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How many bottom lines do we really need?

By Dan Coleman

Did you know that Carrboro’s Town Code incorporates a principle devised by Shell Oil? That’s right, the same Shell Oil that has been accused of human rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment and ­collaborating in the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The same Shell Oil that has despoiled the Niger delta and was responsible for the largest freshwater oil spill ever.
With a record like this, it is little wonder that Shell came up with one of the corporate world’s more effective public relations concepts of recent years: the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), also known as People, Planet, Profit. It’s as if Shell was saying, sure you can criticize our environmental and humanitarian record but don’t forget, we have to make a profit.
Efforts to value people have dogged profiteering for over a century. The late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries were marked by many thousands of strikes by workers, more than 1,400 in the year 1886 alone. Many of these were met by violent strikebreakers backed up at times by military force. This is a struggle that continues in 2011 in Wisconsin and other states.
Through the efforts of these men and women, much of value was created: the weekend, workplace-safety standards, health care for workers, vacation and sick leave, etc. And each of these was wrested from the one bottom line that corporate America really cares about.
Despite William Blake offering the image of “dark satanic mills” as far back as 1804, the environmental impacts of industrial capitalism began to be understood with Rachel Carson’s 1962 publication of The Silent Spring. Within a decade, there was Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and much more, each a challenge to the profit-focused priorities of capital.
Given the pre-eminent importance of profit-maximization, it is not surprising that corporations touting the Triple Bottom Line often oppose measures to combat global warming, oppose workers’ rights and oppose regulatory mechanisms to protect the health of people and planet.
History has taught us that Adam Smith was wrong when he offered the justification for prioritizing profit that “by pursuing his own interest [the businessman] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” If Smith were correct, companies like Shell would not have such a devastating impact on society and nature. In part, this impact results from profit being measured in a short timeframe, a year or even a quarter of a year, while sustainability requires a vision spanning, as the Iroquois put it, as much as seven generations.
But Smith was right that profit ought to serve human well-being. Therefore, it must be understood within an ethical system that places people and planet first. This holds true for the vague term “stakeholder value” that some, including Carrboro, use instead of profit. Who are the stakeholders if not people and planet?
The TBL offers nothing to help us navigate the inevitable contradictions between profit on the one hand and people/planet on the other. But, really, why should we have any social or political bottom lines at all?
It was social ecologist Murray Bookchin who bemoaned the cultural turn to the “grubby language” of the market economy, which has “replaced our most hallowed moral and spiritual expressions. We now ‘invest’ in our children, marriages, and relationships. … We live in a world of ‘trade-offs’ and we ask for the ‘bottom line’ of any emotional ‘transaction.’”
There are a variety of frameworks that speak to a more fundamental commitment to the well-being of all life. In an 1854 speech, Chief Seattle offered the notion of a web of life: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
A century after Chief Seattle, Aldo Leopold articulated his land ethic in Sand County Almanac, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The biotic community, of course, includes humans.
We need the ability to truly place people and planet first and to reject the false, self-serving homilies offered by those who spread pavement and poverty in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Rather than seek simplistic nostrums, we may have to take the time to look hard at each decision, and bring a clear ethical sensibility, like that of Seattle or Leopold, to bear.

Dan Coleman is a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

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  1. Joan Widdifield

    Great observations. I especially like this sentence in view of the proposal to pave Bolin Forest next to the creek (for a bike trail that has much better alternatives): “We need the ability to truly place people and planet first and to reject the false, self-serving homilies offered by those who spread pavement and poverty in pursuit of the almighty dollar.”

  2. Rob Crook

    Good one Dan.

  3. Jean Holmes

    Just to be clear, Shell Oil did not come up with the term Triple Bottom Line, John Elkington did in the 1980′s. I understand your cynicism, but there are plenty of legitimate companies out there whose TBL statements are not just marketing fluff. Look at B-Corp as an example.

    Have a good one.
    Jean Holmes

  4. Dan Coleman

    Thanks, Jean, for the correction. You are correct that Shell concocted the People Planet Profit frame, not the TBL. I knew that but carelessly inverted them in that 2nd paragraph. So I do appreciate your note.

    You are also correct that many businesses try to act responsibly, sometimes via B Corp or TBL, sometimes out of their own values. But that does not negate the fact that TBL in itself provides no clear way to understand corporate behavior, monitor corporate performance, or hold businesses accountable. On the other hand, it does provide a convenient framework for those inclined to greenwashing.