impact upon the earth, what also needs to be said is that business can restore the planet upon which we live.
I don't believe there's any choice about this. Either we see business as a restorative undertaking, or we, businesspeople, will march the entire race to the undertaker. Business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation.
Doing that will depend in large part on the willingness of customers to change what they buy, how they buy, and from whom they buy their products and services. I know it sounds a little venal, if not smarmy, to say this, that you can make money restoring the world, but it is true, and it may be the only way it happens. There is an economy of degradation, which is one objective way to describe industrialization, and there is a restorative economy that is nascent but real, whose potential size is as great as the entire world economy is today.
How bad is the degradation? As I speak to you today, there are 5,000 fires burning in the Amazon Basin. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a dead beluga whale has to be handled with gloves and face masks and is classified as a toxic waste because of the amount of toxins it contains. It is estimated that we lose 100,000 species on the planet every year, mostly invertebrates, and mostly species we've never seen or classified. When cattle ranchers clear rain forests to raise beef to sell to fast-food chains that make hamburgers to sell to Americans, who have the highest rate of heart disease in the world (and spend the most money per GNP on health care), we can say easily that business is no longer developing the world. We have become its predator. And this predation is invariably, directly or indirectly, in the form of the corporation, a corporation that's satisfied, sometimes smug, convinced that its goals are justifiable and worthy, so long as they lead to profitability.
Because business is so well organized, capitalized, and managed, we fail to see that business has run amok. It is simply out of control. And despite our efforts and the efforts of many people worldwide, we face on the planet today what mountaineer and naturalist Jack Turner has called the "final loss" — a point in the not-too-distant future when environmental degradation will no longer require our active participation. It will just happen. Biological diversity is messy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it swoops, it buzzes. But extinction is silent, and it has no voice other than our own.
In order to do anything about the planet where we live, we have to know where we are.