When Business Avoids Environment (Again)

I attended the inaugural presentation of the Peter Brojde Leadership Lecture series last night, as I was interested in both the topic (“Business and the Poor”) and the primary speaker: Madeleine Albright. While I recognize that this was not explicitly an “environmental” lecture, I write about it on this blog post because any general lecture on business and poverty in the modern world must touch on environmental change and degradation, too; Dr. Albright did not fail me in this expectation.

The theme of her presentation was a legal one, in which she provided a rationale for why it should be every nation-state’s prerogative to bring their poorest citizens into the national and global legal realm, to officially recognize their human right to become part of a “formal legal economy.” She posited that we need to “make law smarter,” so that informal acceptance is formalized, so that those living outside the law are drawn into it. My problem with this idea is that Dr. Albright sees legalism as important only in relation to the world’s poor being able to use it as leverage for entrance into capitalist world markets.

She twice cited other elements which are closely associatied with ideas of law and poverty: “the environment,” and “the empowerment of women.” But categorical allusion was as far as she ventured. A woman who heads two companies that deal with ways to eradicate global poverty seemed to only want to pay lip-service to what she sees as entirely separate issues. But I think the missed – or at least failed to cover in her presentation – a crucial point: that poverty and environmental degradation tend to go hand-in-hand. I wrote about environmental justice in my last blog post, and think it directly applies here, as well.

Madeleine Albright is unabashed about her passion for epitomizing and spreading democratic principles; she is an academic, politician, and diplomat who spends most of her life espousing the ways in which the global order needs to change. But she disappointed me in her glossing over ideas of the environment, in her apparent divorcing of what are in reality closely entwined problems. We have engaged in extensive discussion in 650 about what exactly encompasses environmental policy and how it is created and effected. I would be curious to have further opportunities to ask Madeleine Albright, and other figureheads who seek to influence change and create policy, why the disjuncture between wealth – or lack thereof – and environmental degradation is not more conspicuously recognized in public forums.

3 Responses to “When Business Avoids Environment (Again)”

  1. merle says:

    I am not sure I quite understand the idea that “it should be every nation-state’s prerogative to bring their poorest citizens into the national and global legal realm, to officially recognize their human right to become part of a “formal legal economy.””, but I think it might be a dangerous idea.
    It seems to presuppose 1) what is referred to as a “realistic” conception of the state, i.e. that the state is and should only be motivated by its self-interest and 2) that the domain of justice is limited by the frontiers of nation-states. According to this typical conception of relation among states, we are justified in exploiting other humans as long as they are not within the frontiers of our state, or, if we recognize the positive duty not to exploit others, then we don’t have the negative duty of trying to prevent or put of stop to the exploitation, all this because it is the duty of the state wherein the exploitation takes place to protect its citizens, not the duty or responsibility of anyone else.
    I think that there are numerous things which are wrong with this picture, but to identify only one, it seems to presuppose a very naive idea of the state by ignoring (or hiding) the possibility of corrupt states which are maintained by more powerful states in order to exploit their populations and prevent those very states from protecting their citizens. So, saying that “it should be every nation-state’s prerogative to bring their poorest citizens into the national and global legal realm” ignores that some nation-state might not be in a position to do it and that the responsibility may then fall upon other states or international institutions.

  2. Culture Kid says:

    I should clarify. Albright was saying that national governments have a responsibility for each of the individuals living within their borders, and that through a legal recognition of their existence and importance, these individuals should become part of a national (and international) economy. I have several problems with this idea – namely, the subjective notion of citizenship. Pastoralist groups in Africa, for example, transcend the borders of several nations in their annual migration cycles. Thus what country are they citizens of, and what economy should they be paying taxes to if they are not reaping the benefits of ANY markets? Some of the money from Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert went to national governments in Africa to attempt to sedentarize pastoralists. Is this what Madeleine Albright meant by bringing poorer citizens into the “formal legal economy”? If so, I vehemently disagree with her ideals.

    As discussed outside class and outside this blog, another of Albright’s ideas was to recognize the importance and power of multinational corporations on the global scale. She suggested the influence MNC’s have in world markets and political decisions makes them more powerful than some nations, and that perhaps they should have a seat on the United Nations Security Council. While yes, I agree that we should recognize the immense influence some MNC’s yield, I think the absolute WRONG thing to do would allow them further power by giving them a formal place in an international decision-making institution.

    I did not go into these issues in my blog post, but Dr. Albright’s ideas of nationalism and the importance of the nation-state in the modern world are where I begin to butt heads with her. The suggestions she gave for the organization of nation-states with respect to a global economy make me squirm with fear at the potential destruction this may have on the environment. Thus, as I mentioned in the blog post, I think the connection between poverty and the environment must be recognized more fully by politicians and other decision-makers.