Big Business and the Environment:

Different Conditions, Different Outcomes

One of the biggest struggles our generation faces today is finding the balance between satisfying the interests of big business and those of environmentalists.  Often times, there is no room for compromise.  In this chapter of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the famous scientist, author, and UCLA professor delves into the business practices and motives of several “extraction” industries: oil, hardrock mining and coal, logging, and marine fishing. 

While politicians, CEO’s, and environmentalists may play a vicious game of tug-of-war in terms of public policy and business regulation, Diamond argues that the interests of big business, environmentalists, and society as a whole coincide more often than you might guess.

  What may seem like poor, careless business practice on the side of these industries may instead be the product of a society’s failure to make good decisions.  For today’s blog post, I plan to briefly summarize each of these industries business practices in relation to their effect on the environment and  highlight some misconceptions about the extraction industries that Diamond discusses in this chapter.  I will also attempt to connect his insight to other things that we can more easily relate to.

First, to clarify a bit: the chapter does not condemn the oil, mining, logging, or fishing industries and impose an altogether environmentalist philosophy upon us.  Rather, Diamond works through each of the industries motives and operations and presents them so that you can determine what business practices seem right or wrong.  He begins his discussion with background on oil fields, particularly, the oil fields of the company we know as Chevron. 

Some of us may already have some pre-existing ill feelings towards the oil industry.  Take, for example, British Petroleum’s mega oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico.  For three months, pictures of oil sodden birds, dead fish, and polluted estuaries bombarded the news and infuriated millions of people across the country.  Some people even went as far as boycotting BP, claiming that the billion dollar company hardly makes any effort to spare the environment from its extraction operations.  This isn’t the case.

As bad and horrible and devastating an oil spill may be, the public outrage on these accidents completely undermines years of effort on the behalf of oil companies to prevent such catastrophes.  Although oil spills do not happen often, when they do, the negative reception of it by the public is enormous. 

And that is rightly so, but just like we are suddenly afraid to swim in open waters after a report of a shark attack flashes across the news, we cannot assume that because of one oil spill, the oil industry is the worst thing to ever happen.  In fact, Diamond explains that oil companies spend millions of dollars on environmentally conscious business policies and practices so that these accidents never occur.

  Such practices include paving the narrowest possible roads through rain forests, strict employee safety rules, and fauna conservation within the confines of their oil fields (in Papua New Guinea, there are more wildlife found within Chevron’s oil fields than outside the oil fields). 

Although Chevron claims that their concern for the environment is their motivating factor, saving money is the ultimate reason for pursuing more environmentally friendly business operations.  Look at the Gulf oil spill.  Cleaning up accidents and the pollution that they leave is far more expensive than investing in infrastructure that actually prevents such accidents.  Do this, you save money and you get the approval of the general public.

The story, however, is different for hardrock mining operations.  Hardrock mining, or the extraction of metals, and its effect on the environment is far worse than that of the oil industry.  Why?  Because it takes so much more land and digging up to attain metals in the earth such as copper or palladium.  While the oil industry’s major waste is water, hardrock mining produces mountains of dirt and excess material from the ground that eventually ends up polluting our rivers and oceans.

For the last two industries–logging and fishing–we explore the extraction of renewable natural resources.  Trees and fish can reproduce and replenish their populations–oil and copper cannot.  So what does Diamond mention about these industries? Unfortunately, they will soon be non-renewing industries because of rapid deforestation and overfishing.  When the world population has jumped up above 6 billion, this should come as no surprise.

  In both these industries, big business seems to win.  The demand for paper and seafood (especially in Asian countries) has rapidly increased over the years because of the world’s growing population.  And what is driving big business’s to conduct less environmentally friendly behavior?  ”Economics, the industry’s cooperate culture, and the attitudes of society and government.”

The film Wall-E was Pixar’s first film with eco-friendly themes and, arguably, anti-capitalist propaganda.